It’s hard to tell who this Philadelphia 76ers team is.
Are they a true contender? Are they a young team on the rise, or are they in win-now mode? Are Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris rental pieces, or will they re-sign this summer? Who will make the playoff rotation? On top of all the uncertainty, what does this team pride itself on?
For the first time in years, the Sixers don’t have an obvious identity.
Even back in the Doug Collins days, we knew exactly who the Sixers were – a mediocre team just trying to make the playoffs and steal a win against Miami. In the tanking years, despite all the roster instability, they were always an awful team that played hard. And last year, they were a team led by two young stars taking the league by storm.
I don’t know who the hell they are this year.
After trading for Jimmy Butler, the timeline was immediately sped up. A team headlined by a 22 and 24 year old cashed in assets on a 29 year old All-Star on an expiring contract. Winning this season suddenly became a lot more important.
And as for Butler, does he even fit on this team? He seemed to be the guy who would cement the Sixers’ identity as a hard-nosed, defensive-minded, win-at-all-costs team. But far too often, he hasn’t come close to living up to his reputation of being that type of player, whether it be getting beat by Bojan Bogdanovic on numerous occasions or doing this on offense:
I'm not really sure why Butler is so quick to pass the ball here. He could rise for the 3 or attack Harden off the dribble. Instead, he immediately swings it to Amir Johson in the corner. He shouldn't ever be that timid as a scorer, particularly when Embiid is out. pic.twitter.com/tXPp6Vu4Js— Sixers Film Room (@SixersFilmRoom) March 10, 2019
Not great, Bob! This is the body language of a man who doesn’t give a shit. Butler being a passive player won’t work for this team.
He’s also supposed to be a closer, but since his two game winners right after the trade, he hasn’t lived up to that. His scoring does go up in the fourth, but it’s usually not because he’s getting more looks within the offense.
Instead, he seems to say “my turn” far more often down the stretch. Sometimes it’s what the Sixers need, but other times it can be damaging, and there are few things worse than watching him turn open shots into fadeaways like he’s Ben Simmons (or LeBron James in NBA 2K13).
Also, this is a real thing:
Since the All-Star break, Jimmy Butler has made the same number of three pointers as Amir Johnson.— Spike Eskin (@SpikeEskin) March 9, 2019
So yeah, Jimmy Butler is bringing more questions than answers right now.
Then there’s the bench. What is going on with this bench? How does a team that isn’t losing on purpose assemble a bench that looks like this?
Joel Embiid is finally back, which means no more Amir Johnson, right? Wrong. For some reason he’s still playing, getting minutes that should be going to Jonah Bolden. Amir hasn’t been horrible, but I can only watch him get physically outmatched so many times before I throw my remote control at the wall.
Then there’s James Ennis. Is he good? He’s definitely probably not good. But maybe he is. His defense against the Indiana Pacers was encouraging, but other times he does things like this (all in the same game):
And this (both within a span of a minute):
So maybe he’ll end up playing a role in the postseason, but until the full team is healthy, it’s too early to tell.
And speaking of health, the biggest reason for the Sixers’ identity crisis has been injuries. Since the Tobias Harris trade at the deadline, Joel Embiid has played just five out of 13 possible games, and Boban Marjanovic has played just seven.
Identity-wise, Embiid is one of the lone constants on this roster. He brings a unique, consistent style of play, and he dominates every center not named Al Horford. Between playing to the fans and attempting to embarrass his opponents during (and after) every game, Embiid is easily the most fun and beloved Sixer since Allen Iverson.
But where does everyone else fit in around him? Tobias Harris has stepped in with no issue, and he sees himself as the “connector” of the team’s other stars, according to Shams Charania of the Athletic. Unfortunately, Butler hasn’t been as ideal of a fit, and Ben Simmons’ lack of a jump shot often makes for awkward spacing.
If we just knew who the Sixers were, losses wouldn’t be so frustrating. If we knew for sure that everything would click when Embiid plays, people wouldn’t overreact (as much) to bad games when he doesn’t. But it’s human nature to get frustrated when sometimes the Sixers look like an elite unit and other nights their lone bright spot is Justin Patton dunking.
As a result, people are arguing about more dumb garbage than ever before. It used to be about the big stuff – are you pro or anti-Process. Of course there was the classic Jah vs. Nerlens debate, too.
Last year people started to get nit-picky, calling each other idiots on Twitter because they disagreed about whether Robert Covington is good at basketball (he very clearly is). But this season is reaching new levels.
Brett Brown is probably a middle of the pack head coach, but most people think he either needs to be fired or inducted into the Hall of Fame immediately. Is Jimmy Butler a good fit? Signs have pointed towards no, but apparently his RPM says otherwise, so let’s fight about that.
Does Ben Simmons need a jumper? Yes. Oh, Kobe Bryant says he needs one? Well Kobe was just a volume scorer, so I’m changing my mind. Are the Sixers better or worse when Kendall Jenner is sitting courtside? It obviously makes no difference, but you have to pick a side anyway. Speaking of Kendall, is she trying to force Ben to the Lakers? Better sign this ridiculous petition just in case (please don’t actually sign it).
Sixers fans are getting mad online at a record-setting pace. But I get it. I understand the frustration, and I feel it too. After all, only six players on the team were on the playoff roster last season. Do the new guys even understand how much they’re supposed to hate Boston?
Fortunately, things should be getting better soon.
Embiid is back – that solves most problems. As the season comes to a close, the urgency should increase. And Brett Brown should figure out his preferred bench rotation for the playoffs.
The Philadelphia 76ers are still searching for an identity. For a fan base that has come to expect a certain attitude and style of play from their teams, it’s not always easy to stay patient. But with health and experience, the Sixers can hopefully find out who they are just in time for a playoff push.