There is an extensive, diverse list of reasons why the Sixers have not made it past the second round of the playoffs since the 2000-01 season, the year they won 56 regular-season games, beat Reggie Miller's Pacers and won two dramatic, seven-game series to reach that moment at Staples Center when Allen Iverson sunk a corner jumper over Tyronn Lue and had the temerity to step right over him.
If we focus exclusively on the Brett Brown era, there’s no use in placing scrutiny on Brown in terms of immediate aspirations to make a deep playoff run until the 2017-18 season. That was the first year Joel Embiid was healthy for the majority of the season and the first time Process conductor Sam Hinkie’s vision seriously transitioned into the phase of, “OK, these guys are good now.” The excuse of age — Embiid had turned 24 years old in March and Simmons was a 21-year-old rookie — was perhaps the best of several legitimate ones for the team’s five-game series loss to the Celtics.
Embiid has been an All-Star starter the past two years, while Simmons has now played two full NBA seasons. They’re the two youngest players in a starting lineup that also includes Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris and Al Horford, who are entering their fifth, ninth and 13th seasons, respectively. Age is no longer a good excuse.
Last season for the Sixers ended in Game 7 of the second round, with a shot that bounced four times on the rim before dropping through, released from the hands of a brilliant player who averaged 34.7 points and 9.9 rebounds in those seven games, over the outstretched arm of Embiid, who was never near his peak health or condition at any point in the series.
According to Embiid, he’s lost 20 pounds in the offseason, and the Sixers say there will be “daily, strategic, thoughtful consultation” with him to manage his body. This year should not resemble last season, when the approach to load management was not especially cautious early in the year and Embiid played in 54 of the Sixers’ first 58 games before a lingering knee problem entered the picture. For now, the Sixers’ injury report is empty ahead of Wednesday night’s regular-season opener vs. the Celtics.
The Sixers began the 2018-19 season with Embiid and Simmons joined by Markelle Fultz, Dario Saric and Robert Covington in the starting lineup. By February, they’d swapped those three starters for JJ Redick, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, which is a substantial upgrade on paper. In practice, the duration of a typical college basketball season wasn’t enough time for all the pieces involved to determine the right roles and become comfortable with them.
“I just wanted to adapt,” Harris said in July. “Not to be complaining about comfort or whatnot. I just wanted to be that guy who puts everything to the side and it’s about winning. Was that hard for me? Not hard for me with who I am, but for my own game, it was hard.”
While there may very well be significant in-season acquisitions to come again, it would be very surprising if they involved any of the starters. Insufficient opportunity to gel is no longer a good excuse.
The Sixers were poor without Embiid last season, with a net rating better than the Warriors’ when he was on the court (plus-7.6), a net rating worse than the Wizards’ when he was off it (minus-3.5), and an 8-10 record in games he sat. The presence of Horford as a backup center — and Kyle O’Quinn, for that matter — means a desperate reliance on Embiid is no longer a good excuse.
Brown hasn’t shied away from sharing his honest view of the Sixers’ potential in the weeks leading up to the regular season.
“We have the capability of winning an NBA championship,” he said a month ago at his annual "Coach the Coaches" clinic. “We do. And I own that.”
There are, of course, excellent explanations for why the Sixers might fall short. The Milwaukee Bucks are fresh off a 60-win season and still have Giannis Antetokounmpo, the MVP; outside shooting could be a fatal flaw; Horford and Harris might be overextended with perimeter defense; injuries could hit.
All of that said, there’s a prevailing feeling around the team, especially in the context of Kawhi Leonard’s move to the Western Conference, that this is by far Brown’s best chance yet to reach the NBA Finals, or at least to advance beyond the second round.
It’s a long time coming,” he said Monday. "I’m so numb to so much nowadays. I’ve lived a privileged life in Philadelphia. … Every one of our periods together has been very different. But I feel like it’s an incremental increase in talent, and with that comes expectation and privilege and responsibility.
“But it’s early days. And I’ve said it before and I’ll say it many, many times in front of you all — talent does not trump time. What does that mean? I feel like I know what it means. We’ve gotta stay sane. Stay sane and try to grow this thing where we can really feel responsible that we’ve delivered something as perfect as we can make it on April 15. That’s the excitement and responsibility I feel.
Possible excuses will likely arise for the Sixers during the 2019-20 season. The sense here is that this team should be able to handle them.
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