The Philadelphia 76ers weren’t ready for the Boston Celtics.
In a complicated series, following a flurry of wins and high hopes for the Sixers, the explanation is as simple as that. Ben Simmons looked more like a rookie against a Brad Stevens defensive scheme than he had all season. Joel Embiid, fit with his protective mask, showed clear signs of fatigue during a series that spanned from his 67th to 71st games his season — far more basketball in a year than Embiid has played in his entire life.
Along with the struggles on the court, which went well beyond just Simmons and Embiid, head coach Brett Brown was met with adversity as well. From questionable rotations to similar timeout blunders, and perhaps ignoring the defensive struggles of his wing players, Brown showed that he has some serious growth to do himself heading into the offseason.
But fret not, Philadelphia. This is a team that won 52 regular season games and a playoff series a mere two seasons removed from a 10-win campaign. Not to mention, the Sixers will enter the offseason with the second-most cap space in the NBA and a projected top-10 pick in the draft they scored from the Michael Carter-Williams trade all those years ago.
Following the completion of their series, Philadelphia held a day of exit interviews on Thursday to outline what their players, coaches, and front office should focus on heading into the summer months. Let’s take a look at some of the major takeaways.
Developing Core Talent
Simmons and Embiid Struggled against the Celtics; Dario Saric too. Robert Covington played his worst stretch of basketball since developing into an integral 3-and-D player for the Sixers. Markelle Fultz, the 2017 first overall pick, logged zero minutes.
For as bright of a core as the Sixers have, it became abundantly clear there is work to do.
“I can’t wait to go through the summer and improve on all aspects of my game on and off the court,” Fultz said. “Then come back next year and put my stamp on it.”
Fultz’s shoulder and disappearing shot saga since returning from last season’s Summer League were well-documented across the NBA this season. With the likes of Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum, both chosen after Fultz in the same draft, making big playoff impacts, it became increasingly difficult to justify where the Sixers drafted the former University of Washington guard.
Brown and Fultz both seemed open to the idea of the rookie participating in the upcoming Summer League in hopes of recapturing the smooth shooting stroke Fultz displayed up until last July, with the team’s coach going as far as to say he “personally hopes” Fultz suits up for summer competition.
Embiid, finally playing in the first full season of his career, started an All-Star game, earned Defensive Player of the Year consideration, and displayed the superstar level talent the Sixers had been hoping for since they drafted him third overall in 2014. But there were still downsides.
Fatigue from his workload and poor decision making (3.7 turnovers per game) held Embiid back from being as effective as his skillset should suggest on a nightly basis. But the big man has even bigger aspirations to take his game to the next level, especially being healthy for the first summer in years to focus solely on refining his game.
“This is my first year going into a summer healthy,” Embiid said. “I’m excited about it. I feel like next year is definitely going to be a type of MVP season for me. But it starts with my body and the skills.”
The last on the Sixers’ supposed Big Three is Simmons. After dominating his way through most of the regular season to 13 triple-doubles and production from a point guard his size that we haven’t seen since Magic Johnson laced ‘em up right out of Michigan State, Simmons’ flaws were exposed mightily by Stevens.
In the current state of the NBA, having a point guard that isn’t at the very least respected as a jump shooter is a problem. Simmons negated most of those concerns throughout the year because it was clear he could get by without hitting a jumper regularly. Plus, he finished at the rim at a staggering 74 percent clip, higher than LeBron’s first seven seasons.
But in order for Simmons to unlock the potential of a future top-10 player in the NBA, he needs to keep opposing defenses honest with a respectable shooting stroke.
The Australian rookie doesn’t seem to think evolving his jumper will be that difficult of his process. What he does think will be difficult, however, is playing him once does have a shot.
“Offensively, it’s going to be tough to stop me,” Simmons said. “With the team, we’ll have another guy that can knock down shots and score, and also another guy who can make plays. So, I think it’s going to be scary.”
There will be quite a few moving parts from now until the start of next season for Philadelphia. But, for the most part, the championship hopes and the judgment of The Process falls on the shoulders of Embiid, Simmons, and Fultz.
Recruiting Outside Help
Brown made it very clear during his exit interview: the Sixers need more help if they want to immediately contend for a title.
While a sector of Sixers fans believe The Process was about homegrown talent delivering the team’s first title since 1983, the man running the show for this version of the squad believes an outside addition is required to return to glory.
“If that portion of the fanbase is still prepared to take this notion (of doing it organically) and that’s going to equal a championship, it’s noble but I don’t agree with it,” Brown said. “I think another high-level free agent is required.”
Heading into free agency, the top two contestants that fit the mold Brown describes are clear: Either LeBron James or Paul George.
With enough cash in hand and the enticing on-court pieces already in place, the Sixers should be legitimate players for either of the two, and common sense at this point could assume they should be able to score free agent meetings with both James and George.
Adding another high-caliber player to a team that won 52 games at first seemed like a luxury the Sixers could afford to miss out on, especially with the uncertainty still surrounding Fultz. If the lead guard returned to form, the prevailing thought was the Sixers would have three All-Star caliber talents already. But after the loss to Boston sans Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward (two All-Star caliber players) it’s obvious that Philadelphia is going to need an addition if they want to keep up with the Joneses.
Aside from cash and surrounding talent, the best way to pitch a new home to a free agent is to have a heavy hitter in the meeting. During J.J. Redick’s free agent meeting with the Sixers, Brown, and Embiid were present at 2 a.m., and Brown even took Redick to the practice court to use him and Embiid is rough actions and sets to best show the shooting guard how he could excel next to a player of Embiid’s caliber. Talk about a recruiting pitch.
From the early returns, it appears Embiid is up to the recruiting challenge yet again. However, he wouldn’t dive into specifics when asked directly if he would like to play alongside one of the best to ever do it, in James.
“Is this tampering?” Embiid said. “Yeah, it’s tampering. So, I’ll answer that question after July 1.”
Over the course of the season, the Sixers became must-watch television and must-talk-about narratives. Following years of calculated losing, it appears their plan held some merit. But in order to make sure the Sam Hinkie-Era losses don’t prove to be a waste of time, Philadelphia needs to head into this offseason with some more calculated formulas for improvement.
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