Through titles and dark moments, Chris Bosh changed the NBA

Through titles and dark moments, Chris Bosh changed the NBA

Chris Bosh wanted to pick Kevin Garnett’s brain. 

It was the 2010 All-Star Game in Bosh’s hometown of Dallas. The East All-Star locker room was quiet and the superstars were lacing up. Garnett, the 33-year-old All-Star starter and NBA champion with the Boston Celtics, wasn’t in the heat of battle, spitting obscenities at Bosh. For the moment, Garnett and Bosh were anointed allies in the pregame locker room, a most-sacred place in sport.

“At the time, I wasn’t a threat,” Bosh tells me during an hour-long conversation, “so we could talk.”

This was the time and place, Bosh thought. Older veterans had turned down Bosh’s inquiries before -- “I won’t tell you who” -- but in that Dallas locker room, Garnett seemed open to talk, not smack, but life.

So Bosh went for it.

How did you know it was time to leave Minnesota?

Bosh knew the question might make him seem small and vulnerable, like he didn’t have all the answers. This was his fifth All-Star Game and the loud, dreadlocked big man was averaging 24.4 points and 11.4 rebounds for the Toronto Raptors. Didn’t he have it all figured out? Truth is, he didn’t. His mind was a mess. Free agency was coming up and he didn’t know what to do. 

The Raptors had one winning season in Bosh’s seven years. Garnett had won a title in his first year with Boston only 20 months prior and two of Bosh’s peers from the 2003 draft class -- LeBron James and Dwyane Wade -- had already reached the NBA Finals. Bosh felt isolated in Toronto and hungry for more, something bigger. 

“Everytime I come here [to All-Star], I am always looking at two or three guys from the top team in the East, or the top two or three teams in the East,” Bosh recalls. “Around that time, there was always this buzz and excitement, like, ‘Are you guys going to win it? Who’s gonna win it?’ And me … it was just like … I’m just here.”

Didn’t KG feel that in Minny? 

Garnett did not blast him for asking. Instead, he offered some sage advice that, months later, would seal the deal for Bosh to go to Miami.

“You want to play with people who can take pressure off you, that way you don’t have to worry about other things,” Bosh remembers Garnett telling him. “You can just play basketball.”

Bosh didn’t decide to leave Toronto right then and there. But the conversation with Garnett gave him strength in knowing that other stars too had felt this weight, this stress, this anxiety. He wasn’t alone.

Ahead of his jersey retirement ceremony with the Miami Heat on Tuesday, March 26, Bosh is sitting in the garage of his Miami home, reminiscing and thinking about how Miami’s Big Three -- he, James and Wade -- helped launch the era of player empowerment, where stars switching teams in free agency is commonplace. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard have all engineered exits in recent years, making it known they’d like to take their talents -- and their careers -- elsewhere.

“It’s huge,” Bosh says of the trio’s pioneering role. “A lot of people don’t like it, that’s the funniest part.”

Don’t like what?

“An athlete with brains.”

When we talk about Bosh’s place in NBA history, this is where it should begin: Humanizing the star.

* * *

Everything changed after Bosh and James joined Wade in Miami.

NBA players controlling their own destiny in free agency was and is a worthy endeavor. But when they take matters into their own hands to pursue a championship, the scrutiny you’ll face will be magnified beyond anything you’ve experienced before.

As one third of one of the most famous trios in the history of professional sports, Bosh for the first time found himself in the fishbowl, surrounded by a storm of criticism and high expectations.

On ESPN, he was nicknamed “Bosh Spice” by Skip Bayless, a misogynistic barb that Bosh would later confront Bayless about on “First Take.” The Big Three were often called the Big Two-and-a-half. And when Bosh, in a

moment of candidness, said that Heat players wanted to “chill” on off days while coach Erik Spoelstra wanted to work, it became a national scandal. That particular controversy became the third installment in Bleacher Report’s running series headlined “Everybody Hates Chris.”

And all of that was before Bosh sobbed on national television.

It happened in the moments directly following Game 6 of the 2011 NBA Finals. As the Dallas Mavericks celebrated the franchise’s first NBA title on Miami’s homecourt, the Heat retreated to lick their wounds following a turbulent first season together. An exhausted Bosh was held up on the walk to the locker room by teammates Erick Dampier and Wade. Then, overcome by emotion, Bosh collapsed to the red carpet, sunken on his elbows and knees, and cried.

The intensely personal moment was broadcast to the millions watching. Bosh knew it would haunt him, but it was too late.

“I looked up and saw the camera right there,” Bosh remembers. “And I was like, awww, they’re going to kill me.”

Bosh changed again after that Finals defeat, after that moment of despair was shared around the world. The double standard for the pro athlete was laid bare to him. Sports are supposed to mean something to pro athletes, but not enough that it makes you weep. Do everything you can to win a championship, but only if it’s on management’s terms, not your own. Be authentic, but only if it fits neatly within the carved-out narrative.

“That’s one of the things I had to learn, was to just be myself,” Bosh says. “Just going through that process, just really seeing the different levels and different flavors of people’s reactions and their opinions. It gave me confidence just to say, ‘Alright, damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I’m just going to be myself. And that’s great enough.’ It’s about what you do on the court and it’s not about pleasing everybody.”

It’s a hard lesson to learn. Even now, Bosh says he wishes he had just kept his emotions in check for just for a few more steps until he let it all out in the privacy of the locker room. Instead, his emotion became something of a punchline.

No matter how hard he tried to block out the noise on social media and on TV, Bosh admits, that in his darkest moments he would slink back and listen to it all. In Game 1 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Indiana Pacers, Bosh limped off the floor with an abductor muscle strain, sidelining him indefinitely in the middle of their redemption tour. The injury forced him to stay home when the team went on the road to Indiana. 

Bosh watched the series unravel just like the rest of the basketball world.

“We go in and we lose Game 3 in Indiana and I’m just watching,” Bosh says. “I’m supposed to be ready to play in two and a half weeks. I can’t walk. We go down 2-1 on the road. Oh, D-Wade was awful that game. We just had a stinker.”

During Game 3, cameras caught Wade and Spoelstra having to be separated on the sidelines during a heated exchange. Lance Stephenson infamously gave a choke sign to LeBron after the Heat star missed a technical free throw. The Heatles were crashing and Bosh felt helpless. In the throes of his funk, he flipped on ESPN and watched what they said about him and the Heat. It drove him deeper into despair, so much so that he just about wanted to quit. Until his wife, Adrienne, pulled him out of it.

“My mistake was listening to the TV,” Bosh says. “I was listening and it just got in here [pointing to his head] and I pretty much gave up. I pretty much gave up and my wife was like nuh-uh-uhh.”

In the regular season, he and his wife had watched DVDs of NBA Classics that told the story of champions overcoming adversity. Bosh told his wife to pay attention because there would be times of adversity. 

Don’t get too down, Adrienne. 

And of course, the tables turned in the playoffs. Adrienne delivered the pep talk, telling Chris, hey, the lows are part of the journey.
 
“I’m like, ‘Ah I did say that?’,” Bosh recalls telling her. “I guess I’m gonna have to pull myself together.”

Bosh and the Heat turned adversity into an opportunity. Rather than start two traditional bigs against Indiana’s formidable frontcourt of David West and Roy Hibbert, Spoelstra decided to go small and start Shane Battier at the power forward position. The switch was something Spoelstra had thought about doing in the series anyway, but Bosh’s injury forced his hand. With Battier and James alternating as the power forward, the Heat won the next three games to earn a spot in the East Finals.

The opponent? Garnett and the Boston Celtics. After three weeks of arduous rehab and emotional turmoil, Bosh returned to the lineup in Game 5, coming off the bench for just 14 minutes. The Heat lost, going down 3-2 in the series, as Garnett scored 26 points to Bosh’s nine. And it seemed like as good a time as any to give up.

Instead, with Bosh manning the center spot -- a position he never envisioned he’d play on a winning team -- the Heat went on to win six of the next seven games en route to a 2012 Finals win over Oklahoma City. After losing that Game 5 against Boston, Bosh averaged 14.1 points and 8.7 rebounds with a plus-48 in the plus-minus column.

Bosh’s presence changed everything. In Game 7 of the conference finals against Garnett, Bosh made 3-of-4 3-pointers, totaling 19 points and eight rebounds. In the Finals, Bosh sliding over to the five next to Shane Battier and James was a game-changer. Bosh discovered his 3-point shot and a new position. The NBA would never be the same.

* * * 

Bosh’s career went on to reach towering heights. The Heat defended their 2012 championship by winning 27 straight games during the 2012-13 regular season and later took down the San Antonio Spurs in one of the most memorable Finals in NBA history. Bosh was at the center of it all, grabbing perhaps the biggest rebound in franchise history and blocking the Spurs’ final attempt. No one was calling him Bosh Spice anymore.

But a rocky three-peat quest in 2013-14 ended all those good vibes. James left in the summer of 2014 after the Spurs took their revenge. Bosh re-upped with a five-year, $118 million max contract but hit the dark place once again. In 2015, doctors found a blood clot in Bosh’s lungs that ended his season at the All-Star break. A year later, blood clots returned, this time in his calf, ending his season prematurely once again. A year ago, Bosh was still trying desperately to return to an NBA that now appeared tailor-made in his image.

But after hearing so many no’s from doctors and spending days without teams returning phone calls, Bosh decided to hang it up for good in recent months. On his terms.

“You know, you have to deal with that stuff,” Bosh says. “Just a bunch of thoughts, a bunch of dark stuff, just comes in and pops in and then ‘Yo, where’s this coming from?’ You deal with it.”

It’s tough for Bosh not to think about what might have been. As pace-and-space (a term coined by Spoelstra) and the 3-point shot gained in popularity, and importance, more and more big men have followed the blueprint Bosh helped pioneer in Miami. By the end of his time in Miami, Bosh was averaging 4.2 3-point attempts per game, seventh most among big men. Now, 18 big men shoot that many in 2018-19, underscored by Bucks center Brook Lopez attempting more than six 3-pointers a night for the East’s best team.

“That was one of the things I used to really have trouble with last year watching the game,” Bosh says. “I had to bounce back from that. I was in a really dark place, trying to rebound from that, to be honest with you.”

It’s understandable. If Bosh’s blood clots hadn’t forced him out of the league, he could’ve entered this summer as a free agent, alongside the likes of Durant, Irving, Leonard and Butler -- the same players he unknowingly helped all those years ago. It’s a fact that has haunted him to this day.

It still hurts, but Bosh isn’t afraid to talk about that now. This is about being himself.

“I’m happy for the guys,” Bosh says. “I’m happy to look back and even if people don’t know, to say, hey, you know what, I had a little bit to do with changing the league.”

Bosh changed the game off the court, too. I ask him, does Durant leave OKC if Bosh and the Big Three don’t choose to team up in 2010?

“No,” Bosh says now. “That put pressure on him.” 

Earlier in March, Durant told NBC Sports Bay Area’s Kerith Burke that basketball “will never fulfill me.” It’s a sentiment that Bosh agrees with. Bosh thought he’d be fulfilled when he became an All-Star. That wasn’t enough. A championship? Not enough. Two championships? Still not fulfilled. 

“There’s more [to life],” Bosh says. “If you’re fulfilled, then pretty much just give up on life and die after that, right? If you’re fulfilled? That’s a great statement that he made. I think it’s telling people as well, this is just my interpretation, but it’s like, ‘Yo, chill’ because everybody puts the onus on that championship. It’s not going to fulfill you. And that’s one of the big secrets about it.”

For Bosh, dark places came after titles, too. You strive to get that high again, like another hit of a drug. But basketball can be cruel. 

“People on the outside looking in might say if you win a championship, it’s all good; it’s not,” Bosh says. “You still have a long life to live. When you win a championship, it just means a bigger X on your back.”

* * * 

Bosh heard commissioner Adam Silver’s comments to The Ringer’s Bill Simmons at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. 

“We are living in a time of anxiety,” Silver said. “I think it’s a direct result of social media. A lot of players are unhappy.”

Bosh last played in 2016, but he’s stunned by how rare it is that young players consult him about navigating the fishbowl. Social media has connected just about every star, but they’re feeling as disconnected as ever.

“Nobody reaches out,” Bosh says. “Guys don’t want knowledge. Nobody has come to me, and said, ‘Hey, man how’d you do that thing?’ It’s cool. I’m not putting pressure on anybody. But me coming up as a player, one of the most important things was to seek knowledge, even if people turn you away. I got turned away, believe it or not.”

That curiosity and thirst for knowledge drove Bosh to seek Garnett’s counsel at the 2010 All-Star game and setting the wheels of multiple championships and a jersey retirement in motion.

“And I do get it, we do live in an age of anxiety,” Bosh says. “But that’s because everybody cares about what everybody thinks. I do not care. As long as it’s positive, I’m not going to be a jerk, but if you don’t have anything good to say, I’m really not going to listen to it.”

Bosh is the first to admit that blocking out the noise and criticism isn’t easy. He used to scroll Twitter and Instagram to seek validation, to hear people talking about him, to make him feel relevant, to make him feel alive. But he doesn’t go there anymore. In down times, he talks to his wife and family instead, his foundation. Social media and 24-7 media became a toxic place, a landmine for which Bosh learned to avoid.
     
“It took a while to get there,” Bosh says. “It’s exciting at first, but then after a while … it’s like what the Lakers are experiencing this year. I’m sure last year they were lovable because nobody really expected things from them. But then you get the expectations and it changes. These same talk shows you’re getting killed all of a sudden. Now you’re getting hate tweets. People on Instagram are leaving nasty comments.”

“But you can’t worry about that. It’s hard not to, but what’s your alternative? The fact that the commissioner was even talking about happiness was crazy. Adam [Silver], just the fact that he even felt compelled to say something about that, which is true. You see guys competing for championships and they’re not happy. It’s not a happy time to be honest with you. A huge part of it is knowing, first, sucking it up, and then knowing that a championship is not going to complete me as a person as an athlete or as a public figure.”

Now, ahead of his jersey retirement, Bosh is at peace with his career. Bosh is eligible to be in the Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2021 along with Garnett, Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant, making it likely the best class ever. According to a Basketball-Reference.com algorithm, Bosh’s Hall of Fame probability stands at 99.5 percent. Without his locker room talk that led to career autonomy and two championships, who knows whether Bosh would’ve reached these heights.

And when the Heat raise his jersey into the rafters on Tuesday, Bosh insists there will be no thought of dark places.

“All highs.”

Watch Haberstroh's full sitdown with Bosh here.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Who will Bulls target after Jim Boylen's firing?

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NBC Sports

Who will Bulls target after Jim Boylen's firing?

On a cold Chicago night in late February, the Bulls were down 10 with 30 seconds to go, moments away from their eighth loss in a row. It was the first night of a back-to-back and many fans had begun shuffling toward the United Center exits. Just about everyone wanted to go home.
 
Except for Jim Boylen. The 55-year-old head coach, who was relieved of his duties as Bulls head coach on Friday after two losing seasons, did something in that moment that coaches rarely do in this hopeless situation: Boylen called a timeout. 
 
The Bulls had a 0.01 percent win probability, according to play-by-play data provided by analytics site Inpredictable.com. No matter what Boylen drew up on the whiteboard, there is no magical 10-point play that could have tied the game. Nonetheless, Boylen sought the opportunity to earn his whiteboard miles.
 
The Bulls took the ball out on a sideline out-of-bounds play. It didn’t work as planned. Zach LaVine was the first option and called for the ball after curling around a pindown screen and never got the pass from Ryan Arcidiacono. Just before a five-second violation would be called, Arcidiacono flipped the ball to rookie Daniel Gafford who tossed the ball back to Arcidiacono, who was inexplicably fouled on the pass by the Suns’ Kelly Oubre.
 
After Arcidiacono made two free throws, the Suns’ Devin Booker dribbled to halfcourt where he held the ball for 20 seconds and let the shot clock expire. The players on the court waved the white flag. It was finally time to go home. 
 
On the other side of the court, LaVine could be seen lifting up his jersey to cover his mouth as he talked to the Suns’ point guard Ricky Rubio. LaVine didn’t want cameras to pick up what he was saying. The Bulls would lose by eight.
 
When asked about Boylen’s late-game timeout after the game, LaVine said, “That’s what he do, man. I don’t know what to tell you. I’m not the coach.”
 
Of all the things that Boylen will be remembered for -- the player-led mutiny one week into his tenure, the practice push-ups, the custom time clock to punch in and out of work -- his enduring legacy around the league will be the steady stream of hopeless timeouts at end of games.
 
It is perhaps the most tangible way that a coach can assert their authority over players. Instead of letting time expire, hit the showers and move on, Boylen liked to halt everything and huddle up one last time.
 
Old-school coaching purists might find this an admirable trait but to most around the league this was Boylen establishing himself as a dinosaur in a bygone era.
 
After that game in February, I worked with Inpredictable.com to find out how many times a coach called a fourth-quarter timeout with 0.1% or lower odds to win the game. The Bulls led the league with 29. No other team was higher than 24. 
 
Another time, on Super Bowl Sunday in Toronto, Boylen called a timeout with just over one minute left with the Bulls down 25 points. On the Raptors broadcast, announcer Jack Armstrong went viral for his on-air rant: “Jim Boylen, what are you doing? What strategy are you taking? It’s a 25-point blowout, there’s a minute and four left, it’s Super Bowl Sunday. I want to get out of here.”
 
Bulls reporters asked Boylen about the Super Bowl timeout. The coach said he wanted to get two-way player Adam Mokoka some experience with an after timeout (ATO) play. 
 
Moments like these add up over time and can be grating for players making 10 times Boylen’s salary. It had obviously reached a breaking point as the Bulls announced on Friday that they would part ways with Boylen, who had previous stints with five teams as an assistant coach before getting promoted to replace former Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg in 2018. Boylen leaves with a 39-84 (.317) record, the second-worst win percentage for a full-time Bulls head coach, ahead of Tim Floyd (.205).
 
The Hail Mary timeouts aren’t the only reason Boylen was fired. It’s common practice in the NBA for new front office regimes to make their own head coaching hire. More recently, one of the first moves for newly-minted New York Knicks president Leon Rose was to hire former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau and let go of interim head coach Mike Miller.
 
While it’s true that New Orleans Pelicans president of basketball operations David Griffin didn’t part ways with Alvin Gentry when Griffin took over the reigns in New Orleans, there was a reason for that. Griffin and Gentry had previously worked together in Phoenix for many years and had built a strong relationship. Alternatively, Bulls president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas and Boylen have no such history.
 
In the four months they’ve worked together in a pandemic, Karnisovas apparently learned enough and was ready to move on. The timing of the Boylen news is curious on some levels. Why now? Why did Karnisovas and the Bulls brass wait four months to make the call? The easy answer is that the Bulls were in no rush, considering the league was shut down in a pandemic and the Bulls may not play a game for another several months.

But there’s a better explanation for the timing of Friday’s news. With the regular season wrapping up on Friday, the Bulls are wise to open up a vacancy in case current head coaches around the league become coaching free agents. Or, perhaps more important in Chicago’s case, letting Boylen walk now allows them to chase highly-coveted assistant coaches before they are promoted into newly-created vacancies.
 
Friday’s news is more of an indication that they’re coveting an assistant coach ripe for a promotion rather than a coaching candidate that is a free agent.
 
The biggest name to watch is Ime Udoka. Currently the Philadelphia 76ers’ top assistant coach under head coach Brett Brown, Udoka has familiarity with new Bulls general manager Marc Eversley while Eversley was an executive with the Sixers and carries a strong reputation around the league 
 
Over the next few weeks, league insiders are keeping an eye on the situation in Philadelphia as the Sixers have underwhelmed for the second straight season. If the short-handed Sixers lose in the first round, Udoka could be in line for a promotion with the Sixers.
 
The Sixers may not want another coach to leave their organization. Brown’s top assistant job has been a springboard to head-coaching positions throughout the NBA. Houston’s Mike D’Antoni, Phoenix’s Monty Williams and Atlanta’s Lloyd Pierce’s last stops before their current gigs was the bench in Philly. (Both Udoka and Brown are products of Gregg Popovich’s coaching tree. Before Philadelphia, Udoka served under Popovich as an assistant coach for seven years.)
 
There’s lots of talk around the league connecting Adrian Griffin to Chicago’s new vacancy. Earlier this week, the former NBA player and Toronto’s top assistant coach took over as the Raptors’ head coach on Wednesday to fill in for Nick Nurse who took the night off. 
 
Griffin has clear ties to the Bulls as a former assistant coach under Tom Thibodeau and Karnisovas’ teammate at Seton Hall. Interestingly enough, the Raptors got Griffin his first head-coaching win against, of all teams, Udoka’s Sixers, winning 125-121.
 
But league chatter about Griffin is also centered on allegations recently made by his ex-wife, which reached social media ahead of his one-game promotion. On Thursday, Griffin released a statement through the Raptors denying the claims. Griffin’s oldest daughter posted on social media in support of her father as did his son Alan, a college basketball player at Illinois. 
 
The Bulls could also focus their pursuit on Darvin Ham, the top assistant for the NBA’s best team in Milwaukee. The former NBA player has spent seven years on Mike Budenholzer’s staff in Atlanta and is currently on the top-seeded Bucks. Stephen Silas, the longtime assistant coach who is currently the coordinator for the Dallas Mavericks’ all-time leading offense, is another name to know.
 
Friday’s news may also hint that the Bulls are intrigued by former Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson and want to get a headstart before the 53-year-old is interviewed for other soon-to-be-open positions. 
 
Atkinson’s tenure in Brooklyn rebuilding the Nets into a playoff team may be attractive to the Bulls. But if the Bulls really wanted Atkinson, wouldn't it be prudent to hire him away before the coaching carousel shifts into high gear and demand for his services go up? 
 
It’s more likely that the Bulls go the up-and-comer route. Making a play for a highly-coveted assistant coach like Udoka or Griffin would also fall in line with ownership’s clear preference for greener talent rather than perhaps shinier, established names. The last three coaching hires -- Boylen, Hoiberg and Thibodeau -- have been first-time head coaches in the NBA.
 
An up-and-comer hire would also be consistent with the front office overhaul. In March, NBC Sports Chicago's Bulls Insider K.C. Johnson reported that the Bulls had performed due diligence on Oklahoma City Thunder’s Sam Presti and Raptors’ Masai Ujiri. The Bulls -- known for not opening the wallet to hire the biggest name on the market -- went with a lesser-known name in Karnisovas. And it’s worth noting that both Karnisovas and Eversley were elevated to their positions for the first time in their careers.
 
These are unprecedented times. Instead of letting Boylen’s tenure drag on any longer, Chicago decided time was no longer on its side. With the clock on the season ticking down and new vacancies competing with their own, the Bulls front office huddled up and decided to draw up a new play. It’s a strategy the team hopes will lead to better results than Boylen’s last-second huddles did.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Ben Simmons' injury puts Sixers at a crossroads

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NBC Sports

Ben Simmons' injury puts Sixers at a crossroads

Global pandemic aside, this was not the season the Philadelphia 76ers expected in 2019-20. On Monday, Ben Simmons reportedly underwent surgery in Philadelphia to remove a loose body from his left knee, all but ending his season. The Sixers are locked into the No. 6 seed in the East with Joel Embiid already dealing with a sore left ankle. 

Before this season, ESPN pegged the new-look Sixers as more likely to win the 2020 NBA Finals than the Los Angeles Lakers. In early October, Vegas placed their over/under at 54.5 wins, the Sixers’ most bullish rating in decades. Instead, they have the win percentage of a 48-win team and no Simmons to rescue their playoff hopes.

Now, the 76ers have some decisions to make. With the title out of reach, should they play Embiid the rest of the way or shut him down? If Embiid plays, should Al Horford replace Simmons’ spot in the lineup or will that push Embiid out of his comfort zone? 

But the bigger question looming beyond this season is: Why is the Simmons-Embiid era trending in the wrong direction?

With the playoffs around the corner, let’s dive into one of the great mysteries in the NBA.

Embiid’s dilemma: to play or not to play?

This was supposed to be Embiid’s postseason of redemption. After several bounces on the rim at the end of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Embiid and the Sixers’ 2018-19 season ended at the hands of the eventual NBA champion Toronto Raptors. The Sixers were right there.

And Embiid wasn’t even himself. Laboring through a bothersome left knee injury that limited him throughout the season, Embiid shot just 42.8 percent from the floor last postseason and missed a game in the Brooklyn series dealing with the leg issue. A healthy Embiid in the postseason meant the sky was the limit for the Sixers. It didn't come to fruition in 2019.

As a result, last offseason the Sixers front office shook things up and decided to bolster the backcourt to help keep Embiid fresh and healthy. They signed former Celtics big man Al Horford to a four-year, $109- million contract and traded Butler for Josh Richardson. But after last year’s heartbreaking loss to the Raptors, Embiid’s redemption tour hasn’t gone smoothly. On The Old Man & The Three podcast with his former teammate JJ Redick, which was recorded before Simmons’ injury, Embiid expressed that he hadn’t been in the groove this season.

“I won’t lie, during this season, I was not myself,” Embiid said. “I was not there. Like, I just wasn’t comfortable. The offense wasn’t the same. The basketball wasn’t the same to me. The way things happened last summer, it was just so frustrating. I was just mad at the whole world and I was just like, eh, whatever.”

Despite that discomfort, Embiid still thought the Sixers could take home the Larry O’Brien trophy this year.

“But I still believe,” Embiid added. “We’ve got a big chance to make it happen. We can win the whole thing.”

With Simmons sidelined, the calculus has inevitably changed. Now, the question becomes whether the unlikely reward of a deep playoff run is worth the risk of Embiid getting seriously hurt. The 7-foot center has already missed 22 games this season dealing with various injuries and we’ve already seen major injuries befall Simmons (patella subluxation), Memphis’ Jaren Jackson Jr. (torn meniscus) and Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac (torn ACL). 

The good news is that injuries haven’t spiked beyond the norm in the Orlando bubble, according to injury tracking by InStreetClothes.com’s Jeff Stotts. Some of that might be due to the recent aggressive resting strategies by teams as they gear up for the playoffs. Unfortunately, in the opening minutes of the second game of Simmons’ absence, Embiid landed awkwardly on the stanchion and hurt his left ankle, ending his night. Embiid’s sore ankle kept him out of Tuesday’s game ahead of Wednesday’s juicy matchup against the Raptors, a game in which Embiid only played 14 minutes.

It’d be understandable if the Sixers decide to exercise caution with their franchise pillar and keep Embiid sidelined with his sore ankle and various ailments. This wasn’t the Sixers’ year, why risk it? But if the Phoenix Suns, Brooklyn Nets and Indiana’s TJ Warren have taught us anything: crazy things can happen in the bubble. Maybe an Embiid-led Sixers squad can shock the world and take down the Celtics. 

If Embiid plays, what’s the best chance of a deep playoff run?

Horford will likely step into the starting lineup and replace Simmons next to Joel Embiid, an alignment that coach Bret Brown loathed to use this season. Before Simmons got hurt last week, Horford and Embiid played without Simmons for only 128 of the team’s 3,327 minutes this season, according to PBPstats.com tracking. (Brown’s intuition may have been onto something: the Sixers’ opponent actually outscored by exactly one point in those Simmons-less minutes with Horford and Embiid on the floor.)

Statistically, Embiid has been better off individually when he doesn’t play with Horford. And that brings us to the short-term dilemma facing the Sixers: the best thing for the Sixers might be bringing Horford off the bench, but the optics of putting a $100-million player in the second unit may not sit well.

The team’s decision to pivot away from the Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick era and sign Horford was met with mixed reviews. But I was bullish on the move simply because Horford would help rescue the hellacious Embiid-less minutes that torpedo’d the Sixers’ East Finals hopes last season.

Horford hasn’t been the Sixers’ savior. Perhaps that’s putting too much on his shoulders. But then again, nine-figure contracts bring high expectations. Ironically, by far the most successful Sixers look this season has been Embiid playing solo without Horford or Simmons on the floor at all. In 439 minutes this season, per PBPstats.com, the Solo Embiid lineups have blasted opponents 981-860, or 13.9 points every 100 possessions. 

If the Sixers are going to make a run, that’s how they’re going to do it: maximizing Solo Embiid time and turning Horford into the Sixers’ Montrezl Harrell. 

My suggestion would be to replace Simmons with Mike Scott, not Horford. The Sixers need to surround Embiid with as much shooting as possible. Simmons’ willingness to shoot 3s would have been such a game-changer but his injury means we won’t get to see whether the 24-year-old was going to finally add that weapon to his arsenal.

Scott won’t hesitate to let it fly, giving Embiid ample room to dominate in the post. Yes, Charles Barkley sometimes goes over the top with his Embiid criticism, but the notion that Embiid should spend more time on the block is a fair one. 

If you want Superstar Embiid, chances are Horford can’t be in the picture. With Horford on the floor, Embiid shoots 5.3 3-point attempts per 36 minutes, per NBA.com tracking. There just isn’t as much space for Embiid to operate when he’s flanked by the paint-dwelling Horford. When the former Celtics is on the floor, Embiid’s rates of basket attacks and free throws go south.

But when Horford is on the bench, Embiid’s launch rate from downtown falls to 3.4 3-point attempts per 36 minutes, which is a much healthier number considering Embiid is a below-average marksmen from downtown (33.1 percent). Perhaps most importantly, Embiid playing without Horford has far better results on the scoreboard (plus-147 without Horford versus plus-7 with Horford).

You don’t have to remind this phenomenon to Celtics fans. Back in December, Horford sat out the Sixers’ visit to TD Garden and Embiid destroyed Boston’s frontline, tallying 38 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and going to the free-throw line 14 times. The Celtics had no answer for Embiid and the Sixers won a road game in the toughest of environments, a rarity for this Sixers squad. When Horford and Embiid played in February in Boston, the Celtics blew out the Sixers while Embiid struggled throughout the night.

The Horford-Embiid partnership is awkward, but it’s easy to see why the Sixers want to make it work. Nine-figure salaries don’t typically go to reserve players. But the evidence is clear. If the Sixers want to raise their playoff ceiling, they should look to maximize Embiid first and the rest will take care of itself.

What about the Simmons-Embiid duo long-term?

No, I don’t think the Sixers need to break up the Simmons-Embiid duo. The team has them under contract for at least three additional seasons. Simmons just turned 24 years old. Embiid is 26. Their primes should be in Philadelphia.

But it’s fair to bring up the possibility, given their trajectory. After a breakout season in 2017-18, the Sixers have seen their win percentage fall in each of the last two seasons. With Simmons sidelineed, the franchise’s first trip to the Eastern Conference Finals since the Allen Iverson era remains elusive.

And they may be stuck with what they have. Because the Horford, Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris acquisitions haven’t worked out exactly as planned, the team has not only fallen short of expectations this season, but each player’s individual value around the league has also soured. Likewise, any attractive retool strategies will be gummed up by the lukewarm stock of Philadelphia’s supporting cast. 

This is the double whammy of having a down season. So, how do they get out of it? 

It won’t be easy. They need shooting, shooting and more shooting. Losing Redick’s marksmanship and two-man game with Embiid devastated the Sixers. Last season, the Sixers’ starting lineup with Butler and Redick scored a blistering 121.9 points per 100 possessions. This season with Richardson and Horford? It plummeted to 105.4 points. The defensive upgrade simply hasn’t stopped the bleeding on the offensive end.

The Sixers should  focus on Joe Harris this offseason. The Brooklyn sharpshooter is an unrestricted free agent and the Nets retain his Bird rights, allowing them to offer a higher salary than any other team. A sign-and-trade could be doable. The question is whether the Nets would want in return, supposing he’s even on the table.

The Nets have a hole at power forward and they could be interested in bringing home Long Island native Tobias Harris as a high-quality safety net for Kevin Durant, allowing the two-time MVP to ease back into the flow of things after his Achilles injury.

The Nets may have some motivation to find some value in return for Joe Harris. The team already has committed a three-year, $52.5 million contract extension to shooting guard Caris LeVert, which kicks in next season. With Spencer Dinwiddie already looking for minutes behind LeVert and Kyrie Irving, Harris might be the odd one out.

The Nets could orchestrate a complicated Joe Harris sign-and-trade to get him to Philly but it would likely require Philly giving up an asset like Matisse Thybulle in the deal. It’s hard to see the pathway to get a Harris-Harris swap (Tobias makes $34.3 million next season), but the Sixers should at the very least kick the tires on what it’d take to acquire the best free agent shooter on the 2020 market.

Another intriguing option is Sacramento’s Nemanja Bjelica. If Bjelica hadn’t made a last-minute reversal in 2018 free agency, he'd be on the Sixers right now. Bjelica is due $7.2 million next season and the Kings have an interesting offseason ahead with Bogdan Bogdanovic being a restricted free agent. Trading for Philly’s Richardson could be a fallback option if Bogie’s pricetag gets too high for Sacramento’s liking.

The Sixers may just stand pat and try to make it work with this group rather than retool for the third straight year. Trading Simmons or Embiid is not the right answer. The incessant noise about breaking up the Simmons-Embiid duo drowns out the real issue which is finding the right pieces around the star duo. Horford is an expensive battery for Embiid, but bringing Horford off the bench may be the best way the Sixers can salvage a lost season. No matter what happens in the bubble playoffs, another fascinating offseason awaits Philadelphia.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.