The Sixers had their chances. A 22-point lead in the second quarter of Game 2. A multitude of opportunities to win the game toward the end of regulation and overtime in Game 3. A wide open J.J. Redick three-pointer with a minute and change left last night that would have iced it. If we were to bounce around some parallel universes Sliders-style, we would undoubtedly find some ones where the series was heading back to Philadelphia, or even where the Sixers had won in 5 games.
Alas, we’re stuck in this universe, where a combination of mental gaffes, tough breaks, and a heck of a job by Brad Stevens and his Celtics club has the Sixers heading home for the summer. However, as we hold a funeral in our hearts for this Philadelphia 76ers season, let’s remember the good times and consider what still lies ahead for this franchise.
The Sixers were projected to win 40.5 games this regular season. They won 52. It was their most wins in a season since the 2000-01 club that eventually advanced to the NBA Finals.
They polished off the Miami Heat in 5 games in the first round of the playoffs. It was the franchise’s first playoff series victory since the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season where Derrick Rose blew out his knee in the first game of the playoffs. Before then, Philadelphia’s last playoff series victory came in the spring of 2003.
After keeping a young group focused and together through an impossible four-year slog, Brett Brown guided the Sixers to the third seed in the Eastern Conference. At least one of the 29 other head coaches in the league voted for Brown as Coach of the Year.
Joel Embiid started in the All-Star game, looking like he absolutely belonged on the court in crunch time of that contest when the best players in the world cranked things up to another level. The minutes restrictions and no back-to-backs are a thing of the past. Embiid played 63 regular season games and his only major injury didn’t involve a knee or his back, but a freak blow to the eye from his teammate’s shoulder.
The big man averaged 23.0 points, 14.0 rebounds, and 3.6 assists in the Boston series while playing with a mask that restricted his vision and made him visibly uncomfortable. Plus, on top of everything, he’s the best social media presence in the league. The Sixers have a bonafide franchise superstar on their hands.
No matter how Utah Jazz fans want to distort the English language for their own misguided purposes, Ben Simmons is likely to win Rookie of the Year. The former first overall pick showed no ill effects of the foot injury that caused him to miss an entire season, averaging 15.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 8.2 assists while tallying 12 triple-doubles (remember the laughable over/under of 0.5?).
In the Miami series, Simmons became the first rookie to record a triple-double since Magic Johnson. While he looked strangely passive and ineffective early in the Boston series (the 1-point performance in Game 2 was an all-time clunker), Simmons definitely made strides in picking up the aggressiveness and getting through Boston’s wall of defenders to the rim later on in the series. It was absolutely the sort of playoff experience he can learn from to make him more dangerous moving forward in his career.
Coming into the season, people were seriously concerned that Dario Saric couldn’t play alongside Embiid and Simmons. He shot 39.3% from three as part of the most effective five-man lineup in the NBA. Saric shook off some struggles earlier in the series to average 26 points on 54.8% shooting in the final two games against the Celtics. Remember this is all coming after Dario sacrificed millions upon millions of dollars to come over earlier than he needed to. What a guy.
I know it’s hard to remember considering he played 4 of the 5 games against Boston like the Nerdlucks had stolen his talent, but Robert Covington was an All-NBA-caliber defender for the majority of the season. For all his ups and downs, he also shot slightly above league average from behind the arc (36.9%) on close to 7 attempts per game, providing valuable floor spacing next to JoJo and Ben.
Timothy John McConnell had a triple-double this season and played so well in the Eastern Conference semifinals that he forced his way into the starting lineup. The Sixers were +41 with McConnell on the court against Boston. T.J. might not even have a job in the NBA if Sam Hinkie had been concerned with rounding out the roster with fungible veterans, like many people called for at the time.
The Markelle Fultz-Jayson Tatum trade looks exceptionally bad after Tatum played the conference semifinals like he had an Infinity Stone, but you have to believe the talent that made Fultz the consensus first overall pick is still waiting to be unlocked. Fultz maintaining a positive attitude from the bench later in the playoffs was encouraging, as was his productive 10-game return at the end of the regular season. His triple-double in the regular season finale was one of the feel-good moments of the season.
There will certainly be challenges ahead for the Sixers. Guys like J.J. Redick, Ersan Ilyasova, and Amir Johnson will be tough to replace this offseason if Bryan Colangelo decides to part ways (the shine has worn off Marco for me). Yet, max cap space could enable the organization to plug a rotational hole in a big way. The team has become so successful that it’s not unreasonable to think somebody like LeBron James or Paul George would want to come here.
Philadelphia will also have the (likely) 10th and 26th picks in the draft next month. I know it stings to be knocked out of the playoffs in a series the Sixers could have easily won, and to Boston no less, but take solace in how bright the future looks for this franchise.
I’ll leave you with the wise words of Joel Hans Embiid, from his interview with GQ back in October:
“The Process is never going to end. I don’t think The Process is ever going to reach 100 percent. It’s a process to make the playoffs. It’s another one to make the conference final. Another one to make it to the NBA finals and win the championship. And when you win the championship that year, then it starts all over again. So it’s just a cycle. Then it applies to work within your life whenever you’ve got something going on and you know that as long as you put in the work, you’ve just got to trust the process. Everything happens for a reason.”
Everything happens for a reason. Even losing to Boston.