Four fateful bounces. Quadruple-doink. Call it what you will.
Kawhi Leonard’s last, lucky shot in the Eastern Conference semifinals, as painful as it might have been at the time for the 76ers, might carry unintended benefits. Because they could have won it all, just as the Raptors had a shot to do so Thursday night in Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
Wait. How could winning a title be a bad thing?
Well, it wouldn’t have been a bad thing, exactly. But if they had won it all this season then they would have less reason to make the necessary changes to become the dominant team in the Eastern Conference for the next five seasons, and beyond.
The Process didn’t drag on for five seasons just to make the Sixers competitive. Its ultimate goal was to build something dynastic; to build a franchise fortified for a long, sustained run of excellence. If that is going to happen, then the principals -- Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons -- must be the best versions of themselves.
That’s less likely to happen if they reach the mountaintop without completing their development.
Instead, humbled in defeat and humiliated at times during that seven-game series against the Raptors, both the center and point guard promised that they would return transformed -- one, a lean machine; the other, a shootist.
But if the Sixers had won the title this season, what real incentive does Embiid have to abandon his distracting taunting? What incentive does he have to “mature” -- his word – into the player and leader he needs to be for this team to be great, and for him to reach his potential?
Embiid was embarrassed in May by Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, and, gag, Drake. With a championship in his pocket, does Embiid finish June focused on fitness, diet, and rest? Or does he binge for a month on milkshakes and Shirley Temples while playing video games until dawn?
Say there’s a Sixers parade down Broad Street. What impetus would that give Simmons to start tucking his elbow, bending his knees, and following through on actual jump shots? What impetus would he have to shoot 1,000 free throws a day? Why should he spend an hour shooting threes in each corner if he’s already got a ring?
Because there’s no question that, had they outlasted the Raptors in overtime in Game 7, they would have walked over the Bucks. They would have limited Giannis Antetokounmpo, just as the Raptors did.
No, the Sixers don’t have a player who matches Leonard defensively, but Sixers coach Brett Brown would have figured out what Nick Nurse realized: The Greek Freak has no business handling the ball, so double-team him.
Antetokounmpo even envisioned a Simmons-Embiid double-team in his future, he told The Athletic. Then the Sixers would have just followed the blueprint every other team follows to limit Simmons. They’d have let Giannis shoot.
Don’t forget: The Sixers were considered a team to beat once they made their trade deadline moves, but they never developed chemistry and searched too long for a viable rotation. That’s because Embiid’s knee tendinitis cost him 14 of the last 24 regular-season games, then cost him the second playoff game. Illnesses limited him in three other games against the Raptors, one of which the Sixers won.
Predictably, the Sixers often looked like the best team in the East as the playoffs progressed. And that chemistry would have continued to grow.
Would it have grown enough to outlast even a diminished Warriors team? With Kevin Durant injured, would a Dubs club led by Steph Curry and Draymond Green have been enough with only sporadic support from Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala?
By then the Sixers would have been a more competent defensive team. They would have had an unstoppable post player in Embiid. They would have had a fourth-quarter closer, Jimmy Butler, primed to preen. They would have properly incorporated Tobias Harris.
No doubt, this was a golden moment for the Sixers. They got four bad bounces and the moment passed.