CAMDEN, N.J. — The Philadelphia 76ers would love to start where last season ended, the moment before Kawhi Leonard’s missile of a corner jumper bounced one, two, three, four times in agonizing fashion before propelling the Toronto Raptors to a place they’ve never been and the 76ers into another offseason of upheaval.
But instead of tinkering with the remodeled house they made over three times in a year, GM Elton Brand took another sledgehammer to the building — not quite starting over but leaving the “good bones” in place, one could say.
Another incarnation will begin this season with championship expectations, big questions about the two headliners and uncertainty about who will take the lead late in games. Jimmy Butler, who was added early in the season last year, became the team’s closer, but the 76ers failed to max him out in free agency and he departed to Miami.
So why are so many picking a team that’s somewhat awkwardly built to make a serious run to the NBA Finals, especially when it — which gave the eventual champion Raptors their hardest test — isn’t returning en masse?
The good bones are still growing, with a year of experience and necessary playoff heartbreak in their collective minds. As precarious as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are, it’s hard to find cornerstones with more upside than these two, who had the closest view of Leonard’s jumper sending them back to the lab for the summer. We saw Embiid’s heartache in real time, trudging to the 76ers’ locker room with unconsolable emotion, each tear matching the confetti streamers dropping north of the border.
The questions are loud, unsullied by summer videos of Simmons taking long jumpers in pickup games or Embiid sounding like a man who’s winning the never-ending battle with his body, losing 20 pounds in the offseason. The questions won’t go away until they perform consistently. As Simmons said Monday at media day about his outside shooting, “If it’s open, I’ll take it,” a creed that will be put to test this season.
Defensively, the 76ers can be as long and pesky as any team in the East, able to give someone in Milwaukee who possesses a freakish body and skill set so many different looks.
They can wreak defensive havoc on the nights their jump shots aren’t falling, or the space to drive isn’t there in the half-court even if Simmons hasn’t improved. And Simmons’ end-to-end ability can manufacture scoring against moderate defenses, if not elite ones just yet.
It’ll be on much-maligned coach Brett Brown to make this all work, and he could have an entire season with little to no roster alterations to tinker around with.
Embiid wants to turn that feeling of spring desolation into devastation for East opponents, subtly hinting at an MVP run should the 76ers get the No. 1 seed with “60 wins or more,” he believes.
For that to happen, he’ll have to be available for more than the career-high 64 games he played last season — a year in which “load management” became the phrase en vogue when “Board Man” paced his body and was the last man standing in June.
The acquisition of Al Horford seems to indicate consistency in the 76ers’ strategy from last season. The man who defended Embiid best is now his ally, helping the 76ers up front while severely weakening the rival Boston Celtics with his departure.
The 76ers fell apart when Embiid was out, going 8-10 when he was inactive. A big reason for the 76ers targeting the 33-year-old Horford was the understanding he would take on the responsibility of filling in when necessary.
“I’ve always wanted to be labeled as playing multiple positions, particularly the [power forward],” Horford told Yahoo Sports. “I’ve always wanted the power forward, but I’ve learned the way the game is going, I have to play more five. Just not full time.
“I knew I was gonna have to play some five. That’s my strength, to play multiple positions, to do different things.”
He represents so many things for the 76ers: a viable center when Embiid is out, a veteran who’s been to the doorstep of the Finals and perhaps, most of all, some form of stability for the long term.
Last year’s team was volatile and explosive, with players thrown together in the interim to take advantage of a LeBron James-less East.
Butler and JJ Redick are gone, Horford and Josh Richardson (via sign-and-trade with Miami for Butler) are in, and the entire starting five has long-term deals. Simmons signed for the rookie-scale max and Tobias Harris re-upped for $180 million.
Money equals expectations, unlike last spring when the collective group seemed to be playing with house money.
“It helps tremendously because we can focus on playing and doing some special things,” Horford told Yahoo Sports. “Knowing the organization believes in this core and this group. They’ve showed it by giving us all long-term deals.”
Those waters were too deep for Horford’s Celtics to navigate maturely last season. The Brooklyn-bound Kyrie Irving issued his mea culpa of sorts, and Horford is careful about putting that weight on this squad too soon.
“Last season, the expectations we had in Boston, we were almost thinking Finals or picturing when we get to this level,” Horford told Yahoo Sports. “The reality is, it’s a lot of work that needs to be done and we can’t think that way. We just need to grind day by day and hopefully we’ll be in a good position at the end of the year.”
Horford believes Harris wants to take a step forward as a dependable player late in games. Harris averaged 15.5 points last postseason but with a player of his talent, there’s always the feeling that he has more to give. And who better to do it on this roster?
It’s important to remember: It was Butler who tied it late in Game 7 against the Raptors with a fearless drive to the rim. Then, heartbreak struck.
“It lingered for a long time,” Harris said. “You can feel the sense of urgency, the hunger, for the guys who were here last year to get better. We have to have this transparency with this group.”
Here’s transparency for the 76ers, illustrated by the money, the experience and the East: Anything but a Finals berth is a bust.
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