Things were sunny in Philadelphia after a Game 4 win over the Heat.
James Harden turned back the clock with an electric 16-point fourth quarter. Budding star Tyrese Maxey was finding his footing. Danny Green’s shooting variance had evened out in a big way. Most importantly, Joel Embiid returned to the lineup — albeit with a broken face and wonky thumb — to help propel both wins at the Wells Fargo Center.
The series was tied 2-2, with the Sixers appearing to have a good shot to steal a game in Miami ... or so it seemed.
Two embarrassing and lifeless losses later, the Sixers’ season was over.
And with that comes myriad questions facing the franchise this offseason. With the final media sessions from this past season wrapped, let’s take a look at four questions facing Daryl Morey and the gang and what answers they might have.
James Harden’s future as a Sixer
Since the Sixers pulled off the blockbuster trade that brought Harden to Philadelphia, the sentiment has been the same — The Beard will be here beyond the 2021-22 season.
“That’s the plan is to have him back,” Morey said last week. “That’s been the plan since the trade. Obviously we have to work with his representation and that’ll be between us to figure out how that works.”
Harden has a $47.4M player option for the 2022-23 season. He’s been asked about picking up that option since he arrived. He was asked again after Game 6.
“I’ll be here, yeah,” Harden said. “Whatever allows this team to continue to grow and get better — and do the things necessary to win and compete at the highest level.”
Harden could easily just pick up that option, collect nearly $50M next season and then reassess his status. That option — or signing the soon-to-be 33-year-old to a possible five-year, $270M super-max extension — doesn’t seem appealing to the Sixers.
What seems more likely is Harden and the team hammering out a deal that makes sense for both sides. Think something like three years or four years (with the final year being some sort of option) for somewhere in the range of $90M-$120M.
All of this is with the context that Harden was up and down this postseason, but ended it on an extremely sour note, taking only two shots in the second half of an elimination game. Harden will turn 33 next season and lacked the necessary burst and finishing we’ve seen from him in the past. His whistle has also gone from historically good to downright tough.
The former MVP has been dealing with a hamstring issue since last postseason with the Nets, something he feels like he’s begun fully recovering from.
“I was getting there, man,” Harden said. “Honestly, it’s been a long two years for me. I’m finally starting to kind of feel OK again. It’ll be a great summer for me to get my body right and be ready to go for next year. These last two years have been a whirlwind, though.”
It’s fair to have concerns and doubts about where Harden is and what he could ultimately be for the Sixers. Then again, when the starting unit was full healthy during the postseason, they were very good. Even after two clunkers in Games 5 and 6, that five-man lineup posted the third-best net rating in the league (minimum 60 minutes).
With a full and healthy offseason and training camp, maybe there is more to “unlock,” a word Morey used several times.
Is Doc Rivers the right coach for this team?
Whether it was in response to Mike D’Antoni rumors that swirled in February or reported interest from the Lakers, the message from the Sixers has been clear: Doc Rivers will coach this team next season.
(I heard a lot of you groan as you read that.)
That message has been steadfast from the team both publicly and privately. Rivers still has three years remaining on his deal and also has a good relationship with Morey.
“I don’t worry about my job,” Rivers said after Game 6. “I think I do a terrific job and if you don’t, then you should write it, because I worked my butt off to get this team here. When I first got here, no one picked us to beat anyone. And again, this year, same thing. So if that’s how anyone feels, write it, and I’m going to feel secure.”
Here’s where I am on Doc: I don’t think he’s nearly as bad as many, many fans do, but I do wonder if there are better options for this team. While I don’t pin the effort of grown men and professionals on Doc, I do wonder if the offense lacked creativity at times.
It felt like the Heat’s game plan was to take away Embiid and Harden and live with anyone else beating them — and it felt like the Sixers did nothing to combat that. Part of that falls on the front office for a lack of depth and Embiid (and even Harden) being compromised, but the offense felt stagnant.
The other fair complaint of Rivers is his propensity to lean way too heavily on veterans. I don’t know if Paul Reed, Charles Bassey or Isaiah Joe are going to be rotational NBA players, but I’d like to find out! We know the Sixers don’t practice often, which is fair given the demands of the NBA schedule, but that also means the only time for young guys to develop is in games. Maybe instead of using DeAndre Jordan and Paul Millsap down the stretch, Rivers could’ve gotten a longer look at Reed and/or Bassey. Maybe instead of leaving a struggling Furkan Korkmaz in the rotation for 50 games, you could’ve given Joe a stretch of games.
With all that said, the NBA is a player-driven league. Rivers was able to beat Nick Nurse, a coach I believe to be one of the best in the business, in the first round. With a healthy Embiid and more depth, perhaps he could’ve stood toe-to-toe with Erik Spoelstra.
Point being, despite Rivers’ shortcomings, coaching is not the biggest culprit for the Sixers’ latest postseason failures.
“I believe that we have the right people,” Embiid said. “But I think at some point, you’ve got to stop looking at coaching or front office. You’ve got to look at the players. Maybe they’re just not good enough. And I’m not trying to blame anybody, but the players also have to do their jobs. It doesn’t matter how much a coach or a GM talks to you or tries to motivate you if you still go out there and you don’t do your job, and the other team is more physical than you. That’s on the players.”
Do the Sixers have a ‘toughness’ issue?
We’ll just let these quotes from Harris and Embiid speak for themselves:
“Mental toughness,” Harris said. “Seeing the Milwaukee game yesterday, that’s a team that’s been through the fire, being able to fight and keep going. At times for our group, too many things just affected us as a whole. We drop our heads too much. Our body language at times is crappy. We needed that to be better throughout this series. And I think that hurt us in this series. Our mental toughness for sure hurt us against that group. And they did a lot of things to kind of challenge that — the hustle plays, the 50-50 basketballs, everything. The physicality by them, as well. We needed to be better as a collective group at just holding our head and just fighting, just going right back at it. And I don’t think we did a great job of that.”
“For sure,” Embiid said. “We had a few tough guys since I’ve been here that I can recall, whether it’s Mike Scott … he didn’t play a lot of minutes. But when you have size and toughness, that goes a long way. You look at someone like P.J. Tucker — great player, but it’s not about him knocking down shots. It’s about (the other things) he does, whether it’s on the defensive end or rebounding the ball. You look at obviously defensively, he plays with so much energy. He believes that he can get from Point A to Point B, and he believes that no one can beat him. And he’s tough. He’s just physical and he’s tough. They have a few of those guys, whether it’s Bam and all those guys. And since I’ve been here, I would be lying if I said that we’ve had those type of guys. Nothing against what we have, it’s just the truth.”
Morey heard this message, saying the team addressing a lack of toughness “could come from internal improvement or it could come from acquisitions.”
“I think the best organizations take a step back and learn from our losses,” Morey said. “[The Heat] have been building for years. They’ve done a tremendous job. So credit to Miami, and it hurts to have to lose to them, but they really went out there and took it. And we need some of that toughness. We need a lot of what we saw from them. And look, we can do it. We’ve got a lot of resources. We’ve got a lot of flexibility, [our managing partners] give us every ability to go out and do what we need to do.”
Can/will/should the Sixers try to acquire another star?
Given the recent reporting by multiple ESPN reporters, it feels like the rumors of the Sixers eyeing another star (Bradley Beal, anyone?) have legs. Morey has always been a star hunter, one of the more aggressive executives in the league and a guy that doesn’t shy away from bold moves.
The first big question: Would Harden be willing to take less money to facilitate the acquisition of another star?
“Whatever it takes to help this team continue to grow and put us up there with the best of them.”
So, could Morey pull it off? Our David Early did an excellent job putting the pieces together on how it could be a feasible scenario.
But is a pure scorer like Beal what’s best for a Sixers team that already has apparent toughness and depth issues? The Sixers’ starting unit played 184 minutes this postseason, the highest of any five-man lineup in the league.
Morey did offer an interesting response when he was asked what the team’s most pressing needs were. He said something about defense before pausing for about five seconds.
“I guess the reason I’m pausing ... is that I often feel like if you go into the offseason with like, ‘we need to fix X,’ you end up closing off potential opportunities and avenues.”
It’s a fair way to look at team building. If the Sixers acquire someone like Beal, who will replace Harris as the starting four does become less of a concern. Still, the team will need to use every available avenue to add the toughness and depth it lacks — whether it adds another star or not.
“I think we’ve had very good success about finding guys,” Morey said. “We’ll have the max resources under the CBA available to us but a lot of it’s going to be finding the right minimum guys, which I think we’ve had good success. I find that to be one of the best parts of the job is once you’ve got your main guys in place, which we do, finding the guys you can fit in. We need to do a better job, but that’s part of [the job].”