As Daryl Morey surveyed the wreckage of a season on Tuesday morning, the Sixers’ president of basketball operations looked and sounded like a man who knew that he had just lost the opportunity of a lifetime. And that’s exactly what he was. Nobody should be surprised if, 10 years from now, the Sixers look back and realize that 2021 was the year when the title should have come.
Unlike 2019, when they might have been the second-best team in the NBA, there was no first-best team in their way. Up and down the playoff field were teams that were never going to be as vulnerable as they are now. Year 1 is the year to steal one from the superteam, especially when the superteam, Brooklyn, is playing with one of its three superstars and one-half of another. The Bucks can get better — remember, they were originally planning on having Bogdan Bogdanovic in the mix. The Celtics can’t get worse. Miami is an NBA destination, and the Heat will always find a way to accommodate another star.
The question isn’t, how do the Sixers get better? It’s, how do they get good enough? Morey’s concern is not the deficiencies that knocked them out of this year’s playoffs. It’s the ones that will threaten them in next year’s field. They are similar issues, but not identical. This year’s team was only a couple of bench options short of being in the conference finals despite a center with a torn meniscus and a point guard who would not shoot the ball.
For all the attention paid to Ben Simmons’ jarring reluctance to assert himself on the offensive end of the court, the Sixers would probably still be in business if they had Kevin Huerter instead of Furkan Korkmaz, or maybe just a healthy Danny Green. They would be there easily if Joel Embiid was not injured, or if they’d acquired Kyle Lowry. They might be there anyway if NBA games were officiated the way they ostensibly will be next season, or Tobias Harris had not spent much of Game 7 watching his shots at the rim rattle out, or if Dwight Howard was a player with functional control of his limbs.
None of those observations is meant as an excuse. There are a lot of teams besides the Hawks that would have beaten the Sixers teams that showed up in Games 6 and 7. There are several that would have beaten them easily. It took all-world performances by Embiid and Seth Curry to build that 26-point lead in Game 5. That’s as unsustainable for the long term as it was that night.
That being said, optimal judgments require us to consider all information, and to set aside all emotion. There’s a tendency to overcorrect in situations where a team dramatically undershoots expectations. Addition by subtraction and change for change’s sake are tempting concepts, but they often come without equal consideration for the ways that things can get worse. And things can always get worse.
Right now, it’s fashionable to view the Sixers’ failures through the prism of Sam Hinkie’s “Process.” It’s good copy, I guess, but it misses the point. Hinkie’s goal was to build a team capable of inflicting the disappointments that the Sixers delivered to their fans this season. In the NBA, there are haves, and there are have-nots, and bridging that divide is a devil of a task. Admitting it now might interrupt the grieving process, but the reality is the Sixers are still among the small handful of teams that have reason to believe in their future. As long as they have Embiid and a capable front office, every year will bring the promise that it might be the one.
“A lot of what I’m reading, I frankly don’t understand. You know people are saying the Sixers are in a bad situation,” Morey said. “I don’t choose to come here, Doc [coach Rivers] doesn’t choose to come here if this is a bad situation. I mean, really 25 or 26 teams in this league would love to be in our situation with an MVP-caliber top player [Embiid] and an All-Star [Simmons], a near All-Star [Harris], great young players who are signed for the long term, good veterans. So, we’ve got a good foundation. We just have to do better, I have to do better, everyone has to do better.”
He’s right. There’s no sense in denying it. The conventional wisdom about Simmons might be correct. A chance of scenery might be in order, for both the player and the team. Philadelphia is not the ideal setting for a player to work through confidence issues, especially when the player is coming off a series like the one Simmons turned in against the Hawks. Morey certainly understands this.
You didn’t need a Ph.D. in reading between the lines to understand that he will do maximum diligence when evaluating the trade market for his All-Star guard. Five months ago, he was shooting down the idea of a Simmons trade while labeling him a big part of the Sixers’ future. On Tuesday, he would say only that he likes the totality of the team. If the Sixers can find a deal that changes their identity without making them worse, you get the sense that they will.
That being said, it’s useless to pound the table for a deal without specifying what an acceptable deal would be. There’s a very good chance that the Sixers can improve themselves more by adding a player or two around Simmons than they can by dealing him now. There’s a very good chance that the only offers they receive are ones that would make them blatantly worse.
Simmons might not do the things that the Sixers need him to do to win a title, but they become a worse team when you take away the things that he does. For all of his flaws, the Sixers have been legitimate championship contenders in two of the last three seasons, one game away from a conference finals where they would have had as good of a chance as any team at winning it all. They did this with Simmons on the court, playing 35-40 minutes. He is not a sunk cost.
The variable that will determine Morey’s optimal path forward are ones that we simply cannot know. One, what is the market for Simmons? Two, what is the market for everybody else on the roster (Harris, Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle)? Three, is Simmons permanently lost, the way Markelle Fultz was, or does he have the mental fortitude to emerge from the offseason as a better version of himself?
Anyone with an opinion who does not answer these three questions — particularly the first one — is spewing hot air. For Morey, there are no easy answers, and the easiest is not nearly as obvious as it seems.