“They say we die twice. Once, when the breath leaves our body. And once, when the last person we know says our name.”
That was Al Pacino in the criminally-underrated 2012 release, Stand Up Guys. Pacino was talking to Christopher Walken, a friend and former colleague who he fears will soon kill him, per the request of their employer — a menacing, uncompromising mob boss played by Mark Margolis. That second part isn’t really germane to this column, but it feels like necessary context, nonetheless.
Like Pacino’s character, the Sixers will die twice in this 2019-2020 season.
Philadelphia’s All-Star F Ben Simmons will undergo surgery to remove a loose body in his left knee, sources tell ESPN.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) August 8, 2020
And once, when the Sixers are eliminated from the playoffs.
The task before the Sixers and head coach Brett Brown, now, is a tall one: trudge your way through the Eastern Conference playoffs with the same ill-fitting roster that resulted in the team’s six-seed finish, but now without their second-best player who is also their best perimeter defender and their best playmaker.
If you’re reading this, you’re a Sixers fan. And if you’re a Sixers fan, not watching the Sixers when they play is simply not an option. The team no longer having a chance to win a title has never been an excuse to make better use with our time before, so why start now? If they’re going to play, we’re going to watch. Other passions (knitting, discovering religion, thermodynamics) will have to wait until the Sixers suffer that second and final death during the postseason.
I am here to shepherd you through watching this annoying Sixers team, now without the — however misguided — notion that they just might have a chance to win it all, despite copious evidence to the contrary. In the process, we all need to find a way to watch them without pulling out our hair, punching our TVs, and misplacing our anger toward our loved ones.
So here it is: a viewer’s guide for watching the rest of this Sixers season without losing your mind.
1 - Enjoy Joel Embiid, One Man Band
Anyone scanning the Sixers’ cap sheet on Spotrac must convulse at the ‘one man band’ descriptor, but sadly it’s true. Yes, Tobias Harris will continue to score points with decreasing efficiency as he raises his volume, but in terms of making plays and affecting outcomes of games on both sides of the ball, there are no other players on the team — and very few in the league, for that matter — with the potential to make Embiid’s level of impact.
Personally, he is off to a roaring start in the bubble, averaging 30 points, 13.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks on 53 percent shooting since the restart.
Embiid is obviously the fan favorite in Philadelphia, so the chance to watch him excel on a big stage (even if the carrot the Sixers are chasing is eminently out of reach) is reason enough to tune in. The Sixers have a chance, now, to optimize the spacing around Embiid’s post-ups better than ever in this ‘19-’20 campaign.
My fear is that, now without Ben Simmons, Brett Brown will feel the need to overextend Embiid to nearly 40 minutes per game. This cannot happen. The Sixers cannot tax Embiid to such an extent that it risks injury to the Sixers’ other young star. Keep his minutes around 35 a night, and let the big man go to work. However many wins the squad can eke out in the playoffs will, in all likelihood, be a direct result of the superhuman efforts of Joel Embiid. The opportunity to watch the big man at his peak performance level is worth the cost of admission alone.
2 - Focus on Matisse Thybulle with Increased Responsibility
With Simmons likely to miss the remainder of the season, YouTube’s largest-wingspanned-vlogger is set to take on newfound responsibility. As Sixers fans, we will get the chance to see if the rookie is up to the task.
Thybulle quickly became a fan favorite in the fall, due to his tireless defense and charismatic personality. Although successful, his debut season was not without valleys — his three-point shot would come and go rather erratically, and he was pinged over and over for ticky-tack fouls when referees felt he was overaggressive.
Now, without Simmons — the Sixers’ defensive stopper on the wing and fulcrum to the team’s defensive pliability — the microscope will turn to Thybulle. While Josh Richardson will often take on the assignment of guarding an opponent’s lead ball handler, Thybulle must now assume the duty of checking high-scoring wings.
Should the Sixers play Boston in round 1? Matisse is going to have to stay with Jayson Tatum. Miami? Best of luck avoiding foul trouble guarding Jimmy Butler. Should the Sixers make it to the second round, names like Khris Middleton and Pascal Siakam will be waiting for him.
It will be compelling to see if Thybulle will be able to punctuate his massively impressive defensive rookie season with continued success on that end against stiff competition under lots of pressure.
3 - Bask in The Al Horford Trade Value Recoupment Tour
The Sixers need to find a way to offload Al Horford and his $100 million contract this offseason. The better Horford plays, the easier that will be. With this in mind, Sixers fans ought to be encouraged by what we’ve seen from Al since play resumed in the Orlando bubble. In a small sample size, over this first handful of games, Horford has shot and passed well, played decent defense and largely held down the fort when Joel Embiid rests.
The Horford signing was ill-conceived from the get-go. You can’t make an aging center your big free agent acquisition if your other two best players are Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. The Sixers need to optimize and modernize their roster as soon as the new league year begins in October.
I’m sure I hope that the team will be willing to pay a price to do so. Attaching Josh Richardson and/or the Oklahoma City first-round pick (should it convey to Philadelphia) may be an uncomfortable pill to swallow, but this is the situation the team has found itself in.
Should Horford perform well on a national stage in the postseason, he might be able to drag his league-wide value high enough that the Sixers don’t need to pay too much of a price to bid him adieu.
4 - Identify Keepers
When Brett Brown announced that Shake Milton would become the Sixers’ starting point guard (with Ben Simmons shifting to power forward) in Orlando, Sixers fans rejoiced. Mostly, they were happy because playing Simmons alongside a ball-handler has been an obvious adjustment that the Sixers could’ve and should’ve made long ago. But they were also excited to see more from Milton, and find out whether or not his Los Angeles performances in March were for real. Now, with Simmons on the shelf, the spotlight on Shake will only widen. Sixers fans will see how he responds to the high-pressure playoff competition in Orlando, where he’ll be left to sink or swim. Is Shake a solid rotation guy, or a legitimate starter on a contender? Time to find out.
Is Matisse Thybulle ready to guard lead scorers on good teams, or can he not stay out of foul trouble? Is Furkan Korkmaz playable in the playoffs? Should the team be interested in re-upping with Glenn Robinson III or Alec Burks? Sixers fans and team brass will have much more evidence with which to answer these questions after the team’s run in the playoffs.
5 - Appreciate Brett Brown For Who He Is
I am already looking forward to the Anti-Brett Brigade to descend upon this comment section, but it’s okay. There will come a time to properly eulogize Brett’s career in Philadelphia, and this isn’t it. But it’s coming. Barring some Cinderella run to the finals in Orlando sans-Simmons, Brown will be shown the door thereafter.
Some among Sixers Twitter seem to think that a Simmons-less playoff run will absolve Brown from blame and culpability in the eyes of Sixers brass; that the Sixers will clutch onto the semi-popular notion that the team was “built for the playoffs,” and keep the band together for the 2020-21 season. I can’t see it. Even if the Simmons injury robs us all of seeing how the full roster would perform in playoffs, the Sixers had 65 games to perform and wound up a completely disjointed six-seed. A new voice is needed. New voices are also needed in the front office, but let’s not get greedy.
So, for the rest of the time that Brett holds the Sixers’ clipboard, appreciate him for who he is: an excellent guy who excitedly escorted this franchise through a top-to-bottom teardown, and saw through to the other side. If not for his X’s and O’s, I will miss him for who he is, and who he’s been to us.
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