The Philadelphia 76ers are championship hopefuls at a crossroads.
Year 3 of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the franchise’s prized gems by way of The Process, is in the books. It started just weeks after the team lost the 2019 Eastern Conference semifinals to the eventual champions, when Philly parted ways with Jimmy Butler and committed $277 million to Al Horford and Tobias Harris. It ended, as Butler was leading Miami to a berth in the NBA Finals, with a first-round sweep and the dismissal of head coach Brett Brown.
The reasonable floor-spacing concerns when Embiid and Simmons share the court have fueled speculation that a trade of one of them may be coming. But that could be shortsighted: The franchise’s cornerstones rank eighth among 84 qualified duos in net rating over their three seasons together (+9.4), per NBA.com. That is reason enough to continue building around the only two holdovers from The Process.
Now the team is searching for a head coach and facing a contract conundrum, heading into another offseason with the puzzle of salvaging the long-term compatibility of Simmons and Embiid and actualizing a championship around the star duo.
The 76ers last made the NBA Finals in 2001, and they have since been journeying a winding road trying to get back to the championship round. From the 2013-14 to 2016-17 season, tanking defined the franchise, as Philly posted an NBA-low .229 win percentage. Such dramatic bottoming out would discourage most front offices, but former general manager Sam Hinkie went in search of star power despite mounting losses and high roster turnover.
|Win %||Win % rank||Playoff apps|
|First four seasons||0.229||Last||0|
|Last three seasons||0.616||T-5th||3|
Once Philly found its newest franchise cornerstones, the team won 52 games in 2017-18, its highest single-season total since that 2001 Finals run. Even better, it appeared to have a stable core after years of high roster turnover, most often surrounding Embiid and Simmons with J.J. Redick, Robert Covington and Dario Šarić. Over 601 regular-season minutes, the 76ers’ new core outscored opponents by 20.5 points per 100 possessions, that sample size being Philly’s largest for any five-man lineup since Hinkie’s first season with the team.
Then came the 2018 Eastern Conference semifinals. The Celtics forced the 76ers into better 3-point shooting with Simmons on the bench (42 percent) than on the court (27 percent), per NBA Advanced Stats. Simmons had been one of four players during the 2017-18 regular season to score more than 1,000 points in the paint, so Boston prioritized obscuring his path to the rim throughout the series. The result? Philly’s net rating swung by a team-worst 27.7 points with that season’s Rookie of the Year on the court, paving the way for a 4-1 series loss.
Following the 76ers’ elimination, Embiid reflected on Boston’s formidability before facing the road ahead. “They play well together,” he said about the Celtics. “They made some tough shots during the whole series. They defended us pretty well, too. It sucks, but you gotta learn and come next year and do better.”
Roughly six months later, the team indeed got better when then-rookie general manager Elton Brand acquired Butler, an All-Star wing, for Covington and Šarić, effectively cashing in Philly’s chips for their title pursuit’s requisite third star.
“We have a championship window that’s centered around the continued progression of our talented young core, as well as our ability to add elite players who elevate our program,” Brand told the media at Butler’s team introduction on Nov. 12, 2018. “In Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, we have two of the NBA’s top-20 players. Now we’ve added a third top-20 player in Jimmy Butler, who is one of the NBA’s very best on both ends of the floor.”
The acquisition of Butler paid dividends for Philly, which obtained one of the NBA’s premiere late-game performers effectively on a whim. By the end of the 2018-19 regular season, the 76ers had a +41 point differential in clutch-time, the final five minutes of any game with the score within 5 points, per NBA Advanced Stats. Almost as an act of foreshadowing, Philly tied eventual champion Toronto in that category.
But those dividends didn’t pay off in Game 7 of the East semis, when Kawhi Leonard delivered the Raptors 41 points and a series-clinching fadeaway.
During the 2019 playoffs, the quintet of Embiid, Simmons, Butler, Redick and Harris sported a net rating of 23.9, tied for third-best among 124 qualified lineups over the past two decades, according to NBA.com. In that span, only the Lakers (2007-08 to 2009-10) and Mavericks (2010-11) had more effective lineups en route to a combined three titles and four Finals appearances.
|2010-11||Mavericks||✓||38.1||D. Nowitzki, T. Chandler, J. Terry, S. Marion, J. Kidd|
|2007-10*||Lakers||✓||24.5||K. Bryant, P. Gasol, L. Odom, D. Fisher, L. Walton|
|2018-19||76ers||23.9||J. Embiid, B. Simmons, J. Butler, J.J. Redick, T. Harris|
|2011-12||Celtics||23.9||K. Garnett, P. Pierce, R. Rondo, A. Bradley, B. Bass|
In short, Philly finally found something that worked. But it was short lived.
The fearsome trio of Embiid, Simmons and Butler ended without them playing a full season together, let alone fulfilling the championship potential Brand had envisioned just six months prior. Because the 76ers didn’t secure Butler long-term and he left for Miami, they ended up compounding the contrasts between Embiid and Simmons by shrinking their room for error and scoring. As Butler cemented the Heat’s championship vision, Philly’s own was obscured by shrunken spacing and an inconsistent tempo, enough for Embiid to question the team’s offensive identity altogether.
“Like I say from time to time, you don’t know what you’re getting,” the center explained in February. “I don’t know if I’m getting into the game and if I’m getting the ball. … I got to spend a lot of time at the 3-point line, just to make sure there’s some spacing. Everybody keeps saying, ‘Get in the post!’ But if you actually understand basketball, you’ve got to find that balance.”
|With Ben Simmons…||Direct post-ups||3-pt FGA||Avg. FGA distance|
|On the court||8.9||4.0||13.1 feet|
|Off the court||11.9||3.1||12.1|
Philly struggled finding balance this year with Embiid and Simmons, shooting just 33.9 percent on contested 3-pointers when the duo shared the court during the regular season and playoffs, per Second Spectrum. That figure was down from the 76ers’ 2017-18 clip of 36.3 percent, which ranked seventh in the NBA that season. Such regression doesn’t bode well late in the playoffs, when it’s important to have shot-makers with confidence to score over good defenses.
Last month, after Boston sent Philly home for the second time in three years, Brand told the media he expected changes within the organization, but none of those changes involved trading Embiid or Simmons.
“I’m looking to complement them better,” Brand said when he announced Brown’s dismissal on Aug. 25.
The Sixers have plenty of positives to build on — and proof they have a championship-caliber duo with the right leadership, floor-spacers and versatile playmakers. Over Embiid and Simmons’s three seasons together, the team is tied with the Nuggets for the NBA’s fifth-best regular-season win percentage (.616). Their potential this season wasn’t truly realized: Because of Simmons’s knee injury, the Sixers’ ideal starting lineup of Simmons, Embiid, Horford, Harris and Josh Richardson didn’t play a single postseason minute together. And Philly’s prior effort — its second playoff run with Embiid and Simmons — had gotten tantalizingly close, falling on only four bounces.
To maximize their two generational talents and end their Finals drought, the 76ers must provide requisite scheming, shot-creation and versatility. Embiid and Simmons are, after all, the reasons The Process is no more. Though there is no easy path to a title, the 76ers must figure out the ways they’ve obstructed their own.
Otherwise, the team risks remaining on the wrong side of the buzzer when it matters the most.
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