So Now What?
The biggest kick in the pants (top 25, anyway) of that Sixers loss is just how many questions it raises about what comes next for the team, with no good answers.
Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and writes 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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Last night, following that Boston-Philly Game Seven, the venerable writer and television personality Bomani Jones tweeted some shit about the Sixers. "I sure am glad i haven't spent almost 10 years defending the sixers. anyone know anyone who's done that? you've had to ride for hinkie. and simmons. and harden. embiid's getting kinda shaky. imagine putting in a decade for that. whew. couldn't be me." The statement drew the ire of some somehow-still-impassioned Sixers fans, to which he replied, "i recommend all sixers fans just hold the L. in such a tender time, you can't f ck with me. you know that. just be sad quietly."
At pretty much any other point in the past 10 years of the Process -- literally 10 years, as last night's game was a decade to the day of Sam Hinkie being hired and setting us on this particular course -- it would have been a call to arms for most if not all Trusters to get in Jones' business, to point out the inaccuracies and hypocrisies in his statement, to take shots at whatever cows he has holding sacred in contrast, to stick up for our guys in the face of whatever rhyme and/or reason. But this time, for the overwhelming majority of us, there was nothing to say. The Sixers just got noogied and wet willied by the Celtics in Game Seven, a complete second-half no-show captained by our two supposed franchise co-leads. No one Bomani taunted was even close to beyond reproach. No justification for spending 10 years waiting for this particular result would hold water. He was right: For once, we had no other move. Hold the L. Be sad quietly.
Last night's loss was the worst kind of Sixers loss for any number of reasons, but perhaps the biggest was this: It's the kind of loss that not only makes the present unbearable, but also forever taints both the future and the past. It calls into question the very foundations of everything. For the first time in his Sixers tenure, Joel Embiid no longer seems sacrosanct: Even our happiest memories with him are being infected as we speak, like Sadness getting a little too handsy in the early parts of Inside Out. It goes all the way back to Hinkie: He gets off pretty easy for checking out three years into the grand experiment, but what have all the crown jewels he left us with amounted to? Ten years of melodrama just to end up hitting our heads on the same ceiling as last decade's Wizards and Clippers -- worse still, as the Doug Collins-era Sixers? Hell, in 2012, that team took a Boston squad with three future Hall of Famers to the fourth quarter of Game Seven; I'm sure even Lavoy Allen and Jodie Meeks were watching Sunday's game in disgust at what their once-proud franchise had become.
For better or worse, though, there's nothing to be done about the past -- not right now, anyway. The future? Equally bleak, but at least it's something we can talk about.
As usual, it starts with Embiid, whose franchise pillar status does for the first time seem, as Jones put it, to be getting kinda shaky. We've spent seven years making excuses for Embiid -- injuries, teammate underperformance, bad matchups, the Colangelos -- and even though some of those still could technically hold true even in this most recent failure, you only get so many "but"s before the sentence becomes too much of a run-on to be taken seriously by anyone. This one is easily the toughest to explain away: It'd be one thing if he just scored poorly but otherwise played a good all around game, or if he played badly but still clearly put his body and soul on the line and never stopped fighting, or if he had a brutal stat line but at least held the other guy to an equally tough night of his own. He scored miserably, failed to contribute meaningfully in other categories, phoned in large parts of the game, and played a very large part in Jayson Tatum putting up a Game Seven record 51 points on the other end. It was the least-convincing performance by a leader in a season finale since Bran the Broken.
Which isn't to say the Sixers could (or should) actively try to better-deal him this offseason. One bad game, no matter how historically shitty or losery, does not erase everything Joel Embiid has done for this franchise -- nor does one usually find upgrades for the most recent MVP winner on the open market. It's just to say that Joel's own eyes may start to wander as the fallout from this series starts to get realer and realer.
It's hard to believe we could be saying this of a guy who only recently accepted the MVP trophy for the first time in front of a truly adoring, emotionally overwhelmed home crowd -- the most it was all good just a week ago moment I can remember witnessing in sports -- but after a game like this, and after a backlash like the one he's going to get, it's possible that Embiid looks around the house this summer, realizes he's no longer comfortable with the number of ghosts haunting its walls, and decides it's time for new digs altogether. After nine years and five second-round losses, I guess I couldn't blame him -- lord knows worse players have asked out of less dire situations in earlier circumstances. If we're spending this week questioning our devotion and commitment to Embiid, it's only fair he should get to do so for us.
I don't think a breakup this summer is ultimately all that likely. I think more likely Embiid will want one more try in Philly to wash this taste out of everyone's mouth -- lest he end the only extended sports relationship he's ever known at the worst possible time, completely undoing everything he's built here and potentially setting his career on the trajectory to become this generation's Dwight Howard, a Hall of Fame-caliber player beloved by nobody and with nowhere to call home. But the clock is undoubtedly ticking, and a bad end (or even a particularly bad start) could bring about an endgame faster than any of us (well, most of us) are comfortable with. The pressure is on Daryl Morey to remake this team in a way that leaves Jo convinced about both their present and their future, to get the buy-in from him they'll need to keep things with the greatest Philadelphia athlete of the last decade from turning to total shit.
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The most immediate part of that question is, of course, what to do with James Harden -- who has somehow managed to prove himself in the most high-leverage spots to be both indispensable to this team and absolutely unplayable. Now, you can't re-sign him. You can't let him walk. You can't even sign-and-trade him for Josh Richardson (I don't think). He and the Sixers are essentially in a game of chicken that all parties are guaranteed to lose: Bring him back and he ends up miserable getting paid too much to get hurt towards the end of every year and then no-show several big playoff games a series. Let him go and Jo looks around at a team with no other All-Stars or high-level playmakers, and maybe his lack of excitement at gritting his teeth through another period of mini-retooling exacerbates him putting one or both feet out the door.
Even if he does figure out the Harden part, Morey will still has to deal with what to do with Tobias Harris' expiring contract, whether Paul Reed, De’Anthony Melton and Jalen McDaniels are worth extending, if we should cash out on Tyrese Maxey before his limitations start to outweigh his potential, what we can get for Furkan Korkmaz following his 17th trade request. And all of this, of course, with terms like "second apron" looming to soon force us to learn way too much about CBA minutiae to understand why we basically can't do shit to make this team much better than it already is. It's an offseason where Daryl's gonna have to get a lot more creative than re-trading for Harden and bringing in all his old friends (again), and we're running out of second-round picks to throw out as tampering casualties anyway.
And honestly, we'll see if Morey is even the guy to get it done anymore. That's not really about him or his performance: a loss like this doesn't mostly get laid at his feet or even Doc Rivers'. But when the losing is this bad, everyone within a certain radius gets sprayed by it -- particularly when you have a reputation for teams you steward coming up short in the playoffs, as both Morey and Rivers do. Heads are gonna roll, and the axe may be swung so wildly and indiscriminately this summer that even some domes we expected to remain attached could still end up sans capitation. Anything is in play for the Sixers right now; as Mike and Spike said on last night's Ricky, there's not a single person associated with this franchise right now that you look at and say "well at least they're clearly not to blame." In other worlds, welcome to the new media landscape, dudes. No one is safe.
And yeah, that includes us. Worth mentioning as we talk about the future for these Sixers that after the Mother's Day Massacre, there may very well be no more future for some onetime Process Trusters. Certainly, if you took everyone who scaled the mountaintops yesterday to publicly proclaim their Doneness with this team at face value, it would appear that a significant portion of the base will not be sticking around for whatever comes next. I have to imagine many of those folks will nurse their wounds for a few months, find some other NBA playoff failures to laugh about in the next two rounds of the playoffs -- hey, someone will lose frustratingly between this hellish upcoming 18th Celtics-Heat conference finals of the last decade -- and ultimately find reasons to get somewhat excited about the Sixers again in time for next year. (A draft night trade! A summer league breakout! A coach firing!)
But some number of those fans perhaps really are legitimately finito with this franchise, and I guess I couldn't fault them either. It's been a decade. Or two. Or four, depending. Despite all the good things so many of us have found through the Sixers -- connection, community, distraction, Tyrese Maxey's smile -- there comes a point where you have to be honest with yourself about whether the juice is still worth the squeeze. This year, a lot of us squeezed as hard as we could and today find ourselves left with a conspicuously empty glass. If there are people who decide they'd rather instead invest their emotional energy in the San Antonio Spurs, or in the future of jai alai, or in, I dunno, doing good works and helping people and not spending so much time being a snarky little pissant on the internet, then God bless. You deserve the chance to start over. We all do.
I will not be joining you, though. I mean, sure, as an almost-37-year-old so preoccupied with the outcome of this series yesterday that I left my car parked the wrong way before flying to another city, I am left questioning an awful lot of my life's decisions and priorities this week. Writing this on Sunday night, I can feel the delayed-onset sickness of Game Seven still creeping into my belly, I'm just trying to get my fingers to put this all down as fast as I can before my brain has the chance to tell me to throw my laptop off the balcony.
And yet, I know that even with all of this, I will not be able to quit this team. Not while Joel Embiid's there, anyway. Even after his pitiful performance today, his bad-vibes press conference, his all-around demeanor that can truly only be described as Loser Energy -- he's still my guy. The thought of moving on from him remains unpalatable; a Sixers team without him is no Sixers team at all, and I know I'll never love again like this in my NBA-watching lifespan. I've traveled too far with Joel by this point; I cannot get off the ship, I can only sink with it. I don't know how I'll react to watching him play next year, if I'll be able to forgive the first second he hits a turnaround jumper in Brook Lopez's face or if I'll be silently seething at him the whole time like a significant other who you kinda hope does the thing you hate them doing so you can unleash months' worth of pent-up frustration about it on them. All I know is I won't totally give up on Joel Embiid until he officially gives up on us. I can't.
Is there any reason to actually keep the faith at this point, though? Any silver lining from the cloud that always seems to rain on the Sixers? This is usually where I try to find one, but I'm a little short on ideas this time, except to say that while this game will always be a part of Joel Embiid's story -- a big, big part -- it still doesn't have to be the defining one. Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Hakeem Olajuwon -- all were a full decade into their career by the time they won their first championship with their original team, with endless close-but-not-quite stories (if not a historic choke or two) leading up to their ultimate breakthroughs. But that's entirely on him to prove now: He's out of excuses, and he's out of assumptions. After three years of pushing hard for the MVP, he's finally won it and that was wonderful; now I hope he knows that truly nothing he does during the regular season matters if he can't get it done past the first round of the playoffs. And while many of us will continue to watch and even root for Embiid, we will never believe in him again until it is the third full week of May and he's still got another series to play — and maybe not until the series after that still. Regardless, we will not believe it's possible until we are actually watching it happen.
I wish it didn't have to be like this. I wish I could still be the guy who gets on here and tells you this team is still worth loving, worth trusting, worth committing to. I wish I could tell you how much I'm looking forward to watching this team next year, how I believe there's reason to expect things will be better, different. I wish I could tell you how stupid all the fatalistic fans on Twitter are being, how premature their declarations of this team being done were at so many points in this series and even this regular season. I’ve been able to be that guy after some pretty brutal losses before. And honestly, part of me still does believe that I was justified in the faith I put in them from the second half of the season until now, that they did demonstrate that they were a different team this year, that if De'Anthony Melton and P.J. Tucker just hit some open shots in the fourth quarter of Game Six we're spending today breaking down whether Georges Niang can hang with Duncan Robinson for four to seven games.
It's not an argument I can really put my heart into at the moment. No matter how loud, obnoxious or myopic the criticism of this team is this week, after that performance on Sunday, they don't deserve to be spared any of it — not even the shade from the Sixers’ ultimate Ghost of Fraudulence Past. I love Joel Embiid more than I've ever loved a professional athlete, maybe more than I've ever loved any famous person I had no immediate connection to. I desperately hope that the team gets rebuilt around him in a way that gives him another real shot next year at changing the conversation, and that he continues to put in the work himself to be in position to take advantage of it. But I can't defend him right now, can't promise that things will get better with him, can't even guarantee that he'll be here next year. All I can do is hold the L, and be sad quietly.