The Philadelphia 76ers Are Frustratingly Close

Kawhi Leonard picked the Los Angeles Clippers. Kyrie Irving picked the Brooklyn Nets. Kevin Durant picked the Nets. Taj Gibson picked the New York Knicks. And then Jimmy Butler picked the Miami Heat. What the hell, Jimmy Butler? Why the Heat? Why now? Why leave the Philadelphia 76ers the same offseason that saw the conference’s best player dip and the conference’s next best player saw his team take a step back? Knick fans may be asking “Why, Kevin, why?”, but why are we all not asking why “Why, Jimmy, why?” 

We will remember this NBA offseason for a multitude of reasons: Leonard left his team even after winning the title; the Lakers gave up everybody not named LeBron James to secure Anthony Davis; Chris Paul got traded for Russell Westbrook. Left is right, east is west, and nobody knows when the next superstar player is going to want out. Still, I won’t remember this offseason for those transactions, no, I’ll remember this offseason as the summer that cost the Sixers a title. 

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The Sixers locked in Ben Simmons. The Sixers locked in Tobias Harris. The Sixers locked in Al Horford. The Sixers didn’t lose Butler for nothing; the Sixers snagged Josh Richardson away from a desperate Miami franchise. This is all great. Locking in several very good basketball players in the same offseason is always good. Losing your most-important player in the same offseason is never good. Sure, Embiid is most-important Sixer long-term, but Embiid is not the most-important Sixer next season, that title now belongs to Harris. If Harris returns to the role he had in Los Angeles last season before he was moved to Philadelphia, this team could win the title. If Harris is closer to what he was last season, particularly in the playoffs, the Sixers cannot win the title. There was not a team in the East last year that gave Toronto more problems than Philadelphia; if that role doesn’t go Toronto’s way, does Philly win the title? It’s not only conceivable it is probable. The 2018-19 Sixers were thin, but those Sixers had the ingredients of a title team -- elite big who could impose his will when necessary, two wings who can score from anywhere, a three-point marksman and a unicorn point guard who could always go up another level. 

When people think of the Sixers, they seem to focus on the odd pairing between Simmons and Embiid. It looks weird, you’re never sure if they’ll have enough shooting to survive, but this pairing has always been fine -- especially in the Jimmy Butler era. In mid-January, Liberty Ballers found that Simmons was averaging 17/10/8 since Jimmy forced his way out of Minnesota. Even when Butler was off the court for the Sixers in the regular season, the team had a positive net rating with Simmons and Embiid on the floor together. Point is, Simmons is a very good basketball player that can play with anybody and Embiid is a very good basketball player that can play with anybody. Akin to Daryl Morey’s ethos -- talent wins out. Losing talent does not. The Sixers lost Butler.

Butler can obviously do whatever he wants, and it’s easy to understand why a human being would rather spend his winter months in Miami rather than Philly. But the East is wide open, man. The East was open last year post-LeBron; the East even more open post-Kawhi. The East is just not open for the Miami Heat. Pat Riley can acquire Paul in a couple of months but that Miami team is not winning anything. That Miami team wasn’t winning anything with Russell Westbrook. That Philly team with Butler, Simmons and Embiid was winning something next year. In a summer where every star paired up with another star, the Sixers already had two with the possibility of two more depending on who you ask. Health-permitting, that Philly core would have been favored to reach the NBA Finals. 

With Butler gone, the pressure falls back on Embiid. It’s easy to forget two postseasons ago, but what Al Horford and the Boston Celtics did to the big fella was illegal in 17 states. It was bad. It caused us to wonder if Embiid could be the best player on a title team. Should you still be building around a big in today’s NBA? Is Embiid in-shape? Is Embiid going to hit threes like Brook Lopez or is he just going to keep taking them and bricking almost all of them? With their closer off the roster, the pressure is back on the former closer, Mr. Joel Embiid. By leaving for South Beach, Butler put the spotlight back on the former Kansas Jayhawk. We’ll see how he handles it. I’d recommend getting in-shape, but I’m no doctor, just a keyboard warrior.

You also end up thinking about the Markelle Fultz insanity. If the Sixers take Jayson Tatum and not trade for Fultz, where are they now? Are we pencilling them as the new Oklahoma City Thunder with Durant, James Harden and Westbrook? Three stars is nice, but having three stars on the same timeline is nicer. Even if they don’t take Tatum, let’s say Fultz turns into the guy everybody thought he would be coming out of the NBA Draft? An already weird Philly team would have been even weirder with two lead ball handlers with very different games and very similar personalities. Do the numbers trend in the right direction like Embiid and Simmons even if they don’t look like they should? 

But smart NBA people are talking themselves into the new-look Sixers. Horford and Embiid is going to go just as well Mike Budenholzer predicted Dwight Howard and Horford would have in Atlanta a few years back. Josh Richardson could go up another level with a better collection of players. Simmons could stop being a coward and shoot some dang threes. Harris could remember who Clipper Tobias was and take Philly home in close games in June. Like that kid in ANGELS IN THE OUTFIELD repeated over and over again, “It could happen.” I have my doubts. I don’t believe Horford and Embiid will share the floor in clutch-time. I don’t believe Richardson has another level in him. I don’t believe Simmons is shooting any threes. I don’t believe Clipper Tobias returns. I just believe the Sixers would have won the title if Butler stayed in Philly.