It wasn’t illogical to think the Sixers were on the verge of something special.
They’d won 16 straight games to close out the previous regular season, earned a playoff series win over the Heat and fallen to the Celtics in a competitive five-game series. There was drama in Minnesota, a third star was available and championship ambitions didn’t sound outlandish.
Since trading for Jimmy Butler two years ago, the Sixers’ collaborative-centric front office was all-in, or something very close to it. The priority was immediate contention — not “optionality,” a core value of Sam Hinkie’s Process. Most moves felt urgent and high-stakes. On more than one occasion, it was fair to think: “They better have gotten this right, or else …”
New president of basketball operations Daryl Morey appears to be comfortable with a reasonable middle ground. He wants to win games, sure, but he also wants freedom to maneuver. The Sixers have added much-needed shooting this offseason in Seth Curry and Danny Green, as well as a far less costly backup center than Al Horford in Dwight Howard. What they haven’t done is go for broke.
“I think I start with championship probability and basically work backwards from that,” Morey explained at his introductory press conference. “Over a timeframe of one to three years, basically. We are currently not considered one of the favorites out there. Now, I think we all feel very good about the roster and the fact that, with a healthy Joel (Embiid) and a Ben Simmons and a group that Doc (Rivers) is coaching, we feel people are underrating the Sixers right now.
“But we need to go out there and prove it. But start with championship probability, figure out how our team looks compared to teams in the past that have won the championship, and where do we stack up or not. I know that’s high-level, but that’s basically how I look at it every year.”
The Sixers presently lack a conventional top-tier shot creator — maybe rookie combo guard Tyrese Maxey can take on a chunk of that responsibility — but they’ve assembled a team like the one that looked so promising at the end of the 2017-18 season.
Per Cleaning the Glass, the lineup of Simmons, Embiid, JJ Redick, Robert Covington and Dario Saric accumulated the following statistics in 1,256 possessions together that year:
- Plus-21.7 net rating
- 41.1 percentage on non-heave three-pointers
- 32.0 percent three-point frequency
- 20.9 free throw rate
Last year’s most-used Sixers lineup of Simmons, Embiid, Horford, Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris (518 possessions) was worse in those important categories and far less helpful for the Sixers’ two All-Stars.
- Plus-9.1 net rating
- 35.6 percent on non-heave threes
- 30.2 percent three-point frequency
- 13.3 free throw rate
Returning to a similar look as a few seasons ago isn’t a regression. It’s a smart idea, in fact.
“Honestly, if you go back, it’s completely insane how good some of those Joel-Ben lineups were,” Morey said after his busy draft night. “Lineup analysis is pretty terrible in general, I’ll just be honest, but when you get to like 1,200-minute lineups that are playing at an historically great sort of ability to build the lead … listening, it became pretty obvious the right path for the roster.”
To give general manager Elton Brand and the folks that built the post-2017-18 iterations of the Sixers credit, margins tend to be fine in the NBA. If Kawhi Leonard’s Game 7 baseline jumper didn’t make friends with every part of the rim before dropping in, the Sixers would have been a good overtime period away from playing in the Eastern Conference Finals. If Simmons (and perhaps even Glenn Robinson) were healthy, they would’ve had a better chance to handle the Celtics’ perimeter threats and at least create an interesting first-round series last year. The idea of a “bully ball” team with Horford starting at power forward is open to ample criticism, of course, but it wouldn’t be accurate to say the Sixers were doomed to fail as soon as they let Covington, Saric and Redick go.
Morey hasn’t replicated that team, but he’s rectified the Horford mistake and restored a core concept that worked well.
He aimed to make life easier for the Sixers’ two stars without sacrificing future possibilities.
“I think, frankly, free agency is where most of the bad deals happen,” Morey said on Nov. 19, “so Elton and I will be careful through that. But we hope to add players in a way that both helps the team and doesn’t hurt our ability to continue to improve the team.”
Tangibly, that means the Sixers didn’t spend all of their taxpayer mid-level exception on one veteran or reach to pull off a splashy trade.
The current roster might be capable of contending in the East. It also might have major flaws that Morey needs to address, either this season or down the line. Especially given the Sixers’ chaotic recent history, there’s no harm in waiting and watching.