It will be easy for the Philadelphia 76ers to convince themselves a new coach will solve what ailed them this season. The injury to Ben Simmons is a convenient excuse for the front office’s roster construction failures, and incumbent coach Brett Brown all but fell on his sword following the team’s first-round playoff exit at the feet of a Boston Celtics sweep, acknowledging his inability to maximize a misfit rotation. A new hire may buy general manager Elton Brand another year on the job, with the promise of a few tweaks on the fringes.
It will all be delaying the inevitable. Brown is not the primary reason the Sixers are flying home early again. Plenty of people deserve a piece of that blame pie, but the biggest belong to Brand for rushing The Process with a series of unfortunate transactions and to Embiid and Ben Simmons for inherent issues uneasy to fix.
The Sixers made the inevitable official on Monday anyhow, firing Brown.
“Unfortunately, we fell well short of our goals this year and I believe it is best to go in a new direction,” Brand said in a statement a little more than 24 hours after his team was swept. “This will be an important offseason for us as we look to get back on track towards our goal of competing for an NBA championship.”
“This is a difficult decision,” Sixers owner Josh Harris added, “but one we believe is necessary.”
More defined roles and rotations might help extract something better than the sixth-place mess the Sixers ended up with this season, but there is no undoing Brand’s work over the past two years. He traded Robert Covington and Dario Saric for Jimmy Butler, who nearly led Philadelphia to the 2019 Eastern Conference finals, only to lose him in a sign-and-trade deal that returned Josh Richardson. Brand dealt Landry Shamet and two first-round picks for the right to pay Tobias Harris $180 million and signed 34-year-old Al Horford for $109 million. And he swapped 2017 No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz for the 21st pick in this year’s draft.
The Sixers would be in better shape had Brand done nothing at all. They would have shooters to create space around two stars who operate best out of the mid post, a backup playmaker still with considerable upside despite his own shooting woes and a pair of first-round picks in both this draft and the next to work those margins. Instead, they own two of the most untradable contracts in the NBA and little else of value to fix the spacing around Simmons and Embiid besides the “fairly remote” chance of trading one of them. And they are projected to field a team that will cost its owners more than every other in NBA history but one.
Richardson is the only player under contract slated to make between $5 million and $27.5 million next season, and he can opt out of the final year of his deal in 2021. Rookie wing Matisse Thybulle showed promise as a defensive specialist with adequate offensive ability. Could Brand package either or both of them with either or both of his first-round picks over the next two years for some shooting help? Efforts to obtain that same help failed at the February trade deadline, but the offseason does bring new options.
Richardson was arguably Philadelphia’s second-best player behind Embiid on their shortest possible playoff run, and Thybulle is a valuable member of the rotation both in terms of cost and potential. An upgrade to either would likely be marginal at best, and the return still would not solve the issues inherent to Embiid, Simmons, Harris and Horford making at least a combined $112.6 million in the 2022-23 season.
Harris and Horford are who they are. The former is at best a third option on a playoff team, a better-than-average shooter who has been comfortably discarded by his four previous teams, and the latter is a past-his-prime former All-Star whose skills as a versatile big man are in decline and utterly lost on this roster.
A new coach could persuade Embiid to improve his conditioning and Simmons to extend his shooting range, the two biggest roadblocks between them and championship contention as a tandem. Even the remote possibility of either is what will prevent the Sixers from parting ways with one of them three years into the experiment. But will Embiid change his stripes at 26 years old? Even if he can sustain max effort for longer periods, will that also solve his injury woes? Can Simmons transform over an abbreviated offseason from someone who does not even attempt 3-pointers to someone who makes them consistently?
The answer to all three is most likely no. All five teams that finished higher than the Sixers in the East this year will again be better positioned than them next season, and the return of Kevin Durant to the Brooklyn Nets may push them to seventh in the conference’s pecking order. Tyronn Lue is one of the few coaches to win a title in his first season at the helm and appears on Philadelphia’s short list of potential replacements, but he was already an assistant on the bench when a first-place Cleveland Cavaliers team featuring LeBron James switched midstream in 2016. Steve Kerr did it in 2015 with a Golden State Warriors team that finished sixth the year prior, but that was with one of the best-fitting roster constructions in league history.
The process begins anew, only time is no longer on their side. Another lost year would end with two remaining on Embiid’s contract, around the time recent All-Stars who have requested trades went public with their desires. Do you entrust Brand to select the coach and build the roster who can stem that tide? I am not sure ownership can look itself in the mirror and answer that in the affirmative. The real question is whether any coach or GM can solve this before Simmons or Embiid make it abundantly clear nobody can.
“The thing that I found the most challenging as the season played out, space became an enormous issue,” Brown conceded in perhaps his final interview in seven years as Philadelphia’s coach, pointing to an issue that no coach can magically fix. “And effectively you had a mismatch every possession down the court.”
Embiid also seemed to be facing the enormity of their problems in the aftermath of a sweep. “That’s a very stupid question,” he told a reporter who asked what issues led to their downfall. “There is no issue,” Embiid added between alluding to a number of them, ranging from effort to “a lot” more vague “stuff going on.”
The Sixers may not be convinced yet, but the day they have to choose between their two stars could come sooner than they ever expected. It might already be here, considering the potential return for either is more likely to unlock the ceiling for the other and improve their odds of contending for championships. If we learned anything from Philadelphia’s early exit from Orlando, it is that Simmons is the more vital piece to their puzzle. A talent argument can be made either way, but Simmons raises the effort and ability of the players around him in a way Embiid simply does not. Any number of teams would line up to trade for either.
Which again brings us back to the question of whether the Sixers should entrust Brand to decide the who, when and how of trading either Simmons or Embiid. So, just keep in mind now that Brown’s inevitable departure has been confirmed, for all his failures, he is the scapegoat of an organization-wide meltdown.
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