What If It's Not Enough This Year?
I still think James Harden can be the second-best player on a championship Sixers team. I'm just starting to wonder if he can be the second-best player on this championship Sixers team.
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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Boy, the hard part sure got here quicker than I would've liked. It was only four weeks ago that we were celebrating the first couple games of the James Harden era as the vindication of all we had struggled through and waited for, dunking on rueful Nets fans and smug national columnists and hollering at the rest of the East to bring it on come April and May. Those easy times were guaranteed not to last forever, but you hoped you might get a full month or so out of them, maybe even till the end of the regular season. And maybe we would have if not for a fairly brutal March schedule that has brought us face to face with a solid 6-7 opponents who would really put our revamped squad's mettle to the test. And so far... not so good, Al.
The latest case came Tuesday night against the Bucks, when a double-digit lead solidly maintained through most of the first three quarters evaporated almost instantly in Joel Embiid-less, James Harden-less fourth-quarter minutes as Giannis Antetokounmpo rampaged through our backup bigs. Both Embiid and Harden were magnificent through three quarters and hit shots in the fourth to keep it close, but both also had moments of coming up short -- particularly on the final offensive possession with Philly down two, when a Harden three missed badly and Embiid's putback attempt was swatted away by Giannis, capping a performance that probably brought him even (at least) with JoJo in the MVP race. Brutal loss. Bad night. Hard pill to swallow, particularly two days after dropping another winnable game in Phoenix, a team we're probably gonna have to beat one of these days to get where we want to be. It's been a take-stock, look-in-the-mirror kind of last few days.
After all that, here's where I am: I still think James Harden can be the second-best player on a championship Sixers team. I'm just starting to wonder if he can be the second-best player on this championship Sixers team. And that's a tough workaround when this Sixers team is all that's really guaranteed at the moment.
To some, even saying this much will seem overly negative and reactive, and I get it. Two (mostly) close losses to the teams who played in the finals last year isn't cause for panic, and going 11-6 post-All-Star break when 13 of those 17 games came against playoff teams (14 if you count the Lakers) isn't totally unreasonable. The Sixers should be able to pad their regular-season record over a softer final seven games -- including two each against Detroit and Indiana -- and while both the 1 seed and Embiid's MVP feel like they're slipping away a little with Tuesday's loss, they could still both be in hand with a dominant last two weeks of the season. Harden's numbers over the stretch have mostly been excellent, Embiid's mostly superlative. Tyrese Maxey is a beast. Tobias Harris and Matisse Thybulle even seem to be finding their roles a little better. The Sixers are basically guaranteed a top four seed, and depending on how seeding shakes out, four might be where they want to be anyway. Nothing is fucked here, dude.
But there are problems, and they're real. The thin bench has hardly been a secret for most of the season, and the lack of a proper backup for Embiid -- especially when all Doc Rivers can think to do to address the situation is to toggle between the two guys who we already know don't work -- is minorly but noticeably crippling. Joel is very rarely less than majestic for a full game, but down the stretch he still hasn't proven himself as a take-the-final-shot guy, while Maxey continues to sporadically have games where the combination of the opponents' defensive pressure and our own offensive myopia leaves him largely neutralized. Tobias makes big plays and then gives them right back with dumb mental gaffes and deflating misses on open looks. Matisse... well, I'm not sure what happened to Matisse on Tuesday night exactly, but there was strangely little proof of his existence in the second half, even as Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday were lighting us up from the perimeter.
And then there's James. He makes so many breathtaking plays -- sometimes stunning in their creativity, sometimes in their simplicity -- that when he also has his shot falling from outside, it seems like he should make our offense totally unstoppable. But he's shown fairly consistently for us this season that he's just not a one-on-one bucket-getter right now when defenses and whistles tighten late in the fourth, and his sprawling drives into contact lead to blocked shots or thoughtless turnovers and no free throws. There's pretty decent evidence to suggest he's never really been that guy, particularly against the toughest competition in the playoffs. Expecting him to turn into one now, just because the Sixers kinda really need one, might not be the smart move.
A lot is being made of Harden's current burst to the basket, or lack thereof -- how much of it is being compromised by his gimpy hamstring, and how much by his advancing age. It is true that his first step is lacking, and for my money, I wouldn't really expect that to change dramatically before the playoffs or anytime after. Doc Rivers says the Sixers have one of the world's great hamstring experts on staff and that he's pretty chill about Harden making a physical rebound by the playoffs, which, cool, sure, we'll see. But just intuitively, it makes more sense to me that this would simply be who Harden is now: a 32-year-old who was never lightning-quick to begin with, whose conditioning has fluctuated for most of the last few years, who's taken a near-peerless level of physical abuse for a guard in his decade-long pursuit of offensive nirvana, and whose game is so predicated on a sort of indefatigable predictability that even a small decrease in overall effectiveness feels conspicuously noticeable and harmful. (You could also say he's saving his best for the playoffs physically; I'll also believe that when I see it.)
In itself, I don't think that Harden's compromised state should be a death sentence for these Sixers. He still does so many things well -- especially now that he's also defending at a solid level -- and understands so much on offense that he should be gifted enough to simply help players already as offensively dynamic as Embiid, Maxey and (generously) Tobias become their best selves and just kinda fill in the blanks around them. And to some extent, that's what's happened, as the Sixers' starting five has one of the best plus-minus ratings in the league. But the team isn't complete enough to just kinda run other really good teams off the floor for 48 minutes, and in crunch time, neither Embiid nor Maxey is totally ready to be a go-to iso guy, nor is the teamwide execution spotless enough (or the play-calling creative enough) to implement actions to properly get around the lack of proper heroball options. And in those moments, if Harden's not the answer -- which I don't think he is or will be this season, at least not in the all-consuming way we'd like -- then the question just kinda uncomfortably lingers.
That's the crux of the issue with these still-excellent Sixers, who nonetheless appear slightly outclassed thusfar at the highest levels of competition: They can overcome their stars being imperfect or they can overcome their lack of depth and coaching ingenuity, but they might not be able to do both at the same time. In pretty much every game they've lost in the Harden era -- with the obvious exception of the Brooklyn game, which we better hope is a meaningless outlier because woof -- they've been up a decent amount at one point for another, but coughed up the lead during a bench-and-some-starters stretch where they couldn't get stops and/or ran the offense aground by fruitlessly hunting fouls and needlessly over-passing. And then once they go punch-for-punch down the stretch, their arsenal has proven short a crucial counter or two. With a more complete star combo, the close games wouldn't be so fraught. With a better bench or more inspired coaching, the games wouldn't be so close in the first place. Without any of it, we're in bad trouble.
So then, time to embrace the always-tempting proposition of just writing off this season as a dry run and pivoting to next year as The Year That Really Matters? One in which we've rebuilt a more athletic and more reliably versatile bench around our stars, maybe replaced our head coach with a more malleable and open-minded thinker, and -- dare to dream -- even replaced Tobias with a knows-his-role four who can bring nearly as much to the table without also taking so much off? Throw in an extra year of seasoning for Embiid, a third year of development for Maxey, a second-contract campaign for Matisse...it's not too tough to talk yourself into 2023 being the mission, with this season a glorified write-off in comparison. Lord knows we've had practice; I don't know if I've ever even made it this close to April before going full Wait Till Next Year with these Process-era Sixers.
But as previously alluded to, there's not a whole lot that's guaranteed about next year's Sixers. That's true in the more literal sense about James Harden's status as a Sixer, since he never officially opted into the next and final year on his deal -- which may or may not be just a formality depending on how these next few months go, but certainly doesn't provide us much insurance against the potential fallout from a discouragingly early playoff exit or general souring of the locker room. (Not to mention the potential short- and long-term consequences of committing $50 million annually to a player who's already on the decline.) And it's also true in the more figurative sense of the team's health actually being fairly sturdy for most of the season: Embiid is in peak physical condition and on track for a career-best number of games played, while Maxey, Tobias and Matisse should all join him in playing 65+ this season. When your stars are in place and the health and the vibes are both good, that's generally the time to push your chips in the middle of the table. You just wish they were doing so with slightly better odds this season.
And for the record, those odds still aren't nothing. The Sixers will go into the playoffs relatively unproven and not particularly scary to anyone -- but the East, while stocked top-to-bottom with good teams, is lacking in juggernauts. The Nets are terrifying but defensively lacking and maybe a little formless, particularly with Ben Simmons an enormous and ever-growing question mark. The Celtics have been formidable but are down an important part (at least for now) in Robert Williams III, and are relying more on ancient Al Horford than any team should feel comfortable with. The Bucks have been sloppier than usual, and needed an A+ Giannis performance to escape with the win on Tuesday. The Raptors have clear half-court issues. Time and injuries have left the Bulls and Cavaliers as obvious less-thans. The Heat are most likely straight-up frauds. The Sixers' chances of getting out of the East aren't as high as we'd like -- or as we maybe thought at the beginning of the month -- but they're not zero or all those close to it, either.
The hope, then, would be that there's still a ceiling yet to be reached with these Sixers -- that another seven lower-stakes regular season games and a (matchup-depending) tuneup of a first-round series gives them enough chance to further find their identity with Harden, allowing the team to find enough balance on offense that leaves everyone involved and no one compromised on the other end. That whatever bouncing back Harden has left in him physically is indeed bounced, and that the extra 5-10% of giddy-up his game recovers as a result spreads back to all facets of his effectiveness -- and if not, that he has the self-awareness to adjust his game accordingly. That a fully healthy and brilliant Embiid crushes the playoffs like he never has before, and that Maxey rises to the occasion like he's risen to everything else his sophomore season. That Doc maybe finds a new religion, and in the process, a howling-at-the-moon Paul Reed at the end of his bench. Like the rocky 2019 Sixers squad that discovered themselves at the right time and took the eventual champs down to the final shot, the ingredients for real greatness still exist with this team. If only the recipe was complete, the chefs were better at improvising, dinner wasn't right around the corner, and the restaurant was sure to still be open next year.