It's Never Actually Championship or Bust
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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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Man, did it stink that Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons couldn't play in the All-Star Game on Sunday. Of course, everyone rightly agrees it wasn't the most important thing about the news that Ben and Jo had been ruled out due to contact tracing -- their overall health and safety after coming in close contact with a COVID-postiive barber was obviously concern No. 1, with their eligibility for the upcoming week's worth of games a not-so-close second, and their All-Star availability a rather distant third. Hell, for a lot of folks, it was a total shrug-off that they would have to miss Sunday's festivities -- possibly a net positive strictly from an on-court Sixers perspective, since there'd be no risk of additional wear and/or tear on the duo to play in a meaningless exhibition game.
Fair -- if you believe that any game featuring Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons representing the Philadelphia 76ers in their respective primes could ever really be meaningless, and if you think that the pursuit of a title is all that really matters for the Sixers the season. But I think Embiid and Simmons playing in the All-Star Game matters this season. Everything matters this season, really. And that's true whether or not they actually win it all.
My heart hurt a little on Sunday to not get to see Ben and Jo out there with various friends and (far more) foes among the NBA's best and brightest. I couldn't stop picturing what we might have been missing: Joel taking LeBron in the post on a key late-game switch; Ben casually poking the ball away from Donovan Mitchell as the latter tried in vain to keep up with the Curry/Lillard razzle dazzle; maybe even Ben pulling up from three over his teammate and the two just dying laughing back the other way down the court as Doc recreated his classic stunned incredulity .gif on the sideline. We could've gotten moments from each that would have continued to define our remembrances of them decades down the line. Instead, we just got LeBron checking out in the third quarter and kicking his feet up as his squad won by a drama-free 20. That’s a huge loss for us as Sixers fans, even if it doesn’t have any effect on the actual standings. It matters.
This isn’t unique to this season — everything mattered last season, too, and every season we follow this team, really. But everything particularly matters when you have the two greatest Sixers of the last 15 years together, both at or approaching their peaks, playing as high-level basketball together as any duo in the NBA. Them winning a championship -- and/or getting us the pieces to win us a championship, depending on who you ask -- is the ultimate goal, of course, but it's not the only goal, and I'd argue it's not even the main goal. The main goal, in my opinion, is to get as many indelible, unforgettable memories from out of their greatness, on and off the court, as possible, while they're both here and capable of providing them in high volume. That means playoff success to be sure, but it also means breaking the Utah Jazz in the regular season to the point where they have to cry "Fake News!" about the whole league. It means Embiid disrespecting-not-disrespecting Myles Turner in his post-game interview, and Simmons calling himself the league's best defensive player, then proving it by locking up Luka Doncic. And ideally, it also means Ben and Jo showing and proving in the All-Star Game among the league's elite, punching home the idea that not only do they belong, but that they might be running the whole damn show soon enough.
I mention all of this because the season's second half is coming up, and some -- namely Daryl Morey -- have intimated that this is a championship-or-bust season. To an extent, the quote is meaningless, particularly from a GM who has no real reason to set the bar anywhere lower than that; it's not like Daryl's actually gonna get fired this summer for busting if they lose in the conference semis. But it's a mentality that a good percentage of the fanbase will no doubt adopt as we get closer to the postseason, particularly if Joel and Ben miraculously stay healthy throughout and we actually look like we might enter the playoffs with a top seed and a not-totally-disregardable chance to actually come away with this thing.
I think it's ill-advised, for a couple of reasons. The most superficial is that, well, they're probably not going to win the championship. In all likelihood, no team is going to be a favorite against the field this year, and the team with the best chance -- which probably won't be the Sixers anyway, at least not as currently constituted -- might still only be at, like, 30%. Besides that, having championship expectations for a team that many fans viewed as being on close to their last legs the prior offseason, after just getting swept by the Celtics in the first round of a postseason that generally made the Sixers look like they were about as big an NBA fossil as jock jams by 2 Unlimited and the Outhere Brothers. Even after Daryl Morey and Doc Rivers were hired to give fans hope for the franchise's future again, it would've been laughable to suggest in October that a championship would be the season's only acceptable outcome.
And while there's a good argument that the Sixers are close enough to make it worth going all-in at this year's trade deadline, there's a very real possibility that the player for them to go all in for just doesn't ever materialize. The Bulls don't have any reason to trade Zach LaVine, the Wizards don't seem to be under any pressure to trade Bradley Beal, and the Raptors might use any positive momentum between now and the end of the month as a sign that they can't trade Kyle Lowry. The pool of true difference-making guards gets pretty thin after that -- you can talk yourself into Victor Oladipo or Buddy Hield being that guy, but it's not even a guarantee that they're net positives on the court at this point, let alone the difference between an early out and a likely championship. Finding the guy who puts the Sixers over the top might very well be a task best left for Daryl's offseason to-do list.
But really, this is all sort of besides the point. The Sixers may or may not be good enough to legitimately contend for a championship this season -- and the Sixers may or may not get good enough to legitimately contend for a championship this season -- but this is already a special season regardless of how it ends. That's mostly because of Jo and Ben, of course, but it's also because of Tobias Harris' career season, because of Shake Milton's early Sixth Man of the Year campaign, because of Tyrese Maxey's 38-point game, because of the Dakota Mathias shot against Miami. It's special because even in the three off days between the All-Star Game and the Sixers' resuming their post-break schedule, we get to watch Isaiah Joe and Paul Reed lead the Delaware Blue Coats in the G-League playoffs, with a showdown tonight against the Toronto 905 and our old buddy Sauce Castillo for a chance to go to the finals. It's special because we entered the All-Star break as the best team in the East -- at 24-12, finally ahead of last year's fool's-gold pace -- with Doc patrolling the ASG sidelines in his first season as coach for us. It's special because 36 games into the first full NBA season played under (mostly) nationwide lockdown, the Sixers are still giving us something to legitimately look forward to 3-4 nights a week. It's special because Daryl still seems as bored and online during this period as the rest of us.
And in an even larger sense, I never understood the logic of thinking a title is the only thing that matters, regardless of how good your team is. It’s a long season even at 72 games, filled with drama and plot twists and character development and comic relief. I get that the final scene ultimately colors your perception of the whole thing, but it doesn’t make sense to me to judge the entire movie based solely off of the ending when you’re spending such a long goddamn time in the theater with it. As I’ve said before, following a basketball team is not an inherently meaningful pursuit: The meaning comes from what we put into it. And considering what we’ve put into it not only over this season, but over eight years of The Process and in most cases far longer than that with the Sixers in general, it’d suck for a title — which only one team out of 30 gets each year — to be the only worthwhile validation of our investment.
Of course, for as special as this team has been, it would seem like something a waste to not follow up everything that's already happened with an equally special playoff run. And really, that's the best argument for the Sixers needing to do everything in their power to pry open their championship window for this season as much as possible: You just don't know when everything's going to come together like this again. Embiid's performing at an MVP level, Simmons and Harris are playing their secondary roles to perfection, the supporting cast is solid enough and the rest of the league is largely a bunch of question marks. You'd like to think they'd have another real couple shots at the chip if this one doesn't pan out -- nearly everyone important on the team that is signed through 2023, and there's no reason to think there'd be a ton of age-related slippage between now and then -- but getting everybody to show up fully healthy and engaged just for one full season is hard enough, getting a second could be a big ask. You just never know.
I'm in favor of them making a big swing at the trade deadline to try to maximize their championship chances this season. I hope they do it, and I certainly hope it works. But if they don't find one to make, and the team falls short -- or if they do make one, and the team falls short anyway -- I won't consider this season a failure. Championship or bust is no way to live: There's too much joy in the Sixers right now, too much potential for happiness every time they take the court, and even sometimes when they don't. There's too much to love about this season, this team, this league to let any one part of it define the whole story. It'd be a shame for the Sixers not to capitalize on tis opportunity -- and I want the Sixers to win the title even more than I want a return to indoor dining and karaoke -- but it'd be a much bigger shame to miss out on a single great moment from this season's present worrying about its future. Results are never guaranteed; if you can't let yourself really enjoy the process, I don't know how you could ever be able to totally trust it.