The question had been swirling for weeks, two little words bubbling beneath the red-white-and-blue crust of the Sixers’ latest strategic pivot. They did what they could to make you ignore it, to fool yourself into thinking that the best was yet to come. But it was always there, and with 1 minute, 8 seconds left in a do-or-die Game 6, it exploded through the surface. The starters checked out, the subs checked in, and the Wells Fargo Center stands began to empty.
For the several thousand fans still ringing the court once the final horn rang, not to mention the hundreds of thousands more who have followed this franchise’s increasingly desperate attempts to turn a good team into a great one, the only thing left to do was stare and wonder.
Where do they go from here?
Joel Embiid has an idea.
“When you have size and toughness, that goes a long way,” Embiid said after the Sixers’ were outmuscled, outhustled, and thoroughly outplayed in a 99-90 loss to the Miami Heat that ended their season in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Thursday.
“When you have someone like [Heat forward] P.J. Tucker — great player, but it’s not about him knocking down shots. It’s about what he does, whether it’s on the defensive end or rebounding the ball. Defensively, plays with so much energy. He believes that he can get from Point A to Point B, and he believes that nobody can beat him, and he’s tough. He’s physical and he’s tough. They have a few of those guys ...
“Since I’ve been here, I’d be lying if I said we’ve had those type of guys. Nothing against what we have. It’s just the truth. We never have P.J. Tucker. That’s really what I’m trying to say. I think physicality, especially when it gets to the playoffs or the later rounds, you need that. You need those guys that are really tough.”
If you are a Sixers fan, you have to hope that Daryl Morey saw the same thing as Embiid. Because it was there, and it mattered. This wasn’t just about the end-of-possession stuff: the rebounds, the second-chance points, the turnovers. Those things are just benchmarks that help to quantify the overall thing that the Sixers lacked in all six of their losses this postseason. Nothing looked easy for them, and too much of it looked easy for their opponents. Tobias Harris had a point when he blamed a lack of mental toughness for that sort of thing. But mental toughness tends to manifest itself in physical form, and the Sixers need more of those forms.
Granted, Morey has a lot of things he needs to figure out before he gets to figuring out how to replace guys like Shake Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, and Matisse Thybulle with players who can actually bring positive value to a playoff basketball game. James Harden laid to rest at least one of those variables when somebody asked him whether he was still planning on exercising the player option in his contract and returning to the Sixers next season.
“I’ll be here,” Harden said.
Harden’s commitment to the Sixers has always come across as genuine, and that was still the case after Game 6. At the same time, it’s important to note that he did not say definitively that he would be back on his current contract, which at least leaves open the possibility that he and Morey will need to arrive at a mutual understanding of his present and future value.
“Whatever it takes to help this team to continue to grow,” said Harden, who would become a free agent if he declined his $47 million option for 2022-23.
Embiid played it a little closer to the vest when he was asked if he believed that he and Harden could form the foundation of a championship team.
“Yeah, obviously there’s a lot of decisions to be made over the summer,” Embiid said. “Obviously, he’s got to re-sign for that to happen. I feel like, every year, even last year losing to Atlanta that we were good enough to go farther and win it all. This year, I feel the same. Maybe we didn’t have enough time together to figure it out. Maybe we just weren’t good enough. I feel confident that I’m going to get better. I’m going to come back even better and make sure that I do everything possible to accomplish what I want.”
There’s enough space to drive a BookMobile between those lines if you are looking to read into them. But the fact remains that the Sixers’ best path forward is hoping for Harden to make good on his word and spend this season getting his hamstring healthy and his body in shape and his lateral and vertical quickness closer to the place where it was when he left Houston in 2019. If that happens, and Tyrese Maxey spends this summer improving as much as he did last summer, then the Sixers could actually find themselves in an offseason that allows them to build around an established foundation instead of engaging in another round of starting over.
It isn’t as simple as finding a few muckers and grinders to take into a street fight. If it was, you’d sign the Pittsburgh Steelers practice squad and be done with it. P.J. Tucker wasn’t the primary reason the Heat beat the Sixers. Jimmy Butler scored 55 points in Games 5 and 6 and he probably could have scored 70. He’s tough, yes, but the Sixers already had their chance at following that route. They aren’t going to get another.
What they need is obvious: defense, toughness, and guys who can consistently hit a high percentage of their open looks from deep. The hard part is figuring out how to go about acquiring these things. If Harden, Embiid, and Tobias Harris all return, the Sixers will have little in the way of free-agent dollars to add the pieces they need.
How much trade value does Harris have? How big of a blow will it be if Danny Green misses the season with the knee injury he suffered in the first quarter of Game 6? Green is slated to make $10 million next season. That’s a tough cost to eat.
One thing is clear: Harden in his current form is player who needs to be surrounded by a fully formed team. Embiid is too, when you factor in the beating he takes and the inherent limitations of the position he plays. This was obvious in the back-to-back losses that ended their season. There is a path out of woods, but it will definitely take some blazing.