After the disaster that was the Sixers’ interminable 2019-20 season, there is no shortage of blame to go around.
The lion’s share of the blame, justifiably, will go to the team’s ramshackle front office. Following two years of concerted messaging from the members at the top of the organization that incessantly extolled the virtues of the team’s “collaborative” structure, the experiment fell flat on its face this summer. Rather than benefiting from a group of diverse opinions from various executives, the structure only obscured exactly who had final say on personnel moves, and made it impossible to know who to blame when said decisions went up in flames.
A painful recap: in this most recent offseason, the Sixers opted against re-signing Jimmy Butler, and instead acquired Miami guard Josh Richardson in a sign-and-trade. Then, the team refused to pony up the capital for shooter JJ Redick, and instead bestowed a $100 million deal on Al Horford, a 33-year-old who may be able to fit with the team’s existing young stars. To cap it all off in fittingly disastrous fashion, the Sixers paid forward Tobias Harris $180 million to stay in Philly. Each move registered as either a clear misuse of resources on the fringes or an outright nightmare that has potentially hamstrung the team completely in terms of reshaping the roster this summer.
Another large slice of the blame pie gets divvied up between Harris and Horford, which is fair. Both are veteran players on massive contracts who completely no-showed in the Sixers’ embarrassing first-round sweep at the hands of the Celtics last month.
And then there’s Brett Brown, the head coach who was shown his pink slip the day after the team’s playoff exit. The coach of seven years had clearly finally worn out his welcome in Philadelphia, and the new incoming voice in the locker room is a necessary change. So too, of course, is a complete metamorphosis in the team’s aforementioned front office. Such change has been rumored, but personally, I’ll believe it when I see it.
While each of those culprits absolutely comprise the majority of the causes for the failure of this season, I would submit that the Sixers clearest path forward and through to legitimate title contention doesn’t necessarily involve alleviating any of them.
For the Sixers to take that elusive next step, the team will need real, meaningful improvement from Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. That may seem shocking at first, and I get it. They’re really good! Both were All-Stars once again this year. The team building this season seems almost diabolical in retrospect: it’s as if Elton Brand and company were dead set on building a roster to consciously oppose the environment best suited for the team’s two young stars.
Maybe the team will be able to begin to right those wrongs this offseason. Maybe they’ll package Horford with Richardson or a pick or (gulp) Matisse Thybulle and recoup a player that better balances the starting lineup, positionally. Maybe the new Collective Bargaining Agreement equips the team with an amnesty clause through which the team can wipe the Tobias Harris contract from its cap sheet. Maybe they’ll draft well and make good use of the taxpayer mid-level exception and veteran minimum signings. Maybe the team’s new head coach will be the perfect blend of disciplinarian, motivator and tactician that the team needs.
If those things happen, the team would absolutely be better. They’d win more games, they’d make a run in the playoffs. Chemistry would improve. But none of those factors equal a parade down Broad Street if they aren’t adjoined by on-and-off-court improvements from Simmons and Embiid.
Let’s start with Simmons. I feel that his defensive improvement this year was largely overlooked in public discourse because of his offensive stagnation. Prior to the bubble, he was a man possessed on defense. He’s one of the few players in the league who can actually effectively guard positions 1 thru 5 on a nightly basis. He made a number of game-breaking steals in crunch time when the team needed them. He was fourth in voting for Defensive Player of the Year, and if he gets omitted from the All-Defensive First Team it would be a travesty. This deserves recognition.
Offense is a different story entirely.
Once again, the majority of Simmons’ scoring came in transition, save for the occasional offensive rebound and put-back or flip shot in the post. Despite countless empty-gym workout videos that captured him firing away from deep like Rashard Lewis, he was once again a completely unwilling shooter from any sort of range this season. This needs to stop. He needs to finally submit to the inherent discomfort attendant with taking shots on the court that he’s unsure he will make. If he becomes a willing shooter, the decision will behoove his game and the team’s offensive options tenfold.
He also absolutely has to get better at converting his free throw attempts. He has made tiny improvements in this area each year (he shot 62 percent, as opposed to 60 percent last year, and 56 percent in his rookie year) but not enough to embolden him to make a forceful effort to get to the line as much as he ought to. Very, very few players in the league contain Simmons’ prolific blend of size and speed. In order for him to make use of that combination to its true potential, he needs to trust that once he gets to the line, he will knock down those freebies. These adjustments would completely revamp his game, and they’re not asking too much.
As for Joel Embiid, recently on Twitter, he has been not-so-subtly hinting at his displeasure with the team’s decision-making in recent years, as his good friend and one-time teammate Jimmy Butler dismantled the Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs. Good. He should use his voice and stature on the team to make it clear to the organization that what’s been going on is unacceptable. Of course, these posts can be worrisome to read for Sixers fans, but stars control this league. If this is the type of pressure that needs to be applied to the front office in order to erase any traces of Bryan Colangelo’s water polo buddies, it would be well worth a few sleepless nights for the Philly faithful.
The necessary improvements that I feel he needs to make are less drastic than those in Simmons’ case. Sure, he could pass better out of the post — I think he would be a more willing and effortful passer out of double teams if only he had teammates whom he trusted more to hit open shots. Even when he seems off, particularly defensively, the advanced numbers tell the story that the big man remains one of the most menacing forces in the NBA.
My biggest problem with Embiid’s on court performance this season was how often he seemed to be playing on autopilot. And I get it — an 82 (or in this case, 73) game schedule can certainly feel like a slog for a team so desperate to tell everyone within earshot that they were “built for the playoffs” (yikes). I also understand Embiid’s everlong concern of suffering a devastating injury, given his medical history. I’ve got no problem with him missing upwards of 20 games a season in the name of load management. But when he plays, he needs to really play. He needs to build up and maintain a fitness base to enable him to play at the peak of his powers. If he’s going to suit up, it’s important for him to lead by example on the court by playing hard on every possession. It’s a long season for everyone, and that includes guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard, who don’t coast through games versus opponents they feel rank beneath them. Sure, LeBron James has a tendency to sleepwalk through regular season games, but he’s earned that right. Embiid hasn’t yet.
Finally, I believe that both Simmons and Embiid need to grow this offseason in their evolutions as leaders. The Sixers’ new coach could certainly help in this area, perhaps bestowing more off-court responsibility on the duo in training camp and beyond. But I think that this growth will require a joint effort on both of their parts to take this organization by the reins and truly lead. Teams with strong leadership do not play as poorly on the road as the Sixers did last season. They do not allow players like Glenn Robinson III to pop off to the media a week after joining the team because they’d like a more defined role. They do not allow for things like that, because they demand better from their teammates and from themselves. Simmons and Embiid are both reported to be introverts off the court. Despite social-media histrionics that may suggest otherwise, they are not the most vocal and expressive forces behind closed doors. They need to find their voices. Tobias Harris is a wonderful guy and a born leader as a veteran in this league. But he doesn’t have the talent to be the difference between a championship and a failure in the playoffs. In order for the Sixers to truly contend, the team’s two young stars need to make the leap and refuse to settle for what has now become the status quo.
In summation, this organization needs immense work from top to bottom. But none of this offseason’s potential changes would make nearly the impact of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid improving in meaningful ways, on the court and off.
Rest in Peace, Chadwick Boseman. An incredibly strong person who gifted us all with his talent in the face of unspeakable and unspoken personal adversity.