By now, the 76ers should be in a better situation.
The additions of Doc Rivers and Daryl Morey brought instant credibility to the franchise. But it hasn’t translated to a deeper postseason run for a franchise accustomed to second-round exits. Truth be told, the Sixers are in worse shape than when the Toronto Raptors eliminated them in the second round of the 2019 playoffs on Kawhi Leonard’s four-bounce buzzer-beater.
Back then, the Sixers had hope. The decisions to let go of Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick and instead sign Al Horford that offseason proved to be that roster’s undoing.
The acquisitions of Rivers, a future Hall of Famer, and Morey, one of the most renowned executives in professional sports, before the 2020-21 season was supposed to change the team’s fate. Things started off great when they traded an ineffective Horford and his exorbitant contract to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Dec. 8, 2020. And the fan base was wildly enthusiastic when the Sixers went on to win the Eastern Conference’s 2021 regular-season title.
That excitement was short-lived as the Sixers suffered another second-round exit. They did the same thing this season, losing in six games to the Miami Heat. And now, some have to wonder if their championship window has closed.
The Sixers have admitted that they lack the mental toughness needed to win an NBA championship. They also have a poorly constructed roster and lack depth.
The team boasts an MVP finalist in Joel Embiid. The Sixers have an emerging second-year star in Tyrese Maxey, along with with a fringe All-Star in Tobias Harris. They also acquired perennial All-NBA selection James Harden in a February trade with the Brooklyn Nets. But as the past months have shown, Harden is more of a facilitator than a prolific scorer at this stage of his career.
For the most part, the Sixers’ roster is loaded with incomplete players. They have solid shooters who are defensive liabilities. They have defensive-minded players who can’t shoot. They have great locker-room guys who are several seasons past their prime. And they have raw players who are better suited for the G League than the NBA.
The Sixers’ roster shortcomings were on full display against the Heat.
Miami had three reserves — Tyler Herro, Victor Oladipo, and Duncan Robinson — who would have been starters for the Sixers. And that’s saying a lot, considering the sharpshooting Robinson only played an average of 6.1 minutes in his three series appearances.
“We have, we think, a lot of things that we can improve on,” Morey said. “And that’s on myself, that’s on Elton [Brand, general manager] and that’s on coach Rivers. We’re going to figure this out. But we feel like there’s a lot of build on.”
But how will they build on it?
The Sixers need to add several versatile and gritty wings and forwards. They also need a traditional point guard on the roster. The problem is, they might not be able to afford the ones who can make a difference.
Harden has said he’ll opt into his $47.3 million player option for next season. Harris is in line to make $37.6 million and Embiid $33.6 million. Those three players alone will combine to make more than $118.5 million. The problem is, the projected NBA salary cap will be $122 million and luxury tax level is $149 million. According to Spotrac.com, the Sixers have an active roster cap of $153.4 million.
The team has until July 1 to pick up the final year of Danny Green’s deal. Green is expected to miss next season after suffering ACL and LCL tears in left knee in the opening minutes of Game 6 of the conference semifinal. By not picking up his option, the Sixers would shed $10 million in salary.
However, the best way to create cap space would involve trading Harris, who has two seasons and $76.9 million left on his deal. But they’ll have to find a team willing to take on that salary. The Sixers might also have to include assets, perhaps through a third team, to entice a squad with available cap space to take on Harris’ deal.
The Sixers aren’t going to trade Embiid or Maxey. They gave up Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, and two first-round picks for Harden. So they’re invested in him. Harden did say that he’ll be willing to do whatever is needed to help the Sixers. It’s unclear if that includes opting out and signing for less money to create space.
Trying to swap Harris for someone who’s more versatile is likely their best quick fix.
“We need a lot of what we saw from [the Heat],” Morey said. “Look, we can do it. We have a lot of resources. We have a lot of flexibility. Josh [Harris] and David [Blitzer] give us every ability to go out and do what we need to do. That’s why right now hurts a lot.”
Harris is the Sixers’ managing partner and Blitzer is co-managing partner.
Unless the Sixers have another blockbuster deal in place, there’s really not a lot they can do despite Morey’s optimism. They appear to be in tough spot.
The thought was that the addition of Rivers and Morey would at least catapult them into the conference finals. That hasn’t been case.
The sad reality is the Sixers have won just once in their last 12 second-round appearances dating to 1986. That was when they beat the Raptors in seven games in 2001 before finishing as NBA Finals runners-up.
“It’s hard,” Rivers said of not getting out of the second round. “We’re right there. We put ourselves in the argument. And that’s all you can do. And then you come back and keep working at it until you can get over the mountain.”