With Uncut Gems recently arriving on Netflix, and ample free time courtesy of COVID-19-forced self-quarantining, I finally caught up on the 2019 Adam Sandler-starring film. Mild spoilers below for the movie, as well as the last eight years of Philadelphia 76ers basketball.
“NBA doesn’t want the Sixers to win. There’s no money in that, you understand? The refs know that. They want stars. Stars get ‘em ****ing ratings.”
Now, you might think the above quote is from a disgruntled WIP caller. It’s something a frustrated Sixers fan might have said at any time during the nearly ten years between 2007 and 2016. Actually, though, it’s from Adam Sandler’s character in Uncut Gems, Howard Ratner, right before Game 7 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Sixers and the Boston Celtics.
Ratner is a degenerate gambler. You know the sheer depths of his gambling addiction by the fact that he includes who will win the opening tip in his parlays, which is pure lunacy. Deep in debt and with his bookie, Arno (who happens to be his brother-in-law), and Arno’s goons at his jeweler’s shop with a “pay now or you’re dead” vibe hanging in the air, Ratner bets it all on that Game 7 with a Celtics moneyline/Celtics win opening tip/Kevin Garnett over points plus rebounds parlay. If it hits, the wager is worth over one million dollars.
Degenerate nature aside, Ratner is so confident in this bet because of his relationship with Garnett, who has a sizable supporting role playing himself in the movie and does a darn fine job. Ratner has just sold Garnett a rare black opal from Ethiopia, which KG is convinced has magical powers to make him perform better on the hardwood. He had worn the gem on loan prior to Game 3 of the series, before dominating the Sixers with a 27-point, 13-rebound effort.
But this isn’t CelticsBlog, so let’s stop talking about The Big Ticket for the moment and discuss the Sixers. Notably, Joel Embiid was originally slated to be the real-life athlete to star in the movie, before a production schedule delay caused filming to conflict with the NBA season. Directors Josh and Benny Safdie shifted to using a retired player in Garnett, and adjusted the script accordingly to take place in the past.
While we unfortunately missed out on Joel lovingly caressing a rare stone from Africa, thanks to the plot of the movie revolving around that 2012 semifinal series, we still have plenty to think about in regard to Philadelphia basketball. If you don’t immediately recall, that Sixers club was the one that defeated the Bulls in the first round after Derrick Rose tore his ACL in Game 1. Philadelphia entered the series against Boston following Andre Iguodala’s signature moment as a Sixer, sinking two free throws with seconds left in Game 6 to clinch the series over Chicago.
However, despite a bitterly hard-fought second-round series, the Sixers would go on to lose that Game 7 to the Celtics (hey, I gave the spoiler alert!), and Iguodala would be traded that summer as part of the Andrew Bynum deal. That ill-fated trade set the stage for a 34-48 record during the 2012-13 season, which led to Doug Collins’ exit, the arrival of Sam Hinkie and Brett Brown, and the complete dismantling of the roster in what we’ve come to refer to as The Process. Many members of that 2011-12 roster still look back on that series against Boston and wonder what could have been.
Lou Williams averaged 10.3 points per game off the bench in that Boston series. Here he is in 2014, courtesy of Liberty Ballers’ own Jake Fischer:
“I thought we just had a solid basketball team. I think we put a very young basketball team together and we had some success. I thought they should have kept that group together, but you know the business is the business and everybody just went their separate ways. It’s one of those things where you just say what could’ve been, what should’ve been and what if?”
Two other members of that “Night Shift” group off the bench, Thad Young and Lavoy Allen, spoke to The Inquirer’s Keith Pompey in 2017:
Young: “We win the game, and we beat Boston, the team stays together. Maybe I’m still a Sixer. Maybe he’s still a Sixer. A lot of things have changed since then. But we all remember that series.”
Allen: “We would have had a couple of more years with [Nik] Vucevic, Andre Iguodala, and a few of the guys. We would have had some more good years if we would have kept that team together.”
Now, I don’t know how much I agree with those guys. As scrappy as the 2011-12 club was, Sandler’s character is absolutely right, it’s a star-driven league. Jrue Holiday continued to improve and is a top-30ish player in the league, but even with Anthony Davis in New Orleans, he couldn’t advance out of the second round of the playoffs. Andre Iguodala won a Finals MVP with the Warriors, but he was coming off the bench when the 2015 Finals started and the foundation of that team was still two of the best shooters of all time in Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. The 2011-12 Sixers’ best outside threat was Jodie Meeks.
So powered by a rare black opal or not, it’s probably ultimately for the best that Kevin Garnett and the Celtics took down the Sixers in that Game 7. There was no path to obtaining the top-10 player required to win a title by sticking to the status quo, which management might have been more inclined to do having beaten Boston. The loss led to the current era, and the arrival of two bona fide stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Of course, Philadelphia fans are still notoriously fickle. Seemingly half the conversations around those two guys are about wanting them out of town because of the few things they can’t do on the court, rather than embracing the tremendous things they do bring to the table. But we don’t need to delve into that topic yet again in this post.
Ultimately, Howard Ratner wins his bet (which doesn’t spoil the end of the movie, for the record), but it’s not the only way he could predict the future. Eight years later, whether it’s the fallout from the Al Horford signing or management selling a second-round pick, some Sixers fans are still saying this (warning: NSFW language):