Last week for Liberty Ballers, I took a moment to dissect what would have happened if the Philadelphia 76ers had taken Paul Pierce instead of Larry Hughes in the 1998 NBA Draft. It was a fun dive into a little Sixers revisionist history, and the response was good. That got me thinking: “What other moments in history would be fun to re-write, so to speak?”
Hindsight being 20/20 and all that, these little moments in time are fun conversation pieces. For example, thanks to the brilliant editors at Liberty Ballers, I was reminded that Larry Brown promised Larry Hughes that he would draft him if he was there with the eighth overall pick.
Jesus, Larry. Why did you do that?
What I thought about next in the realm of “what if this happened” was painful to even consider given the recency of this moment. This moment must be discussed, though. As a result of what ACTUALLY happened, you have to wonder what would have happened if things “bounced” the other way.
See what I did there?
This is going to be painful, and it’s going to rip open old wounds. We’ll get through it together, and I apologize if Sixers Nation sheds many tears (or I get tons of angry emails asking me why the eff I did this).
Fire up the WABAC Machine because we’re going back to March 12, 2019.
What if the Philadelphia 76ers weren’t on the Wrong Side of the Luckiest Bounce in NBA History?
Let’s just get this out of the way because it helps to process.
The play itself has been heavily dissected. Why didn’t Ben Simmons stay on Kawhi Leonard after Joel Embiid picked him up on the wing? Why didn’t James Ennis trap at the baseline? (I know it leaves Serge Ibaka, but that extra second it would have taken to get it to Ibaka or making Leonard pass away from three dudes would’ve definitely caused overtime.)
Before I skew the timeline into a favorable tangent, remember how EFF’ING GOOD this series was. This 2-seed vs. 3-seed match-up would have been an amazing Eastern Conference Finals, but it happened in round two. That’s sort of why this is especially painful.
The Toronto Raptors had Kawhi, and they rode him (via load management) to the 2-seed, behind the Milwaukee Bucks and ahead of the Sixers. This after the Sixers had traded for Jimmy Butler AND Tobias Harris. The Sixers were LOADED. The Raptors were damn good themselves with Kawhi, a blossoming forward in Pascal Siakam, and veteran leadership with Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol. The amount of talent on the floor is staggering.
For the series, all five Sixers starters averaged double-digit points. The Raptors countered that by playing Kawhi almost 40 minutes per game. Make no mistake, they had a lot of talent in the starting five, but when he was in the game, Kawhi was the best player on the floor.
The series itself was as back-and-forth as back-and-forth gets. Teams alternated wins through the series leading up to the game 7. The game itself was a seesaw. The Raptors and Sixers traded leads ten times in the game, even though Toronto held the lead in the game for damn near 40 minutes.
The Sixers were down three after Butler split a pair of free throws, but Embiid sank two of his own to close the gap to one. JJ Redick fouled Kawhi, who split two free throws, and then Bulter sank a lay-up to tie the game at 90. Then, well … we all know what happened.
What if it didn’t happen like that? What if the ball bounced the other way?
The first thing to wonder is whether the Sixers win in overtime. If they don’t, then history is restored and the Raptors win the title anyway.
One thing of note is you have to think who fouls out first. Going into overtime, two Sixers – Simmons and Harris – had five fouls. Simmons and Jimmy Butler were doing the primary defending of Kawhi the entire series. Does Butler become the main defender? At least Tobias Harris is another body. Does either Simmons or Harris foul out? Do both?
For Toronto, Kawhi is gassed by this point. He’s already played 43:17 after playing 38-plus minutes for the series. He has 41 points on 39 shots WHILE guarding Jimmy Butler. This dude is a damn robot. Honestly, I think this is where the Sixers’ depth in the lineup takes over. Gasol, Lowry and Siakam are good, but Embiid, Butler, one of Simmons/Harris, and JJ Redick is a lot to overcome.
In that hypothetical, the Sixers probably win game seven in Toronto, but it’s close (one possession).
That brings us to the next scenario: Sixers vs. Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals. This is also going seven games, but it’s probably not going to be as back-and-forth. Milwaukee protects home court for two games, then the Sixers do the same. After that, you’re asking the Sixers to win ONE GAME in Milwaukee.
This team isn’t THIS YEAR’S team, so I have confidence they can win one damn road game. What you’d like is for the Sixers to win game five in Milwaukee and close it out in six like Toronto did. With Embiid, Butler, Harris, and Simmons, it’s certainly conceivable. Even with Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks have a system: jack up A LOT of 3s after Giannis penetrates. The Bucks were second in the league that year in 3-point attempts. Playing like that is exciting, but dangerous if you go cold. The Sixers could beat teams at least more than one way.
Let’s remain positive. The Bucks go cold in game six, and the Sixers finish out the series to go to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2001.
That brings us to an NBA Finals series between the Sixers and the Golden State Warriors. This Warriors team is slightly different this year from other years, however – the lack of one Kevin Wayne Durant.
The Warriors lost Durant in game five of the Western Conference Semis to the Houston Rockets after suffering what was diagnosed at the time as a “calf injury”. Listen, even Kevin Harlan said it looked like an Achilles injury. Call it what it is, Warriors trainers.
Anyway, the Warriors still went on to beat the Rockets in five games AND swept the Portland Trailblazers, somehow. Actually, there is no “somehow”. They swept that series because Steph Curry averaged 36/8/7 while shooting 42 percent from 3. Never mind. That’s how they swept that series.
So, you have the Sixers with their big three (or four depending on how you feel about Tobias Harris) against the Warriors who have Curry and Klay Thompson. I’m subtracting Durant from this equation because even if Durant goes in the NBA Finals like he did, I think he still reaggravates that Achilles, ruling him out. Durant did play in game five of last year’s NBA Finals, but he only played about 12 minutes.
In the first two games, do the Sixers win ONE GAME in Oakland? I have to say yes – especially since the Sixers did that in the regular season (without Embiid, by the way). This is a good next question, though: do the Warriors get one back in Philadelphia?
Without Durant, the Warriors couldn’t win a game in Toronto. In fact, they got beat by double digits both times. As good as Steph and Klay are, they have to get offense against the combined trio of Simmons, Butler, and James Ennis III when he’s subbed in for Redick. Now, Thompson shot damn near 60 percent from 3 in the series. Does he get slowed down with Butler hounding him? Probably.
Curry was a shell of himself in the 2019 NBA Finals, shooting just 41 percent from the FIELD. Does he shoot better or worse than that with the taller, lengthier Simmons likely guarding him? Probably equal to or maybe even worse.
We know what Embiid would have done to the Warriors based on his 24/10 against them in Philadelphia in January of that year. If you’re the Warriors, is there ANYONE you can put on Embiid to even slow him down? He would have a monster series against Golden State – something like 27 points and 12 rebounds with four or five assists per game. Add that to a Jimmy Butler takeover game and a “Redick hits seven 3s in a game” game, and that’s two likely wins. Throw in a Ben Simmons 20-plus points, 12-plus rebounds, and 12-plus assists triple/double to make one more win. Oh yeah, and Tobias Harris!
God damnit. I’m not saying the Sixers would have won this series going away, but they would have likely won this series considering the Warriors were Durant-less.
We could’ve had a parade!
We could have had a Joel Embiid victory speech on the Art Museum steps!
Being a Sixers fan is such a terrible experience, sometimes, huh?
Ok. I’m going to go back in my quarantine status and cry some more. I apologize for doing this to everyone.