Everyone’s crazy right now, and I don’t blame them. You can either obsess about the Sixers or watch the Phillies invent new ways to lose baseball games. It’s not an ideal either/or scenario, but the choice is clear.
The problem with obsessing is that it can quickly lead you to a place that is disconnected from reality. You spend so much time fixated on fixing a problem that you lose sight of the possibility that this is one of those problems for which there is no fix. Every year, one team wins a championship, and 29 fan bases spend their off-seasons talking themselves into thinking that things should have played out differently. The closer a team gets to the title, the more its fan base feels that destiny was within its reach, and the more dramatic its failures seem.
The lesson of this year’s Sixers letdown isn’t any of the things that are commonly offered as the correct and proper things to think. Rather, the lesson is that the hardest thing to do in the NBA is to go from very good to great. The hardest thing to do is identify a change that a team can make that will actually move it closer to greatness and not further away. With that in mind, here are the three biggest delusions to emerge from the shattered psyches of Sixers fans as they obsess about the offseason.
Ben Simmons needs to go
Truth is, Ben Simmons might need to go. He definitely looks and sounds like a guy who needed to be somewhere other than here. But you can’t just talk around the fact that there are a lot of ways that the Sixers can part with Simmons and end up a worse team. Much worse. There’s a reason the guy was on the court for 40 minutes per elimination game despite the fact that he was a blatantly broken scorer. If you took him off the court and replaced him with Shake Milton, the Sixers were a worse team. They just were. Pull the lens out further and the story is the same. Trade him for Malcolm Brogdon? The over/under on the number of games that Brogdon and Joel Embiid would be healthy at the same time is in the teens. Brogdon has played more than 64 games in a season once in his five years in the league. The one season was his rookie season. Brogdon makes sense on a team with Simmons. He doesn’t make sense in place of him.
Same goes for CJ McCollum. Know who wins a McCollum-for-Simmons trade? The Blazers. Damian Lillard, Norm Powell, Ben Simmons, Jusuf Nurkic, and Robert Covington or a replacement — that’s a lineup that can rebound, play defense, and let Lillard shoot 25 times a game and kick out 10 more. The Sixers? McCollum is a nice complementary star. But he isn’t a playmaker at the one. He’s the Tobias Harris of point guards. Put him, Harris and Seth Curry on the court together and watch what happens on the defensive end. Take Curry off the court and you’re taking away a guy who is the best complement to Embiid. Sure, it’s different. It’s a new look. But new and different do not mean better.
That’s the conundrum. The Sixers aren’t going to have a lot of obvious ways to part with Simmons and make themselves an equal or greater team. In which case, does Simmons really need to go?
Doc Rivers was a problem
This might be the most ridiculous take to emerge from the ashes of the Hawks series. Rivers might not be the greatest in-game tactician in the history of organized sport, but the only difference between him and Nate McMillan in the Eastern Conference semifinals were Kevin Huerter, Lou Williams, and Danilo Gallinari. Any one of those three players would have been the first guy off the bench for the Sixers. Swap out any one of them for any one of Rivers’ options on the bench and the Sixers win the series. Heck, let’s not forget that if Dwight Howard shows up to the arena with full functional control of his arms and legs and brain, the Sixers probably win the series. If Embiid has all of his knee cartilage intact, the Sixers probably win the series. If Danny Green does not get hurt in Game 3, the Sixers probably win the series.
Rivers wasn’t perfect. He should have started micromanaging Game 5 well before his players realized that they were in the process of wetting their pants. He should have trusted Tyrese Maxey more and Shake Milton less. But no coach is perfect. Rivers’ biggest problem was that he had no options. And he knew it. Furkan Korkmaz is not an option. Dwight Howard was not an option. Rivers’ only options were to run Embiid into the ground and to threaten his son-in-law with banishment to the kids’ table at Thanksgiving if he did not shoot more. Hot take: If Rivers could have started Huerter in place of Green and made Williams his primary bench scorer, he would have.
The season was a referendum on The Process
The only reason the Sixers were a relevant team this year was the MVP performance of a player who so epitomized Sam Hinkie’s tenure that he nicknamed himself after it. It’s absurd to think that the successes of the Suns and Hawks somehow disproves the notion that non-destination teams need to draft elite talent to win, or that a team is better off prioritizing the acquisition of said talent than trying to slum it to 40 wins and the eighth seed each season. The Suns averaged 22 wins over four seasons between 2015-19. The Hawks averaged 24 wins between 2017-20. The Sixers averaged 19 wins between 2013-17. We’re really planting our flag on the hill that says the Sixers should have won three to five more games per season?
The Suns have a No. 1 overall pick starting at center. They drafted inside the top five in the two other years of a three-year stretch. The Hawks have drafted inside the top eight in each of the last three drafts. They landed Trae Young because they had the No. 3 overall pick. The notion that the Sixers are materially worse off for having leaned into the NBA’s talent reality is disproven by the sellouts, by the hype, by the presence of Embiid. The only people who interpret 2020-21 as a rebuke of The Process are people who never fully understood The Process to begin with.
We’re in an overreaction phase. At the end of the day, the Sixers were a good but flawed team that won a lot of games in a weird season. Last year at this time, nobody thought they’d be capable of even that. Let’s not get too crazy.