How far are Sixers from NBA title contention?

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As shock wears off, how far are Sixers from title contention? originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Two days after the Sixers’ Game 7 loss to the Hawks, the emotions of that season-snuffing defeat were still fresh for president of basketball operations Daryl Morey.

He lingered on what might have been. 

“I think you replay that Game 7 a bunch of times, and we execute better and we win,” Morey said at his end-of-season press conference. “But look, the reality’s the reality, and we didn’t do it. And frankly, if we’re squeaking by the second round, that just tells me we’re unfortunately not good enough, probably, to win the title. So we need to get better, but that series is still incredibly painful.”

Morey’s assessment was honest. However, in an abnormal NBA season largely about slogging through to the finish line amid the COVID-19 pandemic (and despite a devastating multitude of injuries to star players), he wouldn't be wrong to think about the Sixers in the Eastern Conference finals and wonder what would’ve happened next. 

Were the Sixers better than the Hawks? In an on-paper sense, sure. The Sixers, as Morey framed it, had an “MVP-caliber top player, an All-Star and a near-All-Star” in Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris. The Hawks had a star in Trae Young, plus players ranging from very good to occasionally helpful. That’s of course an extreme oversimplification that glosses over the valuable contributions of Clint Capela, John Collins, Danilo Gallinari and others. The Sixers were favored to win, though. Even the most ardent Hawks fans likely thought that was logical.

In the most essential sense, no, the Hawks were superior. They won four out of seven games, including three in Philadelphia.

“That doesn’t matter, man,” Seth Curry said after Game 7. “They beat us — seven games, man. They played better. They were the better team for seven games. It was a close series. We had big leads, they came back from those leads. We had our opportunity to take advantage of it. We can’t say we’re the better team when they just beat us. We’ve got to get better.”

Young and Antetokounmpo both missed the Bucks' Game 5 win in the East finals with injuries. There’s an “Oh no, not again” element defining these playoffs, to the extent that the Sixers seem relatively fortunate Embiid suffered a small right lateral meniscus tear he was able to play through.  

In the regular season, almost everything broke the Sixers’ way. They secured the No. 1 seed, meaning either the Bucks or Nets would be gone by the conference finals. Kyrie Irving was sidelined by an ankle injury, James Harden was hampered by a hamstring strain and Kevin Durant’s 48 points were not quite enough in Brooklyn’s Game 7 overtime loss to Milwaukee. 

Championship probability guides Morey’s decision-making, and any team with a player as great as Embiid should have a shot at a title, provided the roster is reasonably well-built. In a 30-team league, though, there are always fine lines between early exits and deep playoff runs as long as one squad doesn’t have Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, or Stephen Curry, Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. No such dynasties exist these days.

It’s not delusional to think marginal moves might get the job done for the Sixers. The team’s opening-night starting five was excellent. If Danny Green hadn’t strained his right calf in Game 4 against Atlanta, perhaps Game 5 wouldn’t have slipped away and the Sixers would have earned a six-game series win. Green said he expected to be available at some stage in the East finals.

If Ben Simmons had shot 54.2 percent from the foul line in the playoffs instead of 34.2 percent, perhaps there never would have been a Game 7 and that apparent open layup he memorably declined.

Building a team isn’t a binary between all-in gambling and inactivity. Based on Morey’s history, he’ll explore potential deals and see what’s out there. If no decent trade for Simmons materializes, he’d be justified not to pull the trigger this offseason, as much as that might frustrate a sizable chunk of Sixers fans. Simmons has never looked worse across the league than he does at the moment. 

Morey and the front office should feel pressure to give Embiid the best team possible in his prime years, and to repair what went wrong this season. But the Sixers weren’t hopelessly destined for a Round 2 loss, and that’s worth considering as the shock of Game 7 wears off.