The Sixers Are Not As Good As We Thought They Were
So… now what?
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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Well, you wouldn’t say that that road swing just now couldn’t have gone worse for the Philadelphia 76ers, exactly. It was only four games. Two of them were still somewhat competitive in the fourth quarter. No one on our side got hurt. No one got in a fistfight with the locals, as far as we know. By Process Sixers standards, this would be a night out in Old City. But by the standards of a contending team… well, it’s the sort of stretch that lets you know you’re not really a contending team to begin with. Not right now, anyway.
We knew this stretch was going to be bad. A 9-15 away team hits the road for four games, one against a team they never beat in their building and three against the beasts of the East, chances were that we weren’t coming back from the trip with a tan and a smile. But this trek, with four straight losses by double figures, was just merciless in the way it disavowed us of just about all our defenses. We can’t say this team turns it on against the best teams anymore. We can’t say that they’re still a brutal matchup for anyone they might face in the East playoffs. We can’t say that they’re built for the playoffs, that they’ll come together when it really matters. We can’t say anything, except that this team isn’t as good as we thought they were.
Who’s to blame? Well, everyone, of course. At a moment like this, your Process Life and all that’s gone wrong that should’ve gone right tends to flash before your eyes. Sam Hinkie getting ousted the season before Joel Embiid’s debut. Whiffing on the Markelle Fultz pick. Losing Game Three at home against Boston. Burnergate and whiffing in 2018 free agency. Giving up way too much for Tobias Harris. The quadruple-doink. Having to trade Jimmy Butler to Miami because he and Ben Simmons couldn’t co-exist. Embiid never getting in proper shape. Simmons making two threes and then never shooting again. And now, we can probably officially throw Elton signing Al Horford in the off-season onto that pile. The team is a sulking, ill-fitting, finger-pointing mess at the moment, and no one is above judgment.
So what’s left? The team is 31-21, sixth in the East, with a middling scoring differential and very little credible claim to being better than the five teams in front of them. What’s left to hang your “Bullies” hat on, besides their still-sparkling home record -- which could be vulnerable as soon as tonight against the surging Grizzlies, and which is kind of a moot point when they’re set to start every playoff series on the road anyway? What else is there to give you reason to believe that these Sixers could be more than they’ve shown the past week and a half?
Well, there’s two things. There’s time, and there’s not having any other choice.
Two months remain in the regular season. You might hear that and wonder if you can even make it to April with this team before you start randomly wandering into traffic, and fair enough. But I’ll remind you that before this four-game roadie, the Sixers had won six of seven and had just comfortably beat the West-best Lakers at home without Joel Embiid. Which isn’t to discredit or devalue the shittiness of the last four games, but just to point out that even though it doesn’t feel like it now, this team has gone through stretches of not being depressing -- being exciting, even.
Again, not going to say that things can’t get worse -- things can always get worse -- but even objectively, chances are pretty good that this stretch will mark the low point of the Sixers’ regular season. Six of their next eight games are at home, and six of the eight are against sub-.500 teams. Indeed, aside from a back-to-back at Staples against the Clippers and Lakers in early March, the Sixers don’t play consecutive games against teams with winning records for the rest of the season. The last 30 games of the season should provide the Sixers plenty of get-well opportunities, should they decide to seize them.
Of course, 14 of those 30 games are on the road, and you wouldn’t trust the (now 9-19 away from Philly) Sixers on the road against the Friends Central JV squad at the moment. But if there’s one thing you can hope for, aside from Josh Richardson returning to the lineup and Embiid losing that damn thing on his left hand, it’s that they use this time to experiment with rotations and find a balance that works better than what they currently have.
Playing Horford alongside Simmons and Embiid hasn’t worked -- and only seems to be further poisoning team chemistry -- so it’s probably time to at least try bringing him off the bench, and risk alienating one overpaid old guy rather than having your two still-young All-Stars tune out completely. Give Korkmaz a shot in the starting lineup for the spacing, or Thybulle for the perimeter defense and athleticism, or Zhaire for the sheer chaos -- but open things up for Simmons and Embiid in a way that doesn’t require Big Al launching 12 threes a game.
Meanwhile, experiment more with the Embiid/Korkmaz two-man game, the Richardson/Simmons pick-and-roll. Hell, keep Shake in the starting lineup for a couple games after Richardson comes back, and move Tobias to the bench for a lark. And before any of this, let’s give Embiid off until his hand heals, especially if this is the guy we’re getting in the meantime. We’re not climbing up to the two seed, the East is too crappy for us to miss the playoffs entirely, and we’ve got 30 regular-season games left to get through. Let’s get weird, let’s get healthy, and let’s see if we can figure some stuff out.
Because no matter how poorly conceived the team was for this season, or who’s at fault for dreaming it up, these are our guys until the summer. Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III are coming as reinforcements, and they’ll provide some relief, but they won’t fundamentally change the team’s outlook. For better or worse, the combination of the team being depleted of desirable and tradable assets and there not even being a logical player on the move who’d the Sixers want to overpay for meant that this was going to be a margins-only trade deadline for Elton & Co. They’ve locked themselves into this team, and while Brett Brown might not be long for this world at this point, it’d be close to unprecedented for a team ten games over .500 to fire their coach with 30 games left in the season. The window for external fixes has shut, and was arguably never open in the first place. The team’s gonna have to do it internally, or not at all.
And make no mistake, “not at all” is absolutely an option. Squads who look this out of sorts for this long a stretch don’t often come back from them, and if they do, they’re often just one brush with adversity away from falling back into old habits. Lest we forget, Horford’s Celtics of last year followed a similarly miserable regular season by rallying in the playoffs to sweep the Pacers in the first round, and began the second round by stealing a convincing Game One win in Milwaukee -- before getting trucked by the Bucks in four straight and disassembling shortly after. Now that we’ve seen the Sixers at their worst, we should consider ourselves on notice that they’re always at risk of backsliding to this lifeless, listless bunch of humps when things start to go the other way.
But we have also seen them at their best. We saw that Lakers game, a convincing win down two starters. We saw them pound the Bucks at home on Christmas, making Giannis look as human as Milwaukee made Embiid last night. And we saw them blow the roof off against the Heat, a game after which I declared Miami to no longer be considerable as a threat, and which I asked to be reminded of the next time I doubted the Sixers in the regular season. Maybe instead of the 2018-’19 Celtics, they’re the 2009-’10 Celtics, a bloated, cranky bunch of vets who struggled through a nauseating regular season before clicking in the playoffs and sending an ascendant LeBron packing to South Beach.
Of course, what I didn’t consider while promising to keep the faith was that all of the Sixers’ marquee wins were at home -- a close victory in Boston and the Furkan shot in Portland are the only things even resembling statement wins among the paltry nine Ws Philly has racked up on the road. Figuring out how to take their WFC act on the road will have to be something the Sixers do some soul-searching about over the All-Star Break, and if there’s a simple solution to those woes, it’s not gonna come at this point in the column. But at least we know there’s something there with this team, something even a little bit special -- something that we just haven’t shown yet in buildings besides our own.
Besides, while the Sixers’ improvements at the deadline were only incremental, no one else surged ahead of them, either. The Celtics, Raptors and Bucks all sat on their hands, happy with their current buy-ins. The Pacers might not have even put the date on their calendars. Make a big deal about how the Heat fortified themselves for a long playoff run if you want, but I’ll believe that 36-year-old, long-dormant, already-half-washed Andre Iguodala and 37% shooting Jae Crowder are actually upgrades over Miami’s current endless rotation of deadly stop-and-pop marksmen when I see it. The Sixers might be behind the East’s best at the moment, but no one is miles ahead. (Except maybe the Bucks, though even in a bad loss last night, I still liked a lot about the matchup -- if we can get Joel sorted.)
And if the Sixers don’t figure things out in time, and quickly prove this postseason to be the early-exit squad they appeared this past week? Well, then the axe comes this summer. Brett Brown is almost certainly sitting duck with a scorched ass in anything but the absolute best-case scenario -- his expulsion papers were likely signed the moment Simmons decided to put off the jumper yet another semester. We may need to use some of the precious few assets we have left to relocate Horford to a more amenable climate, and if it’s particularly dire, we may even need to start to contemplate nuclear options with Ben or Joel -- though really only if one of them says (or strongly implies) that it’s getting to be ultimatum time. It won’t quite be the Toni Tony Tatone prophecy of restarting the Process a couple more times -- even in a worst-case, one of Embiid/Simmons plus a trade return from the other should still be enough for continued NBA relevance -- but it’ll certainly be the end of something.
But the good news, again, is that that’s all still at least a couple months away. Time isn’t much of a reassurance at this point, especially when things seem to be trending so relentlessly downward -- but at a low this dramatic, the team should be grateful for any amount of separation between them and the most important games of the season. Sixty wins is over. Joel winning the MVP is over. Home-court advantage at any level of the postseason might very well be over. But the playoffs are still coming, and the Sixers -- these Sixers -- are still going to be there. And there’s still two months of basketball games to be played before then. It may be too late for the Sixers to be the team we wanted them to be, but it’s not too late for them to keep trying.