The Eastern Conference is as open as it has ever been. Any discussion about the Sixers’ offseason needs to start there. It’s a good thing. A great thing, really. Desperation rarely leads to good decision making. The Sixers have an opportunity to make some immensely consequential decisions this offseason. Things are not nearly as desperate as they seem.
Here’s the reality: We are adjusting to a post-LeBron world. Maybe not the NBA in general, but the Eastern Conference for sure. It isn’t a coincidence that the closest the Sixers have come to a conference finals during the Joel Embiid era came in 2019. That was the first year in a decade-plus that an Eastern Conference contender did not have to contend with a team that included LeBron James. The previous eight conference titles had gone to the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Miami Heat.
The only difference between them from one year to the next was which team happened to be built around the greatest player of his generation. Think about that. For eight straight years, the question every team asked itself after every unsuccessful season was the same. How do we build a roster that can beat LeBron?
The question is different now. But the difference has yet to sink in. At least, that’s my theory. The LeBron years conditioned us to think about the NBA Finals as an all-or-nothing thing. It took a special kind of team to make the Finals. If a team didn’t come close, it wasn’t close to being a special kind of team. This year, the Sixers didn’t come any closer to the Finals than they did in their first year of this era, nor in the three years in between. That’s a long enough stretch of time to conclude that the Sixers are what they are. That’s how people think.
Except, look at the last four seasons. After eight straight years of LeBron in the Finals, we’ve seen four different teams represent the East. In only one of those did the representative enter the season as anything close to a consensus favorite. Last year’s Bucks were as close as it comes. Otherwise, it was the Raptors with Kawhi Leonard, the Heat in the bubble with Jimmy Butler, and now, the Celtics with a team that it has spent the last five years cultivating from within.
Point is, we’re living in a higher variance world than the one where a team needed to be able to beat LeBron to have a shot at a title. The Celtics lost in the first round last year. The Bucks lost in the second round the year before that. The Heat did not make the playoffs the year before that. The Raptors lost in the second round the year before that. Look at the five-year stretches that preceded each of those teams’ NBA Finals berths and they don’t look a whole lot different than the one the Sixers are currently trying to escape. That’s where the discussion of the Sixers’ offseason needs to start: With the possibility that they may not be as far away as they seem.
I’ve been steadily talking myself into something, and I think that I’m finally all the way there. The Sixers’ current straits may be bad for the psyche of their fan base, not to mention media members responsible for making sense of them. But they are good for the NBA, and the Eastern Conference, and the sport in general. And, in the long run, the Sixers’ current situation is good for themselves.
Why is it good? It’s good because the Sixers do not need to win the offseason. The Celtics’ biggest offseason move was the acquisition of a contract that the Sixers traded a first-round pick to get off their books two years ago. When the Celtics traded Kemba Walker and a first-round pick for Al Horford, the response was a collective, “Makes some sense, I guess.” Two years before that, the Heat entered the season with the seventh-best NBA title odds in the Eastern Conference. This, despite the acquisition of Jimmy Butler. The Sixers, who’d passed on a long-term max extension for Butler, entered that season as the East’s second-biggest favorite behind the Bucks.
Again, this is a good thing. Because the Sixers probably cannot win the offseason. At least, not without being foolish. Right now, they are more at the mercy of the offseason’s looming questions than they are a central figure in them. Will Kyrie Irving re-sign with the Nets? If he does, how will they leverage the contracts of Seth Curry, Joe Harris, and Ben Simmons to build a championship roster? Will Rudy Gobert be traded? Will he be traded to an Eastern Conference team? In such a scenario, which players will shake loose in the trickle-down?
How will the Heat deal with the fact that they weren’t good enough to beat the Celtics and easily could have lost to the Sixers despite Butler playing max-plus capacity and everyone else playing roughly as you would have expected? Embiid may have been trolling when he said on Twitter that Miami needs a second star. But does Miami agree? If one is available, it can certainly happen.
These are the sorts of questions that make it difficult to know where the Sixers might focus on the upcoming free agent and trade market. If Daryl Morey’s track record is any indication, he has plenty of ideas. But he is also at the mercy of a number of different market-related variables. There’s a decent chance that the success of this Sixers’ offseason will come down to his staff’s ability to evaluate talent and his own ability to read and react.
At the end of the day, this is a good world for the Sixers and Morey to be living in. The margins are much thinner now than they used to be. The big swings are not necessarily where the home runs lie. One narrative says that they Sisyphus back to the bottom of the hill. Another says they won two of the four games they played with their centerpiece star against a team that took the Eastern Conference champs to the final few minutes of Game 7.
Where they go from here depends a lot on where everybody else decides to go. But the Sixers are well within the pack. It may not take as much as you think for them to distinguish themselves.