You can’t tank, wind up with a few transcendent players, and expect the job to be done. Only that’s what the 76ers tried to do via The Process and the franchise, after another disappointing playoff performance, has very little to show for it.
After the Celtics swept Philadelphia out of the first-round of the Eastern Conference playoffs Sunday, the Sixers are facing some tough decisions during the offseason, including whether or not it’s time to break up the duo of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
Their future was one of the dominant storylines during the Boston series and the talk about splitting them up will likely only intensify as fanatical Philadelphia fans debate the merits of one over the other. But if you’re asking us, Simmons or Embiid aren’t the ones that need to go.
The Sixers’ problems run way deeper than whether Simmons and Embiid can co-exist on the basketball court. It starts with coach Brett Brown and general manager Elton Brand as the organization has put its Process days firmly in the rear-view mirror.
While all indications out of Philly are Brand is safe, Brown is gone. The Sixers, as expected, fired their coach of the past seven seasons Monday. Here are some key examples of their incompetence that led to yet another 76ers early exit in the postseason and proof why the organization shouldn’t give up on Simmons and Embiid.
Poor Roster Construction
The Sixers used to have shooters to compliment Simmons and Embiid. It wasn’t long ago that names like Jimmy Butler, JJ Redick, Robert Covington, Trey Burke, and Landry Shamet suited up for the Sixers. Brand failed to address the Sixers’ glaring outside shooting needs last summer after he awarded questionable contracts to Al Horford and Tobias Harris.
Brand isn’t responsible for some of the sins of former general managers Bryan Coangelo and Sam Hinkie, who had amassed a ton of first and second-round picks. However, it was Brand’s responsibility to construct a better roster after last year’s squad almost made the Eastern Conference Finals.
The modern NBA values perimeter shooting to stretch defenses and everyone knew the Sixers needed as much as possible to offset Simmons’ refusal to shoot from deep and help space the floor for Embiid. Instead, Brand opted to invest in size and defense. He signed Horford to a four-year, $109 million deal because the Sixers were in need of center depth. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for concerns about Horford and Embiid sharing the court to surface. Since December, Horford and Embiid own a 98.6 offensive rating, ranking as one of the worst duo of bigs in the NBA. The only duo that Embiid and Horford rated higher than was the Warriors’ Marquese Chriss and Alec Burke.
Then there’s the five-year, $180 million max contract Philly signed Harris to last July that will likely haunt the franchise. Harris doesn’t have too many fans in Philly after a forgettable series against Boston. Brand could have used the money spent on Harris to surround Simmons and Embiid with the kind of shooters and guards they need to thrive instead of wasting a big chunk of the salary cap on a player that was never going to step up and replace the levels of production lost when Butler left for Miami. Now the Sixers are stuck with one of the most un-tradeable contracts in the NBA.
At 6’10 and 240 pounds, Simmons has the size of a power forward even though he’s a point guard. His offensive versatility and ability to guard multiple positions on the floor makes him one of the most unique players in the game and at times Brown has stashed Simmons at the four instead at point to give opponents a different look.
But when he first started experimenting with the strategy last season, Brown had Butler handling point duties. That wasn’t the case this season. And with inferior personnel at his disposal, it made little sense for Brown to keep rolling out Simmons at the four. Why exacerbate Philly’s half court struggles such as the inability to read double teams and lack of spacing—by doing that?
Moving Simmons to the four seemed to be a good idea in theory. With Shake Milton running the point, ideally it would mean a second playmaker/facilitator on the floor for Philly. However with the Sixers’ lack of shooters and space, and Milton’s limitations, it was a dud. Defenses would still double Embiid. They would continue to sag off Simmons and dare him to shoot. The Sixers were shuffling the same deck of a bad hand of cards.
Lack of Accountability
After Game 4 against the Celtics, Josh Richardson was asked about his thoughts on Brown and he was candid.
“He’s a good guy,” Richardson said in his video conference. “He’s a good man. He means well. I just think going forward, we’ve just gotta have accountability. I don’t think there was much accountability.”
According to recent reports, Brown had a hand in Butler’s departure because he couldn’t deal with the polarizing All-Star’s brand of leadership. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Brown was “unnerved by Butler’s brash personality and willingness to speak his mind.”
Before the pandemic suspended the season, Butler was a guest on JJ Redick’s podcast where he opened up about his relationship with Brown. It started to deteriorate weeks before a game against the Trail Blazers when Butler reportedly yelled at Brown in a film session.
“Nobody’s saying nothing to anybody, and we’re just sitting in there, watching film and you can literally hear the thing just clicking and we’re all just looking around,” Butler told Redick. “I may have been two, three weeks there tops. So I sat back and I’m watching. I ain’t saying nothing. So I sit back , I’m hearing the click, click. I’m looking around. Click, click, click. ‘Alright guys, let’s go practice.’ Why did we just go through this?”
And then there was Butler’s attempt to provide direction and accountability to one of his teammates. Butler reportedly singled out Simmons via text instructing him what not to do in a game against the Nets. Whether you love Butler or hate him, you can’t say that his heart isn’t in the right place. The delivery of his messages may be harsh, but does that make his messages any less valid?
Regardless, Richardson cited a lack of accountability and Butler cited issues with communication. The construction of a team’s culture on the court is just as important off the court and the Sixers under Brown didn’t do a good job of that.
Brown’s play calling was questioned numerous times by fans and media alike. The modern NBA is driven by shooters and versatility. After Game 1 against the Celtic’s series, Brown was asked if he would pair perimeter players around Embiid. His answer via Sixers wire was telling:
“I lived with Tim Duncan for five NBA Finals, four of which we won, and 12 years with Pop (Gregg Popovich). I’m very privileged to have experienced the world of the post players as it relates to spacing and schemes,” Brown said. “And one thing that resonates the most is how four players on the perimeter is the easiest environment for defenses to double a post player. To occupy a low zone and space the court is what interests me the most.”
One More Run
Simmons and Embiid aren’t without their flaws. We also know that Simmons thrives as a facilitator in transition and is incredibly versatile on defense, but his time spent at power forward remains perplexing. Embiid, especially when he’s locked in and focused, is one of the most dominant big men in the game who can pick and pop from outside. Is it Simmons’ and Embiid’s faults that Brown and Sixers management couldn’t figure out how to mesh their talents effectively? It isn’t their fault that Brand wasted money on Horford and Harris. The Sixers’ two superstars, who are signed through at least the 2022-2023 season, deserve another run with a coach that has a better pulse on the personnel. It doesn’t make sense to entertain offers for either when they could potentially get it right and have an easier path to the NBA Finals in the Eastern Conference compared to the West.
The Process, famously installed by Hinkie, is over as we know it. We also now know the next chapter of Philadelphia basketball will feature a new coach. Simmons and Embiid are still two of the top 15 players in the NBA and before Brand tries to split them up, they deserve to play for a head coach and front office that will emphasize their strengths and pair them with complementary players that can lift the franchise to its first NBA Finals since 2001.