2019-20 Team Obituaries: Philadelphia 76ers
In the NBA, only one team can be crowned champion. The other 15 playoff teams that fall short should not be disregarded though. Here at Off the Glass, I will be writing obituaries for the teams that didn't get to hoist the O'Brien Trophy.
It's fitting that the first team to be vanquished was one that began the season with championship aspirations, and slowly became a team no one wanted to watch. The Philadelphia 76ers, coming out the other end of a controversial rebuild, were thought to be one piece away from title contention.
That one player, the guy who can be the bridge between Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, has yet to be found. They shuffled through all kinds of players during the dark days of their rebuild, and that turnstile didn't slow when they started winning, as they could never seem to find satisfactory fits around their two franchise pillars.
Last offseason was particularly tumultuous, as the Sixers replaced Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick with Al Horford and Josh Richardson. They also inked Simmons to a five-year extension with All-NBA incentives, and at the same time signed Tobias Harris to a five-year deal for nearly the max.
The changes were immense, but the talent was even bigger—literally. Philadelphia's initial starting five this season was by far the largest in the league, with the 6'6" Richardson as the shortest member and the 7'0" Embiid as the tallest. They intended to be suffocating defensively and churn out just enough points offensively.
Things didn't go as planned. Horford didn't do well shifting from a pick-and-pop 5 in Boston to a stretch 4 in Philly, hitting only 33.7% of his 4.4 3-point attempts a game (before The Bubble). Harris and Richardson combined for just 606 total attempts beyond the arc all season, a figure Redick nearly reached by himself in 2018-19 (605).
That had a detrimental effect on the Sixers' stars, who both lacked the proper space to thrive. Embiid suffered a dip in production, going from 27.5 points a night in 2018-19 to 23.0 this year. Simmons' production didn't decline, but it didn't improve either, a damning development for the team's only true ball handler.
Defensively they were good, but not great. Embiid was still a world-beater on that end, and Simmons earned All-Defense First Team honors, but everyone else was middling. Part of that is head coach Brett Brown's scheme; he was inflexible with his drop coverage defense in the pick-and-roll, which didn't maximize everyone's strengths. But most of the 2019-20 Sixers were one-position defenders too, making it tough to try different looks.
The Sixers had to be elite on that end to make noise; in the end, three teams in their own conference were better at preventing points (specifically the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics).
Speaking of the Celtics, they were Philly's playoff opponent for the second time in three years. And for the second time in three years, the Celtics won in convincing fashion, this time performing a sweep.
The Sixers tried to put shooters around Embiid in Simmons' absence, but none of them were good at getting the big fella the ball in the post, mitigating what they could do offensively. The Celtics' cavalry of smart, athletic wings made every Philly pass look like a chore, and got plenty of transition buckets by stealing offspeed entry passes from Shake Milton, Richardson and Alec Burks.
The defense had its moments, but Celtics coach Brad Stevens made quick work of Brown's drop coverage. Boston ball handlers were often left open out of a screen, given the freedom to pull up immediately. Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart all got plenty of points out of the pick-and-roll simply by firing away, and the Sixers refused to try different looks to stop it.
So where do they go from here? Harris and Horford are on poor contracts, and neither is a good fit with Simmons and Embiid. The common answer to this question is for the Sixers to trade one of Harris or Horford, attach assets, and get a better fit in return.
That might not be realistic though. Getting what the Sixers really need—a guard who can shoot, dribble and pass—won't be possible if the outgoing package is Horford and picks. The Oklahoma City Thunder can get a better package elsewhere for Chris Paul. Not to mention, Horford does fill a need as Embiid's backup; it's the trio of Embiid, Horford and Simmons that is untenable.
As for Harris, keeping him is more advantageous than trading him. There's no team that would give up a legitimate player to take on the four years and $149 million left on his deal. Just to get off his contract, they would have to come out the other side with a worse team and fewer assets. Not worth the trouble.
So yes, the 76ers are basically locked into their "big four." But Richardson is a very movable contract, as it is effectively expiring ($11.6 million player option for 2021-22) and he's a good player that many teams could use. Zhaire Smith has a team option for $4.9 million in 2021-22, making his salary useful while also acting as a small sweetener.
Would the Brooklyn Nets flip Spencer Dinwiddie for Richardson and a pick? Are the Chicago Bulls down on Zach LaVine enough to take back Richardson, salary filler and picks? The possibilities aren't endless, but they're also not zero.
Through all the coaching changes, roster turnover, and front office upheaval that has happened and will happen, the Philadelphia 76ers still have two constants who determine the future of the franchise: Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. As long as they are in Philly, the Sixers can compete for a championship.