If the Sixers had become the team they were supposed to be, you could expect them to get through this. Would it be easy? No, of course not. Would they still be losing an All-NBA-caliber defender without any obvious apple-for-apple replacement? No doubt. But let’s not forget what these Sixers look like on paper, which is where the hype about them originated. After all, that hype is the benchmark we’ve been measuring them against since the start of the season.
In the world that paper foretold, the Sixers would still be a team with three or four All-Star-caliber players. Go down the roster: name by name, resume by resume, salary by salary. Do the same for the other five Eastern Conference contenders and match them up, line by line. The Sixers still have the best big man in the NBA, a player who has the potential to become one of those singular talents who diminishes the consequence of the rest of his teammates. When LeBron James loses a teammate (Kyrie Irving, Chris Bosh, et al.), nobody scratches his head and wonders what kind of rabbit his head coach will pull out of his hat. Embiid isn’t LeBron, but he was supposed to be following that sort of continuum.
And what about Al Horford? The Sixers are paying him more than $25 million per season with funds that they decided to allocate to him instead of Jimmy Butler. Down in Miami, Butler doesn’t have a teammate who is anywhere close to the caliber of Embiid or Simmons, and the Heat are about to enter the postseason -- and potentially a first-round series against the Sixers -- as one of the East’s leading contenders. If not the Heat, the Sixers will likely open up the postseason against Horford’s former team, which barely replaced him, and used some of the money it had been paying him to replace Irving with Kemba Walker. Two years ago, the Celtics entered a postseason having lost Irving to injury, and they ended up one win away from the NBA Finals.
And then there is Tobias Harris, the magical third max-contract player the Processors dreamed of while Sam Hinkie was rebuilding the roster from scratch. He’s averaging 19.6 points on a career-high 16.2 attempts this season. Three superstars was the formula, right? Even without Simmons, the Sixers still have three superstar salaries.
That’s a lot of words to say something that anybody who has watched this team already realizes. That is, they aren’t nearly as good as the paper suggests, whether that paper is the sheet of names and resumes or the tens of millions of dollars that Josh Harris is paying them. Even before Simmons went down with aknee injury that has put the rest of his season in doubt, the Sixers had devolved from a team that had a chance to “cakewalk” to the Finals to a team that was going to hope for transcendence from Embiid and grind out the rest. So even if their future unfolds the way it seems destined to do, the story of the 2019-20 Sixers will be one of miscalculation.
That falls on the front office. Or, if you’d rather, the front offices. Whether it was the failure to replace Butler with another perimeter player capable of creating his own space, or the thought that Horford could coexist with Embiid, or the seasons-long series of bungled decisions that delivered them to the present moment without a capable pick-and-roll ballhandler to supplement Simmons, the Sixers have somehow managed to take all of the ingredients for a zesty, delightful chicken salad and instead whip themselves up a batch of chicken you-know-what. From the drafting of Markelle Fultz and Zhaire Smith to the trade and free-agent decisions of the past year, the front office should ultimately bear responsibility for creating a team this vulnerable out of a ridiculous glut of assets.
The only scenario in which this won’t hold true is the one in which a new coach comes in and finds a way to make all of the pieces fit. Brett Brown will get at least one more chance to do it, and if he ends up winning a couple of playoff series with this team, that will count for something. But it’s telling that the Sixers we’ve seen in four games in central Florida are almost exactly the same team we saw in the 65 games before them. Maybe Harris can flourish with the ball in his hands more often. Maybe Embiid can be a player who single-handedly determines a series. Maybe Horford can find himself. But we’ve spent a lot of time saying maybe this season, and only a sucker would continue to give the Sixers the benefit of the doubt.