The worst possible outcome for the Sixers in Game 3 of their inevitable first-round playoff loss was to come away with some reason to believe that they are one Ben Simmons away from being a legitimate NBA contender. In that regard, their 102-94 loss to the Celtics was a resounding success. Down three games to none with little to hope for except the earliest possible flight out of Orlando, the Sixers are headed for an offseason in which they will have little choice but to reckon with the fallacy of the blueprint they have spent the last two years laying.
We’ve arrived at a point where even the most hopeless of dreamers must acknowledge the gaping chasm that lies between the Sixers and legitimate title contention. If you are still willing to extend the benefit of the doubt to any aspect of this team short of Joel Embiid and Simmons, you are helplessly naive. If you still think Simmons’ early departure from the bubble is the difference between them winning this series and getting thoroughly embarrassed, you are conveniently overlooking the first five months of the season, when Simmons was a star on the offensive end of the court and was one of the game’s best players on the defensive end and yet his team was the same fractured shell of a self that it has been throughout the three weeks they’ve spent here in Orlando.
To understand the depth of the challenge that must be confronted by Josh Harris or whoever is in charge of the day-to-day basketball operations of this organization, you need to remember the expectations that Harris and his general manager and his head coach set for their team at the beginning of the regular season. When James Ennis casually predicted that the Sixers would cake-walk through the Eastern Conference, what would you have said if we told you that their season would end with Ennis on the Magic and closer to the NBA Finals than his former team?
Granted, we aren’t there yet, and if the Sixers somehow manage to pull out a win in Game 4, Brett Brown will at least be able to leave town knowing that his players did not quit on him or themselves when they had every reason to do so. Because, let’s be honest: even if you somehow talked yourself into thinking that they entered this series with a chance, that thought died a fast, gruesome death in the second and third quarters of Game 2.
So, too, did the thought that Brown’s bosses might be find a legitimate excuse to bring the head coach back for one last rodeo. This is a flawed roster, no doubt, but it is not a roster that should go seven straight quarters without cobbling together any semblance of a consistent offense.
With 3 minutes, 29 seconds left and the Sixers having a chance to tie, the possession began with Josh Richardson bringing the ball up the court and ended with Shake Milton getting trapped by a couple of Celtics defenders and then turning the ball over. This happened one possession after a contested corner three from Al Horford clanked predictably off the rim. Think about those two sentences. In crunch time of a playoff game, this was 3/5ths of your Sixers lineup, and the players who ended up with the ball in their hands.
Is that entirely Brown’s fault? Of course not. Is it even primarily his? That’s a question that can’t possibly be answered unless (until) we see the way another coach deals with the clunkly conglomeration of parts that Elton Brand and his front office have provided him. There are certain aspects of this team that are simply unworkable, starting with the lack of an obvious ballhandling option more deserving of a spot on the court than Milton. Then, there is the presence of Horford, whose Sixers tenure is fast approaching the realm of guys like Andrew Bynum and DeMarco Murray, a player who will leave town not just as a resounding disappointment, but as an acquisition that served as the final chapter of an era.
The Sixers’ nebulous command structure makes it impossible to discern how willing a participant Brown was in the acquisition of Horford, but the head coach and former interim GM has been this roster’s biggest cheerleader from its inception, and his inability to make a single component of it an equal or better version of itself is a reality that cannot rationally be dismissed. And, yet, the most glaring issue with this team moving forward is the command structure itself. Less than two years ago, Brand and his front office had the potential to trot out a roster in the Bubble that surrounded Embiid and Simmons with Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Landry Shamet, J.J. Redick and Mikal Bridges along with the best point guard or combo guard that money could buy. Less than a year ago, they had an opportunity to restructure the team around Embiid and Jimmy Butler, the latter of whom is in the process of carrying his Miami Heat team to the Eastern Conference semifinals.