There are two ways to look at it. The first one is that the Sixers are not there yet, and that the smartest-looking people in the room are currently those who offered even the mildest of qualifications to their recent coronation. When the dust from the trade deadline settled, many assumed there would be another shoe to drop. If there is, it is still very much suspended. By the end of a 112-109 loss to a Celtics on Tuesday night, you couldn’t help but steal a glance up.
The personnel is what it is. The Celtics knew it beforehand, and the Sixers knew it afterward.
“The way Boston plays is they attack the mismatch,” Ben Simmons said. “You saw it every time. The way they play, they have so many assets and weapons to where they are able to do that.”
And that really gets to the crux of the matter of these next couple of months, and the two different perspectives one can hold about this Sixers team. You can argue that this is one of the best two or three starting fives in the league. You can argue that it is one of the best two or three starting fives in franchise history. But you can’t argue the depth that has been sacrificed to bring it together, both directly via the players shipped out in trades for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris and indirectly via some of the teeth-grinding missteps along the way.
The question is which viewpoint best conveys the reality the Sixers will face this postseason, when the Celtics will be just one of a gantlet of potential opponents that will await anybody who advances to the Eastern Conference’s second round. The Sixers might have the edge in star power, but they will not have the edge in options. At least not if we assume everything on the roster will remain unchanged. Toronto, Boston, arguably Milwaukee – all have the sort of rotation depth and versatility to do things to the Sixers that the Sixers cannot do to them.
I suppose we can soften that and say that the Sixers cannot do it right now. That much is obvious after a loss in which Boston’s never-ending wave of tough, physical perimeter players wreaked havoc on their undersized defenders. JJ Redick, T.J. McConnell, Furkan Korkmaz – good luck figuring out the mixing-and-matching that can be done.
“They do a really good job at going at mismatches,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said of the Celtics. “We could all see the sort of the difficulty we had at times guarding some of the physicality of them trying to post us with different mismatches.”
It’s Brown’s job to figure it out, regardless of the quality of hand he is dealt. There weren’t many answers to offer after this one. If the same goes in two months, it will be a problem.
For now, though, what shouldn’t be lost is the validation that, at times, peeked through during the course of Tuesday’s loss. Set aside the final score for a second. You don’t have to pretend it doesn’t matter, or even that it should hold no bearing on how we regard the short-term future of this Sixers team.
But let’s focus for a moment on a little concrete slice of reality that we should not avoid.
As the final 10 seconds of the third quarter ticked to a close, Jimmy Butler had the ball in isolation at the top of the key. Down by five, the Sixers needed a basket, and the guy they call Buckets had that look in his eye. After a brief hesitation, he beat Al Horford off the dribble, planted his foot on the low block, and, shielding the ball with his body, flipped a soft layup off the glass over the big man’s outstretched hands.
It was a feat of the sort of subtle athleticism that is easy to take for granted when watching Butler play. And that is the sort of thing was in short supply on this roster before Butler arrived.
Granted, that was as far as the rally went. There’s no escaping that fact, nor its implications. The Sixers are not there yet. They just aren’t.
But that doesn’t mean we should take the final result to mean that they aren’t any closer than they were on Christmas Day, when they took the Celtics to overtime with Kyrie Irving in the lineup. The overarching point is that the hardest individual pieces to acquire are now in the fold, in a way they were not before both Butler and Harris arrived. The Sixers took a loud and clear lesson from last year’s playoff defeat at the hands of the Celtics. They did not have the raw materials, and they were not going to get them without taking some sort of risk. They might not be a perfect team, but they have the individual pieces that will be necessary to compete in this year’s dogfight of an Eastern Conference.
The next couple of months are about finding a way to optimize the way those pieces fit.