The Sixers are in for an offseason full of questions and doubt. That’s typical for the 29 teams that don’t win the Larry O’Brien trophy.
But the Sixers might be in another stratosphere right now. Doc Rivers is gone and the team’s coaching search has already begun in earnest. James Harden is reportedly (and very unsurprisingly) opting out of his contract and has been linked to the Houston Rockets. On top of all that, reigning MVP Joel Embiid and his teammates have some soul searching to do after getting obliterated by the Boston Celtics in Game 7.
Although in Sixers World, this is all more or less the norm.
President of basketball operations Daryl Morey spoke at the team’s practice facility Wednesday about the team coming up short, the coaching search and the uncertainty surrounding his roster for next season.
Here are the five biggest takeaways.
What went wrong and who’s really to blame?
Many of you were likely suffering a sleepless night or two pondering how the Sixers went from being five minutes away from the Eastern Conference Finals to getting steamrolled in Game 7. Morey said he’s been running into fans in Center City who have been “giving [him] the business.” When a team continues to fall short, everyone is bound to start taking heat.
To his credit, Morey was accountable, but didn’t agree with the notion that the team hasn’t progressed under his watch.
“I think No. 1, me,” Morey said when asked who is most responsible for the team falling short. “I mean, it is a collective effort, but I was brought in for a reason, just like Coach Rivers was. So I would put it on myself first. I don’t accept that we haven’t advanced. I do think we’re a much better team than we were the prior year or the year before that. We’ve set sort of an arbitrary line [with making it past the second round] that I understand. Obviously, to win the championship, you have to make it further than the second round, so I understand the math of that.
“But I would say there’s been a lot of progress within that. Maxey taking big steps forward; Joel progressing to the MVP; I think James Harden is better than the second-best player we’ve had. This year, we lost to a heck of a team in the Boston Celtics, who have a very good chance to go on to win the championship. So progress is there, in my opinion. I promise you next year, if we make the conference finals but fall short, [the media] will just be writing how we’ve never made the Finals. Look, our goal is to win the championship. It’s not the make the second round or third round, so I would understand that as well.”
The team Morey put together features two stars in Embiid and Harden. As we know, both players struggled to close Game 6 and throughout Game 7. When players don’t produce — especially Harden, who Morey paid a big price for — it often comes back to the executive that acquired them.
Morey met with both players and said they were both committed to being better.
“I’ve had discussions with all our players since the season ended,” he said. “Those are hard discussions. … It’s still very hard for them to process things, even a day or two later. But 100 percent. They had a mirror out and they weren’t blaming anyone besides how they could be better. And specifically, multiple players were like, ‘I need to work on this and that in my game.’ So it was a very positive mental approach that I thought everyone was taking — ownership with what they need to do better.”
Lost in the emotion of a cataclysmic Game 7 loss is that the Sixers weren’t far off from advancing to the conference finals for the first time since 2001. After winning a huge Game 5 on the road, the Sixers held an 83-81 lead at home late in the fourth quarter of Game 6. Their offense cratered, Jayson Tatum found his stroke and that was that.
It does make you wonder, if any of those missed shots in the fourth fall and Rivers gets the team beyond the second round, is he still the head coach?
“I don’t like to totally talk in theoreticals,” Morey said. “I wasn’t here when Doc came in, but I know the goal was to get to the conference finals or further — really, to win the championship. But that’s also the goal given to me. So yeah, one more win is something that would obviously have been a very positive thing. And hopefully, it would’ve been nine more wins, if I can do the math.”
Doc Rivers’ firing and the next head coach
Of course Morey didn’t divulge the exact reasons for letting Rivers go. He pushed back on the idea of it being because of a poor relationship between Doc and Harden. When describing what the team is looking for in it’s next head coach, Morey even admitted that he believes Rivers possessed those qualities.
Morey said that “fit” was the biggest reason for a change.
“If you look at players, unless you take some of the all-time greats — Michael Jordan or whatever, who are a 10 on almost every scale — players, coaches, front office, you have strengths across different things,” Morey said. “So sometimes it’s a fit thing. It’s like, ‘We need a little more of this and a little less of that.’ It’s not any specific, ‘We need X.’ With the new coach and the mix of strengths that they have, how are they going to work with the mix of strengths of our players? And we feel like this was the right decision to move forward.”
When news broke that Rivers was let go, a reported list of six candidates to replace him emerged. Aside from Sixers assistant coach Sam Cassell, they were all established NBA head coaches.
But Morey didn’t view that as a “requirement.” In fact, he pushed back on the notion that the team has any specific requirements it’s looking for in its next coach.
“I think when you get into requirements, you miss opportunities,” he said. “But I will say we have a roster ready to win. Obviously, we’ve been very successful — came up just short of our goals. I think we have an MVP-level player. And I do think, if you look at the history of the NBA it’s challenging to walk into that as a first-time NBA head coach. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t worked. For every rule, there are solid counterexamples.
“So we’re not going to go in with a prescription or proscription, but we’re looking for someone who brings leadership and accountability; someone who is good at tactics; someone who has great relationships with his star players; someone who’s good at recruiting star players and that players want to play for; someone who builds a great organization.”
Morey said several candidates have already reached out to the organization about the opening — and it makes sense. Despite the way the Sixers’ season ended and the roster uncertainty they face, this is still an attractive job.
James Harden’s future
Morey referred to Harden’s return as “Scenario A.” So, it appears the ball is totally in Harden’s court for now.
“We can’t have those discussions yet, but we are interested in bringing him back,” Morey said.
Will Harden return to Houston where he was a king and cash out on the money he’s sacrificed over the last couple seasons? Or does he return to the Sixers where he has unfinished business playing alongside Embiid?
Unsurprisingly, Morey is ready for whichever way it goes.
“We have to plan for every scenario,” He said. “[Harden] has the option to be a free agent, and so we have to plan for all those scenarios. We feel like that’s a scenario where we can continue to move forward. Look, we have to remember there’s like 26 teams that would rather have our roster. We’re starting with the MVP of the league. The draft lottery yesterday was hoping to get a top pick to hope that player becomes as good as the MVP of the league.
“So we start in a great start and yeah, we have a lot of free agents, so we’re going to lose some free agents. There’s some key ones we’d like to bring back. But we feel good about the alternate scenarios as well. Scenario A would be to bring James back. Scenario B, if he’s not back, will be we’ll have to get creative. And we feel good about the tools available to us if that happens.”
Considering the Sixers don’t have a ton to work with from a draft pick standpoint or any cap space to use in free agency, it would be interesting to see what “the tools available” would be if Harden does walk.
Joel Embiid’s need for improvement
Embiid was the MVP and the award was well deserved. He also played poorly while nursing an LCL sprain in his knee during some of the most critical minutes of his career this postseason.
Both things can be true.
A new coach will hopefully bring a fresh perspective on how best to use Embiid and combat the aggressive double and triple teams he sees, but it’s going to fall on Embiid as well. Morey said that’s already understood.
“That was a big conversation with Joel — again, led by Joel, to his credit,” Morey said. “Working through, ‘Hey, how can I make sure I can still get to my spots? How can I make sure that when they’re trying to take this away, I have a counter?’ Look, it’s something that we — and I’ll just put it on myself — we need to do a better job of during the season.”
Over his time with Rivers, Embiid did improve in that regard. The decision to move him to the nail and out of the post allowed Embiid to see where the double teams were coming from. It’s what helped him reach an MVP level.
So naturally, Embiid was not thrilled to find out the team was moving on the veteran coach.
“They had a strong relationship,” Morey said. “I think it’s natural to be very close with the people in the locker room. He was very close with Coach Rivers and yeah, he was shocked about the change. It’s my job to help convince him that the new coach is someone he’ll have a great relationship with as well.”
This will be an intriguing storyline to watch when the Sixers hire their next coach.
On how he’ll build the roster for 2023-24
Last offseason the Sixers had obvious player personnel goals: get tougher and add more two-way players. Mission accomplished when it comes to P.J. Tucker and De’Anthony Melton. Really, depth wasn’t an issue during this postseason. Even Paul Reed seemed to solve the perpetual backup center woes.
But Reed will hit restricted free agency this summer. Georges Niang, Shake Milton and Jalen McDaniels will all be unrestricted. Again, what Harden does will play a part in how everything goes down, but once again Morey will need to get creative to find pieces that fit.
“I think, having been in this business for a long time, when you lose, there’s going to be something to point to,” he said. “But really, the problem we have … is one more game. We didn’t outscore the opposition by one point more one more time in the second round. So at the end of the day, it’s a whole mix of players, toughness, shotmaking, rebounding, offense, transition. It’s a big mix of that, and only a couple of players in the league push all the buttons across all those elements. And so you can add toughness, but maybe you have less off-the-ball movement. So it’s a mix, and it’s my job and the front office’s job to make sure that mix is as a good as possible.”