Can the 76ers Still Trust The Process?
The most anticipated 76ers season in years, maybe decades, ended not with a championship, but instead with plenty of Shake Milton.
Boston's first round demolition of Philadelphia was a sad, lethargic string of games, where a team that seemed fractured and confused for most of the season at full strength had no chance at all without its second best player.
Things would have looked different against the Celtics with Ben Simmons. But to imagine a Sixers series win, or more to the point, to imagine a deep Sixers run, is to conjure up an idea of a team that never actually existed.
The idea of the Sixers was always wonderful.
A team of unprecedented size and length and athletic force that could turn into one of the greatest defensive teams of all time. It was intoxicating, and in the end, it was drunk.
In retrospect, there were holes everywhere.
The starting lineup was magnificent defensively (and lived up to the hype, with a 96.9 defensive rating), but the rest of the team wasn't. Where exactly the spacing and offence would come from was always murky. Mostly, the thought was that they would just 'figure it out', and they never did.
There were flashes. In the Christmas Day beatdown of Milwaukee, the big national TV win over the Clippers just before the hiatus, and three convincing wins over Boston, the Sixers looked like the version of themselves we suggested they always should have been.
In those games, length, physical power and cerebral talent all coalesced perfectly and the results were devastating. But these were exceptions, and the norm was blah.
The off-season signings were never as good as advertised. Al Horford was a small disaster, looking painfully slow at the four, and meshing horribly with Joel Embiid (on the season, the Sixers were outscored when Horford and Embiid shared the floor).
Josh Richardson, thought of as perhaps a bite-sized Jimmy Butler, had no Butler in him, averaging just 13.7 points per game with below-par 53% true shooting, showing little of the defensive disruption that he wreaked in Miami.
Philly's offense too often makes simple things look so freaking hard. Good example here: Josh Richardson can't complete a basic entry pass. Noodle arms it without accuracy. I can't imagine how pissed off Joel Embiid must get when stuff like this happens pic.twitter.com/8I7g6qsvSc— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) August 20, 2020
At times in the Boston series, despite being Philadelphia's clear best perimeter player, entire quarters would go by where you would only vaguely register that Tobias Harris was actually playing.
By the numbers (20 PPG, 7 RPG, league average shooting efficiency), Harris had a perfectly fine season, but he often seemed like a ghost, some sort of expensive, wonderfully dressed up mannequin, who is largely irrelevant to Philadelphia’s ultimate fortunes, which will always ride with Embiid and Simmons.
In the end, Harris might serve most of all as a symbol of where this famous process started to collapse.
There were Markelle Fultz and Jahlil Okafor missteps along the way, but heading into the 2018-19 season, everything seemed on track for Philadelphia. The Jimmy Butler trade was abrupt, but made sense. The Harris trade, though, was disastrous from the moment it happened, with a rich chest of assets surrendered to the LA Clippers for someone who sits between a third and fourth option. The cost then surely played its part in Philly feeling compelled to hand Harris a max contract later that summer, which combined with Horford's deal will strangle the Sixers for the foreseeable future.
Watching the Sixers drown against Boston, with no passing or semblance of perimeter presence, you could feel Jimmy Butler’s absence on every possession. There was no ballhandler who could do anything – no one to create leverage, no one to create hope or something vaguely interesting. In the half-court, Simmons wouldn’t have helped this.
All season, the Sixers were desperate for someone who could simply dribble and make something happen.
In Butler they had this piece. Butler always comes with complications, which is why he ended up elsewhere, but he also comes with rare brilliance, and this season the sluggish Sixers looked like they could have used his complications anyway.
Imagine if Brett Brown wasn’t the coach of the Sixers....Butler and Embiid would still be teammates. pic.twitter.com/CvWHt4hTDJ— Made For Philly (@MadeForPhilly) August 21, 2020
Everything is suddenly hazy for Philadelphia.
After years of seemingly endless assets, the Sixers have spent all their bullets, outside of the nuclear option of trading one of Embiid or Simmons, which feels inevitable.
Ultimately, there have just been too many misses, too many wrong decisions. Getting nothing out of Fultz and Okafor was catastrophic. Getting little of value out of Nerlens Noel put the Sixers further back. Outside of the Robert Covington success, too few gems have been unearthed around the edges.
Nothing can be entirely hopeless when Embiid and Simmons are still around. But dreams of dominance have leaked away, and now the Sixers are just another in the chasing pack, having taken a painfully circuitous route to get there.
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