For five weeks, ESPN, director Jason Hehir, and Michael Jordan held the nation’s collective attention as they unveiled The Last Dance, the ten-part docuseries on the Jordan-era Bulls. It was illuminating, nostalgic, dense... hero worship. The docuseries has been accused more than once during and after its release of having a somewhat unreliable narrator.
Jordan, of course, was heavily influential in the production and release of the series, along with his stature as the doc’s central figure. There are nits to pick about the filmmakers’ refusal to delve too deep into some of the shady dealings surrounding Jordan’s legendary career. But for any of the documentary’s faults, it was still absolutely captivating.
Two episodes were released each Sunday for five weeks — two bowls of H20 for those of us crawling through the desolate, sports-less TV desert.
And we lapped it up.
As a Sixers fan, I, like many of you, I’m sure, watched the series with an eye toward our current roster. How much worse is Shake Milton than prime MJ, really? Can Furkan be our Steve Kerr? JaKarr Sampson could’ve been our Horace Grant.
What struck me most, when watching The Last Dance from a Sixers vantage point, was a rather underdeveloped plotline:
Michael Jordan played his rookie season in 1984. The Bulls did not win a title with Jordan until 1991.
Jordan was phenomenal — well on his way to cementing his GOAThood for all time — but he played his first six seasons with Chicago and went home empty-handed each spring.
Scottie Pippen joined Jordan in Chicago in 1987. His first three seasons adjoined with MJ ended in playoff disappointment.
After two seasons on the shelf due to foot fractures, Joel Embiid played his first game as a Sixer in 2016. Ben Simmons, after sitting out his first year due to— you guessed it— a broken foot, joined Embiid in the starting lineup in 2017. When the NBA shut down on March 12, the pair were heading toward the playoffs for the third time in their three years together.
Throughout their time together, the duo has endured a first overall pick (and additional first-rounder) being spent on a guard who quickly forgot how to shoot, a scandal in which the team’s president of basketball operations (and his family) obscured himself behind fake Twitter accounts in order to besmirch their talents and reveal sensitive information, the team’s front office literally selling second-round picks on draft night in exchange for cash, and then, this summer, the front office spending $100 million on another center — this one on the wrong side of 30 — who proved almost immediately to be a misuse of resources amongst their talents.
And yet, if you tune in to WIP following a Sixers loss, most of the callers aren’t dialing in to malign the front office and how consistently they fumbled away the team’s optionality, roster pliability and cap space in recent years. They aren’t lighting up the phone lines to bring up, once more, the lunacy of the team’s half-assed GM search following Colangelo’s ouster.
No, most callers enraged at a night’s loss call in to vent about Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons.
Simmons isn’t shooting!
I’m not here to dispute those talking points. Both are fair. Ben Simmons doesn’t shoot at all from any meaningful distance; Joel Embiid needs to prioritize his stamina in order to deliver the best version of himself during playoff basketball. The problem that I see is that, often, the public discourse about these two players is not nearly as charitable as it ought to be, given their youth and earned stature amongst the league’s top talents.
Embiid, in his third NBA season, has cemented himself as a top-10 player and either the best or second-best center in the game, depending on your appetite for defense.
Simmons is a one-man fast break whose ability to drive, pass, rebound, and defend draws comparisons to Penny Hardaway and LeBron James. This season, Simmons made a tremendous leap defensively, and deserves to be amongst the top candidates for Defensive Player of the Year.
Maybe it’s the proliferation of social media, but I can’t imagine there was this much concern-trolling after Michael and Scottie failed to bring home a ring following their first two seasons together.
And, no — Embiid and Simmons aren’t Jordan and Pippen. But they are two young, extremely talented two-way players learning to play with one another and grow together.
The Sixers have found themselves in the conversation amongst the league’s best teams because of the talents of Embiid and Simmons, and in spite of the sins of the front office, past and present.
Objects in the rearview mirror are larger than they appear. Looking back, knowing that it took Jordan six years to capture an NBA championship sounds like no big deal. But during those six years, it’s harder to swallow.
The members of the Sixers’ braintrust (gulp) owes it to themselves to learn from the arc of the Jordan-era Bulls, and put faith in their two young stars. They owe it to themselves to exercise patience and forethought and foster a winning environment, culture and roster around those two, every single year. The team’s championship window is open exactly as long as those two play for Philadelphia.
Do not trade Joel Embiid. Do not trade Ben Simmons.— Pablo S. Torre (@PabloTorre) February 5, 2020
Rest in Peace, Lee Kenneth Richardson, the best teacher I ever had. Read about him here.
Black Lives Matter.