The Sixers stand in the same spot as 25 other NBA teams Monday, eliminated from the playoffs and considering the offseason ahead after Sunday’s Round 2, Game 7 loss to the Hawks.
If they’d beaten Atlanta, the Sixers could have claimed their greatest season since 2001. One more win wouldn’t have zapped away all of the Sixers’ weaknesses, but margins are often slim in the NBA — see Kevin Durant's "big-ass foot" for evidence. The scrutiny about the Sixers' potential roster repairs would have taken place in a different light.
“We really let slip a great opportunity,” Tobias Harris said, “and that’s something that stings the most.”
Last offseason was chock-full of upheaval for the Sixers, highlighted by the firing of Brett Brown as head coach, the hiring of Doc Rivers, and the addition of Daryl Morey as president of basketball operations.
Now, Ben Simmons is a logical candidate to be dealt elsewhere. After a series from Simmons that did not inspire confidence in his head coach, it would be unsurprising if Morey trades the 24-year-old away. Keep in mind, too, that multiple reports indicated Simmons was involved in advanced James Harden trade discussions.
What are the arguments for holding onto Simmons? For one, his trade value must be at an all-time low. Parting with players immediately after their stock has cratered goes against conventional wisdom, and Morey is a competitor with a penchant for “winning” trades. Still, this is an appropriate place to remember Morey shipped out Al Horford during his first draft night with the Sixers, acquiring Danny Green.
Simmons is still young, yes, but most of the offensive development it was sensible to expect a few years back hasn’t materialized. The basketball world saw him shoot 34.2 percent from the foul line in the playoffs and get substituted out late in close games.
Rivers’ insistence throughout the season that aspects of Simmons’ game were underappreciated was not entirely delusional. As a transition playmaker and versatile, talented defender, Simmons would indeed be difficult to replace, even though the appeal of complementing Joel Embiid with perimeter shot creation and outside shooting is obvious.
Of course, one of the most compelling cases for trading Simmons is the brilliance of the Sixers’ other All-Star. Embiid is 27 years old and, as long as his health permits, on a Hall of Fame path. An honest assessment of his health is that he’s a very large man who has been unable to avoid serious injuries and, despite being more focused than ever on nutrition and conditioning, needs a bit of luck. The Sixers’ foremost fear should be squandering his prime years. Embiid is under contract for two more seasons and eligible for a four-year, supermax extension.
Rivers made a slew of moves that did not work in the postseason, among them continuing to play Dwight Howard as Embiid’s backup instead of turning to smaller options like Simmons and maintaining a 10-player rotation with bench-heavy lineups to the very end. Most notable, of course, is he couldn’t stop his team from wasting opportunity after opportunity. The Sixers blew a 2-1 series lead, an 18-point Game 4 lead and a 26-point Game 5 lead.
While the Sixers made regular-season progress and improved upon last year’s first-round exit, the facts are Rivers lost to a lower-seeded opponent and will be watching the Clippers in the conference finals.
Rivers guided to the Sixers to their first No. 1 seed in 20 years, and the team was second in the NBA in defensive rating, with three players selected to All-Defensive teams. The Sixers moved on from Brown with aspirations of deep playoff success, though. Playoff coaching does not jump out as a team strength presently, at least not after Rivers’ first year in Philadelphia.
There are non-Embiid sources of optimism on the Sixers for those searching. Seth Curry scored 18.8 points per game in the playoffs on 57.8 percent shooting from the floor, 50.6 percent from three-point range. He’s signed through the 2022-23 season and a better fit next to Embiid than Josh Richardson.
Tyrese Maxey is undoubtedly a promising player — a fun one to watch, too. Isaiah Joe and Paul Reed are two intriguing youngsters. The Sixers hold the 28th and 50th picks in this year’s draft, which is set for July 29. If Matisse Thybulle trimmed away a few mistakes and became a confident, league-average three-point shooter, one imagines he’d be a good starter. Already, he’s a special defender.
Negotiations with free agents can begin on Aug. 2 at 6 p.m. ET. Howard, Green, Furkan Korkmaz and Mike Scott will be unrestricted free agents. The Sixers look limited in terms of spending power because of their major financial commitments to Embiid, Simmons and Harris.
In theory, the Sixers could chalk up their loss to bad breaks, clutch heroics from the Hawks and the legitimate challenges of forming a cohesive, winning team with a new head coach during a season played through the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, Morey’s history is that he makes splashes. He’s got some tricky, weighty decisions in front of him.