Back in late June, the day following the 2018 NBA Draft, Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown spoke candidly with the media. As he discussed the rationale behind the decision to trade Mikal Bridges for Zhaire Smith and the Miami Heat’s 2021 first-round pick, Brown was transparent and blunt.
“We are star-hunting — or we are star-developing,” Brown told reporters while leaning into the microphone. “That’s how you win a championship.”
Throughout the ensuing months, Sixers management reinforced Brown’s message: Philadelphia was undoubtedly star-hunting. In November, it shipped out Robert Covington and Dario Saric for All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler. Roughly three months later, in early February, Landry Shamet, Mike Muscala, Wilson Chandler, Philadelphia’s protected 2020 first-rounder, Miami’s 2021 unprotected first-rounder and a pair of second-round picks (2021 and 2023) were sent to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for Tobias Harris, Mike Scott and Boban Marjanovic.
Over that span, the Sixers transformed from a team with two stars — Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons — surrounded by a cast of complementary role players to a club stocked with four star-caliber players in the starting unit. Owner Josh Harris was never shy about his belief in this team’s ceiling. In March, he told ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan that he felt the Sixers had enough talent to win it all.
Hours removed from Kawhi Leonard’s improbable dagger, a shot that served as a harsh rebuttal to Harris’ comments, the sentiment remains true. The Sixers do have enough talent to win a title. And that means investing in this core long-term, not just for three months. They pushed all their chips into the center of the table; don’t walk away before the river card is revealed.
Championships go beyond star power. There are ingredients this starting five lacked, the most important of which was time — a resource that ultimately breeds chemistry. There is a reason super teams often underwhelm during the infancy stage of their development. Chemistry, an understanding of each player’s tendencies and preferences, requires time.
As a result of Embiid’s knee injuries and Butler’s periodic absences, the Simmons-JJ Redick-Butler-Harris-Embiid quintet only played 21 games together — and seven came in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the team with the second-best record in the NBA.
I’m not just using chemistry as an excuse to defend this team’s shortcomings. This isn’t NBA2K. Players are human. Familiarity matters. The disconnect between players surfaced on a regular basis. Botched switches. Miscommunications in pick-and-roll coverage. Confusion in offensive sets that mucked up spacing or led to stagnant possessions.
Heck, Butler’s near-full-time usage as the primary ball-handler in this series exiled Simmons into unknown territory for long stretches during the most important portion of the season. And the Sixers still nearly knocked off Toronto. Handing Butler the reins was the correct move, but that doesn’t mean the decision was without growing pains for Simmons. Bring Butler back, run him at point next to Simmons more often next season, and enable Simmons to better grasp his role as a big man.
Harris wasn’t quite capable of filling the duties the Sixers needed: an omnipresent 3-point gunner and off-ball roamer who truly stretched the floor, a la Redick. At times, he bypassed open looks, wasn’t quite ready to fire on the catch or failed to relocate to openings along the arc. With an offseason to master his altered responsibilities — he handled the ball far more often in Los Angeles than Philadelphia — his resourcefulness could be heightened.
Craft some potent two-man action between Harris and Redick — I thought this element was missing from the Sixers’ offense post-Harris trade — the team’s deadliest pair of triggermen. Allow Embiid a summer to master all the intricacies of being a roll man, so he and Butler can form one of the league’s best pick-and-roll partnerships.
And yet, despite those tangible issues, Philadelphia’s starting five was dominant. In 10 regular season games, the group produced a plus-17.6 net rating (119 offensive rating, 101.4 defensive rating). During 11 postseason games, the group was even better, with a plus-24.9 net rating (113.4 ORTG, 88.5 DRTG). Sure, the latter mark is bolstered by some dominant outings against the Brooklyn Nets in the first round. But in 124 minutes against the Raptors, the starting five remained impressive at plus-8.7 (107.5 ORTG, 98.8 DRTG). For reference, Toronto’s starting lineup was only plus-1.7. Two really good units faced off and Philadelphia’s was vastly superior over seven games — though Toronto proved to be the better team overall.
If the Sixers are to genuinely run it back and take another stab at a title with this group, that means affirming commitment to Brett Brown. I won’t dive too deeply into the job Brown did this season. My colleagues will hammer home his excellence. But briefly, Brown’s flexibility coaching three different iterations of a roster (pre-Butler, post-Butler, and post-Harris), a willingness to tinker with rotations and offensive/defensive schemes, and an ability to control the locker room are all points in his favor.
Roster continuity extends to coaches as well. Longevity breeds familiarity. Holding Brown’s employment to a Finals-or-bust standard, given the incredibly short time frame he had to maximize his personnel, is malpractice. It’s not fair to him and conveys disillusioned standards of excellence for this season. Either you believe in Brown’s abilities as a coach or you don’t. The Sixers were on the edge of a second-round upset in large part because of Brown’s tactical adjustments throughout the series.
Most expected the Raptors to comfortably knock off the Sixers in five or six games. That didn’t happen, not in the slightest. Philadelphia went toe-to-toe with Toronto because it’s a darn good team. It’s a darn good team because of the starting five and the man patrolling the sidelines. Going all-in for three months — essentially one season — isn’t going all-in. This isn’t college basketball where star freshmen walk out the door every year. The Sixers can and should run it back for a title. A second-round exit must not change that belief. Lock into this championship-caliber core moving forward. Bolster the bench (namely a competent backup center and point guard).
Continuity and chemistry are key elements for every championship team. Talent can’t and won’t always override them. The opportunity to develop those features is available, though. If Philadelphia is serious about its title hopes, pay Jimmy Butler, pay Tobias Harris, and instill your trust in Brett Brown. The star-hunting is complete. It’s time to actualize Brown’s second sentence: that’s how you win a championship.