Josh Richardson? Perhaps.
Tobias Harris? Unlikely.
Joel Embiid? Impractical.
Ben Simmons? Impossible.
Al Horford? Name the team that will take him.
Brett Brown? Name the coach who will replace him.
That’s the cheat sheet for anyone who has arrived at the conclusion that there is sometime irreparably wrong with the fundamentals of this Sixers team. In other words, if you’re hoping that the next 50 hours will yield a lifeline for a rotation that increasingly looks to be in need of a wholesale reconsideration, you’d be doing your sanity a favor by unplugging right now.
That’s not to say that your instincts are off. After back-to-back blowout losses to two of the most prominent roadblocks standing between the Sixers and the NBA Finals, the only folks who wouldn’t be questioning their belief in the core competencies of this rotation are the obstinate and the wayward. Fifty games might not be enough to draw any definitive conclusions about a team’s eventual postseason fate, but it is more than enough of a sample size to settle upon some general observations about its identity. In particular, that what the Sixers’ identity was supposed to be simply is not.
The offense has not played bully ball. The defense, while competent, has fallen well short of smashmouth. There have been moments when we’ve seen both characteristics on the same court and at the same time, and the results have been impressive enough that it remains impossible to completely dismiss the possibility that what we have seen recently is a poor approximation of what we will get once the playoffs arrive.
Those first two wins against the Celtics, that Christmas Day against the Bucks — they might feel like distant memories, but they did indeed happen. At the same time, the Sixers have lost four straight games to the five teams in front of them in the Eastern Conference standings, with an average margin of defeat of 17 points.
Since their 121-109 win over the Bucks on Christmas, the Sixers are 8-10 overall and 1-6 against the Pacers, Heat, Raptors and Celtics. For the season, they are 1-2 against the Pacers, 1-3 against the Heat, and 1-2 against the Raptors.
So, yes, things are well past the point of dire, and you get the sense that the locker room feels it, too. You can see it in the Sixers’ body language on the court, and you can hear it in the words they speak off it. After a blowout loss to the Celtics in Boston in Saturday night, somebody asked Tobias Harris when it would be time for the Sixers to get concerned about their place in the standings.
“About 10 games ago,” the forward said.
And the most disconcerting loss of the season had to come. It would arrive two days later, on a Monday night in Miami, against a team whose home crowd still seemed to be sleeping off its Super Bowl hangover. By the end of a 137-106 loss, the solution to fixing the Sixers seemed startlingly clear: Go back in time and don’t change them in the first place.
For 48 minutes, Jimmy Butler treated Josh Harris and Elton Brand to an exhibition of all the things that he does that would make their team a much better version of what it is right now. He scored 38 points, hit both of his three-point attempts, played suffocating defense, went 8-for-8 from the foul line, and all-in-all looked like the exact sort of player that the Sixers have been missing when they’ve been at their worst.
Blow it up? The Sixers already did that. And it simply is not feasible for them to attempt to do it again. The time to decide on an identity arrived this past summer. They clearly felt they needed to pick between Butler and Simmons, and they picked the latter, for perfectly defensible reasons. From there, they had a choice of how to best make use of their ability to accommodate two max or near-max contracts. They chose to dedicate one of those spots to Tobias Harris, and the other to Al Horford.
They could have pivoted elsewhere. They could have prioritized scoring upside by targeting a guard such as Malcolm Brogdon or a wing like Bojan Bogdanovic. Instead, they decided that Horford could be enough of a stretch four, and Josh Richardson could be enough of a combo guard, to give Simmons and Embiid the supporting firepower they needed while also replacing the defense and chutzpah they were losing with the departure of Butler. The summer was the time to decide on these things, and decide they did.
The most obvious flaw with this team is the triangulation involving Embiid, Simmons and Horford. With Embiid in his optimal role, Horford does not fit. With Simmons in his optimal role, Embiid does not fit. And yet, two months before the postseason is the worst part of the NBA calendar to attempt to move on from any of them and still field a roster that has even a slight chance at title contention.
Even if you have somehow convinced yourself that Simmons is the guy who needs to go, trading him before the summer is virtually impossible given the structure of his contract and the constraints of the NBA collective bargaining agreement. Any team that acquires Simmons would be forced to get rid of somewhere in the neighborhood of $24 million from its payroll.
Yet if the Sixers traded Simmons, they would be allowed to take on only $13.1 million in salary in return. That’s a spread that, for all intents and purpose, is impossible to reconcile. Explaining why this is so would require hundreds of words that would only serve to distract from the underlying point. The rules are what they are. Accept them. Simmons isn’t going anywhere.
Of all the variables, Horford is the one whose departure would best clear a path for the Sixers to become a more sensible team. At this point, it seems clear that their offense would be much better off with either a true stretch four who has the catch-and-shoot ability from three-point range that Horford lacks, or a true combo guard who can both shoot from the outside and score off the dribble. But even if the Sixers thought that they could replace Horford with a wing, that would still leave them needing to find a team willing to have him for the next three years at $27 million per.
It’s fair to assume that the Sixers would not deem it in their best interest to trade Horford to any Eastern Conference team currently competing with them for a berth in the Finals. So while you might envision a scenario in which Horford would fit with Butler in Miami or his old teammates in Boston, it would seem highly unlikely that the Sixers would consider bolstering an opponent with a defender who has a long track record of making life difficult for both Simmons and Embiid.
As for the rest of the Eastern Conference, in what world would it make sense for a rebuilding team to lock itself in to three years of a 33-year-old veteran instead of saving that money for a future addition? Especially if that veteran does not particularly want to be there?
Out west, the likely playoff field is dramatically short on need. The Lakers have Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee. The Clippers have Montrezl Harrell. The Jazz have Rudy Gobert. The Rockets already have an $18 million-a-year center and are reportedly considering moving him to shed payroll.
The only team you might be able to talk yourself into considering as an option is the Mavericks, who were mentioned in connection with Horford this summer and who recently lost their young big man to a ruptured Achilles.
Might Dallas find some appeal in a starting five that features Horford, Luka Doncic, and Krystaps Porzingis along with Tim Hardaway and Dorian Finney-Smith? Would the Mavs be willing to take on Horford’s contract? Could the Sixers somehow leverage their few remaining assets to land point guard Deion Wright from the Mavericks and four-man Danilo Gallinari from the Thunder? There are several paths to making the money work. But could the Sixers offer enough value with a war chest that is limited to Matisse Thybulle, Zhaire Smith, Oklahoma City’s protected 2020 first-rounder, and the Sixers’ future first-round picks?
If you believe in the wisdom of markets, the answer is an almost self-evidential: no. The rest of the NBA had a chance to outbid the Sixers for Horford this summer. The rest of the NBA elected not to. Only six months have elapsed since then. What would have changed to make the rest of the NBA assign a higher value to Horford on the trade market than it did when he was a free agent? Even if there are different circumstances in play, the Sixers do not have much leverage to ask for the sort of value in return that would leave them a better team without Horford than with him.
Which brings us back to where we started, and the conventional wisdom that any structural improvement will have to come from within. The Sixers should certainly explore whether Richardson can be flipped for a player who gives them a more natural catch-and-shoot shooter or a better playmaker off the dribble without sacrificing much on the defensive end. But while such a move could be a path to improvement — Richardson for Spencer Dinwiddie? — it would not solve the issue of fit among the three biggest guys on the court. Besides, there is some evidence to suggest that Richardson’s trade value is not as high as we might expect.
We’ve said this before, and we’ll say it again: The onus is on the head coach to find a way to make the current structure work. It is on the crown-jewel center to stack on top of each other the nights he looks the part. It is on the front office to add the kind of marginal value that its resources demand.