Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and is now writing for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
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I’d say this was a weird Sixers regular season, but I feel like that’s insufficient. There have been plenty of weird Sixers regular seasons in the last decade -- ones with Allen Iverson comebacks, Brandon Davies hot streaks, Markelle Fultz soul snatches. But this was like four weird Sixers seasons. It was like a 22-episode TV season that only had 15 episodes’ worth of actual juice, so we had to just invent seven episodes of random shit to get us to the finale. It was like one of those Knicks or Lakers seasons where everything that can happen does -- but like one of those Knicks or Lakers seasons from seven years ago, when the teams were still too good to tune them out entirely. It was weird.
No team goes into the playoffs completely sure of who they are, but I have a hard time figuring out much of anything that I’m sure about with these Sixers. I’m sure that Joel Embiid is awesome, though I’m not sure he’s 100% healthy. I’m sure that our bench sucks -- at least relative to the idea of how sucky a playoff bench is supposed to be -- though I’m not sure how much that matters. I’m sure that I very much want Elton Brand & Co. to be proven to have been right about everything all along, though I certainly can’t say that I’m sure that they will be. I’m sure that I love this team, but I’m not sure that they will win even one round in these playoffs.
I mean, I think they probably will. I’ll just get it out right here, because whatever: Sixers in six. I don’t know what percentage I actually believe it, but it’s probably at least like 50 percent and it seems like a solid default so whatever. Like I said, I don’t really have things that I know with this team. I just have a lot of questions. Here’s the ten biggest.
10. How’s Landry Shamet gonna do for the Clippers?
Yeah, let’s get this one out of the way too. This, I actually do feel like I know: The Clippers will lose in five games, and in those five games, Landry will have scoring nights of 5 points, 7 points, 3 points, 26 points and 11 points (not necessarily in that order, but probably in that order). His numbers on the whole will be unexceptional, but I’ll miss my subway stop at least once this month because I’ll be so fixated on replaying that 26-point game over and over in my head. Enjoy your first postseason, Landry. When this all happens exactly as I laid it out just now, try to look surprised.
9. What will our final memory be of T.J. McConnell?
Was my article about whether it was time to talk about how infuriating and lousy T.J. had been for the majority of March really meant to get him to step up his play again out of a reverse jinx and/or spite? Doesn’t matter, because it didn’t really happen anyway -- though the 18 points on 9-10 shooting in 24 minutes of instant garbage time against Chicago was pretty nice. But if this is to be T.J.’s last stand with the Sixers before unrestricted free agency takes him to Phoenix or Detroit or yeah it’s probably gonna be Phoenix isn’t it? -- it’d be nice to have a signature moment to leave us with. Maybe not a whole game: players like T.J. McConnell don’t often get multiple T.J. McConnell games. But a pass. A steal. A moment. Something for the next Fly the Process T-shirts, y’know? For us and for him, we both deserve it.
8. Who’s shooting threes these days?
This isn’t even a T.J. subtweet, really -- though y’know, shoot ‘em if you get ‘em, T.J. But without Landry, and with Tobias Harris’ shooting levels starting to approach below freezing, you do have to wonder sometimes where threes are going to come by from this team. Joel Embiid doesn’t want to shoot them, Jimmy Butler doesn’t want to shoot them, Zhaire Smith… well, he seems to want to shoot them OK, since he’s still got that Wow This Is What Air Tastes Like? excitement of a movie character let out of their hyperbaric chamber for the first time, but he might not be that good at shooting them or get the opportunity to shoot them in the first place.
Playoff series are long: Long enough for players to get spooked and get out of their game, long enough for an opposing team to make the adjustments to get you to that place. My ultimate fear for this series -- one that doesn’t involve the Nets guards and wings handing off 45-point games to one another like they’re passing around a joint -- is that one of the Sixers’ borderline shooters starts pump-faking, and all of a sudden the area behind the three-point line turns into hot lava for all of ‘em. J.J.’s been hot, but he can be schemed for in the playoffs, and he’s not providing a team’s worth of spacing and shooting on his lonesome. Shoot your shots, boys.
7. Will Brett Brown not trusting the rookies become a problem?
I don’t think anyone would argue that in an ideal (or even average) playoff scenario, we really wouldn’t need to play Zhaire Smith or Jonah Bolden a consequential minute in this or any other postseason series. But on this Sixers bench, which otherwise ranges from frustrating to unplayable, it’s also hard to argue that there shouldn’t be some opportunities for Jonah Bolden and Zhaire Smith against the Nets.
They’ll be messy, they’ll be maddening, and they’ll probably commit three fouls a piece before the first TV timeout. But they do things, and we know they can do them. Even if 75% of their games can’t be trusted, they other 25% still gives us options -- particularly on defense, where their versatility might simply be invaluable -- that other guys on the team just don’t give us. It’s pretty easy easy to imagine a series in which both guys are playing 10-15 minutes a night by game three.
Brett Brown won’t want to play them, and he shouldn’t want to; no coach in his position should be asked to do so. But if being dogmatic about such matters means relying on Amir Johnson, Boban Marjanovic, Greg Monroe and Jonathon Simmons without exploring Zhaire and Jonah as alternatives, we’re going to have serious problems, and the anti-Brett Brown crowd is going to have reason to be insufferable.
6. How much does Jimmy Butler really control his own destiny at this point?
For the entirety of his still-brief tenure with the Philadelphia 76ers, we’ve been wondering if Jimmy Butler has been holding something back. For all his early scoring outbursts and game-winning jumpers, it’s still seemed like he’s been operating at ⅔ speed, picking his spots, biding his time. Has he been saving himself for the playoffs, or is this just who Jimmy Butler is now? It’s been the $190 million dollar question for Sixers fans pretty much all season.
Maybe there’s a world in which Butler is unlocked as a lockdown defender and master closer in these playoffs. But maybe there’s one in which he stays passive for three quarters, gets burned consistently on defense throughout, and then in the fourth tries to force hero ball that isn’t there. At least then we’ll know for sure, I guess -- I just don’t want his back acting up the last few weeks, to turn into a “well he wasn’t at full strength” thing anyway, leaving us going into the summer still not knowing what this guy looks like at his actual actual best.
Also: No room for it in this top 10, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I’m also wondering more than a little bit lately if we didn’t fall in love too quickly with Tobias Harris. For a guy who I pretty soon concluded to be the best shot-maker I’d watched on the Sixers… ever?... he sure has struggled to make shots lately: 41% from the field and 23% from three over his last ten, including a stupefying 3-16 turn against the Miami Heat in his regular season close. Redick already broke out of his late-season malaise in a big way and it’s possible Harris will do so as well, but suddenly he’s got a lot to prove about being the guy we thought we traded for.
5. Is top-heaviness as big an advantage in the playoffs as we seem to think?
All year, the Sixers’ lack of a bench has been shrugged off to a certain extent with the maxim that depth doesn’t matter as much in the playoffs, where your guys can play a whole bunch of minutes a night without worrying about back-to-backs or insane travel schedules, and where coaches will presumably stop tinkering and experimenting and just run the best lineups they know to run. That certainly would seem to benefit the Sixers, who’ve had one of the most effective starting fives in the league -- though one we haven’t gotten to actually see play together all that much.
But has it been a little too much for a security blanket for Sixers fans this season? It’s not like our starters last year were playing 40 minutes a night in the playoffs -- Ben Simmons was the only guy who even averaged 35. Partly that’s because we had Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova then, who Brett Brown trusted more than anyone currently coming off the pine for Philly, but I also just don’t know if suddenly jacking up our guys’ minutes is really the answer: Particularly for Embiid -- who always seems to be playing himself back into shape and is definitely at risk of getting winded if left out on the court too long -- but probably Butler and his bad back, too.
Bottom line: We’re still gonna need guys like T.J., Mike Scott, Furkan Korkmaz and yeah probably Ennis and Bolden to come in and soak up some PT for four-six minutes at a time. And those minutes could hurt just as much as they did in the regular 82.
4. Can a team Just Make Shots for an entire playoff series?
A really crazy thing happened the last time that the Sixers played the Brooklyn Nets this season: The Nets missed shots. I mean, not all of them -- Brooklyn shot 44% from the field, hit 11 threes, generally performed respectably -- but a lot of them. D’Angelo Russell went 6 for 19, bothered by a fairly motivated and tenacious Jimmy Butler. Spencer Dinwiddie hit just one of five from three -- can’t even remember why that happened. Rodions Kurucs, who could not possibly better fit the profile of the kind of tall person that becomes Ray Allen when he plays the Sixers, did not get a single bucket. It was comforting in a way I could not possibly express to know that this Nets team does not always Just Make Shots.
But they certainly have historically, at least against us. So was game four this season a result of a superlative Sixers defensive effort, or just a regression to the mean? Counter-intuitive as it may sound, I actually hope it’s the latter: If we can actually make a difference to this Nets team’s offensive outpouring by simply playing better on D that’s great, but if this team isn’t touched by the hand of God to simply make any pull-up 18-footer or contested wing three that it ever takes against the Sixers, that seems like a bigger deal to me.
Of course, there’ll inevitably still be the game or two where Russell and Dinwiddie (and Shabazz Napier and probably at least one of DeMarre Carroll and/or Jared Dudley) seem to be shooting a metallic basketball at a magnetized bottom of the net. Even the most optimistic Sixers fan out there can’t possibly think we’re gonna sweep this one; no way Philly gets to four Ws without at least one eye-gouging example of Just Making Shottery..But that’s fine, as long as it’s just not, y’know, all of them. Please. (Also preferably not Game Three in Brooklyn if I’m gonna go to that one, but I won’t be a stickler about that.)
3. Is a dialed-in and healthy Embiid good enough to get us through any playoff opponent in the East?
This isn’t so much a question for the Nets series, in a which a healthy and dialed-in Embiid should be about a planet removed from anyone else on the court. But if we get past them and onto the Raptors and Bucks, we’re gonna need our big guy to be the biggest guy.
For as much as we’ve seen from Joel Embiid already, we haven’t really seen him in this situation. Last year, he missed half the Miami series, wore a mask, and was coming back to a team that Ben Simmons had really taken over in his absence. This year might still get the tiniest of asterisks thanks to his bothersome knee -- and if we hear that he’s missing Game One, that asterisk should expand exponentially -- but otherwise, he’s healthy and playing the best basketball of his career, and this is unquestionably his team and no one else’s. It’s his time to just tear ass through the Eastern conference.
The games against the Bucks at season’s end have been interesting, since both times it really did seem to come down to Embiid vs. Giannis, with both teams doing a pretty good job of turning the other into a one-man roster. It’d be a stretch to say Embiid outplayed Giannis -- hard to outplay a guy who we can barely keep to under 50 -- but he at least kept it close to even against the one-man wrecking crew, and if he does, the rest of the Sixers’ top five should have enough juice down the stretch to get the edge against Milwaukee’s solid-but-unexceptional supporting cast. Toronto might not be so simple, but with Embiid playing at his highest level, there really aren’t any players or teams I don’t feel like we at least have a chance against. Let’s pray that asterisk stays real, real tiny.
2. Will this summer seem any more straightforward after this postseason?
Not gonna lie: I am very scared about this summer. The Sixers have some of the biggest decisions in franchise history to make, and I think they’ve boxed themselves in to choosing between some pretty undesirable outcomes. They’ve given up a ton of assets to get two guys who are both free agents this summer, and to keep that from being a huge loss, they either have to win the championship this year or resign both this offseason -- the latter of which could still end up being the biggest L of all, depending on the years and money committed and how their health and skills develop from here.
There’s really only two ways that our summer problems are simplified by these playoffs: Either Butler and Harris both solidify themselves as indispensable, star-level playoff contributors in the midst of a very deep Sixers run, or they both flame out spectacularly and prove themselves borderline-unplayable against the highest competition at the highest level. If the former, maybe we just over-commit to both and start worrying about the tail-end consequences in 2022. If the latter, maybe we let one or both walk (or at least play hardball with them in negotiations) and figure as long as we have Embiid and Simmons and room to move, everything else is basically just noise anyway.
But in all likelihood, the results will be somewhere in the middle. Harris will score at will against one team but be completely neutralized by another. Butler will have games where he looks like a savior and others where he looks like a cross to bear. Both will end the playoffs with questions remaining about whether they’re elite or just very good, and whether a team like the Sixers can afford to pay elite prices for very good players at this point in their history. And Elton Brand & Co. will have some very difficult, timeline-altering altering decisions to make for this franchise when it hits midnight on July 1. Can’t say I’m looking forward to any of it.
1. Is this the part of The Process that we’ve always feared?
I’ve never made any bones about my allegiances to team Let’s Just Wait It Out and See What Happens. Robert Covington can’t hit a shot? Let’s just wait it out and see what happens. Markelle Fultz is closing his eyes when he takes free throws? Let’s just wait it out and see what happens. All we landed over the summer was Mike Muscala, Jonah Bolden and a map to the site of Wilson Chandler’s gravestone? Let’s just wait it out and see what happens. I never wanted us to overreact to anything, because even at its most dramatic, the status quo was pretty chill. I didn’t want us reach so far that we lost our footing altogether. Trust the Process. Don’t rush The Process. Take a nice long bath in The Process.
Mostly, though, it’s because this was the stage I was always afraid of getting to: The part where we’re just one bad playoff series away from everything suddenly looking like shit. Imagine if the worst does happen, and the Sixers get bounced by Toronto in five -- or, worse and not totally inconceivable, by the Nets in six or seven. Then we’ve spent all our movable assets on an ill-fitting team that’s about to get far more expensive than it’s worth. We’ve lost our buffer zone for Brett Brown, who will officially be on the hot seat -- along with Elton Brand, who suddenly looks a lot less ballsy and a lot more reckless. We’ve essentially short-changed and short-circuited The Process. We’ve put Our Once and Always Dark Lord Sam Hinkie to shame.
To a certain extent, this had to happen sometime. Much as I would’ve loved for us to keep moving slowly with Dario and RoCo and Landry -- and yes, even Markelle -- and keep all of our chips exactly where we could see them, eventually, probably, you have to actually go for it. I don’t like feeling my Process mortality, but this was never going to last forever. But considering where we were a year ago -- 52 wins when we weren’t even supposed to make the playoffs, seemingly with the future of the entire Eastern Conference at our feet -- to already be so squarely in put-up-or-shut-up territory is… well, it’s not how I would’ve wanted it. I just thought we’d have more than one postseason of being the overachieving new kids. I just thought we’d have more time, period.
It doesn’t have to be the end, though. It’s possible that talent wins out in the playoffs, that the regular season has just been a prelude, that the Sixers’ best is actually better than any other team in the East’s best. And it’s possible that as long as we still have Embiid (25) and Simmons (22) (!!!) under team control for the next half-decade, none of this really matters that much anyway. And I don’t want to end up a sports fan that only likes the beginning of things. I’m just not ready for this to already start feeling like the end.