When confronted with a lack of options, one of the worst things any decision-maker can do is take one off the table. But that’s exactly what Daryl Morey must do as he attempts to build a functional roster with limited draft capital, limited payroll space, and a glaring need for the sorts of players who typically require copious amounts of both to acquire. Trading Tyrese Maxey cannot be an option.
If it sounds absurd to even mention a scenario in which the 76ers part ways with one of the three functional players they currently have under contract, you need to remember that there always has been a considerable degree of absurdity baked into the organization’s attempts to go from good to great. This was clear from the moment Brett Brown uttered the phrase that would come to define their failure to launch. It’s easy to forget that the former coach’s self-described period of “star hunting” initially was built on the idea that the mighty Sixers could convince one of the greatest players in NBA history to scrap his long-planned relocation to the Lakers. In a lot of ways, all of the disastrous moments of the last four years were foreshadowed by the cringeworthy amount of self-delusion Brown and his bosses betrayed by entertaining the notion that they could convince LeBron James to take his talents to the Wells Fargo Center. A megalomaniac without the mega is an easy thing to ignore.
Despite the obvious folly of the Sixers’ star-hunting phase, there remains a school of thought that says the mission is not yet complete. It’s a school of thought that views still-developing players like Maxey as assets whose value lies first and foremost in their ability to facilitate the acquisition of an established, veteran star. It views the tandem of James Harden and Joel Embiid not as a foundation upon which to build a functional rotation, but as two-thirds of that elusive superstar triumvirate, one big piece away from legitimacy. The Sixers are not a construction project. They are a waiting room for Bradley Beal or Damian Lillard or some other singular talent with the ability to swoop in and save the day. At least, that’s the school of thought.
Truth be told, this sort of thinking underpins a lot of the different strains of conventional wisdom regarding the Sixers at their current juncture. At the other end of the spectrum from the star hunters are those who view Morey as a man who is helplessly stuck. They see Harden not as the player he is but as the player he is not: no longer capable of scoring 30 a game or single-handedly carrying a team through the second round of the playoffs. He is not the Harden of three years ago. Therefore, he is not the player a championship team needs him to be. The Sixers swung and missed. The dream is dead. At least, that’s the school of thought.
The problem with both of these points of views is their adherence to a paradigm that the current postseason has exposed as a relic of the NBA’s past. I won’t go as far as to say that the era of the Super Team is dead, but I do think the phrase’s operative word has changed. Look at the Celtics. Not long ago, the old paradigm labeled them losers in the NBA’s great game. After all of those draft picks they’d amassed, all of those assets, all of that salary-cap space, they were left with a roster that was little different from the one they’d begun with: absent that legitimate veteran superstar who would team with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to do the things a championship team needs.
Now? The Celtics entered Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday as the most remarkable story in the league. The reason few took them seriously throughout much of the regular season turned out to be the reason why they turned out so good. On paper, they look a lot like the same old Celtics, a good-but-not-great team that could just as easily lose in the first round (which they did last season) as they could in the Eastern Conference finals (which they did in three of the four previous seasons). Except, paper does not account for the fact that, sometimes, the greatest change a team can make is remaining a team.
Three years ago, Grant Williams was a rookie who shot .250 from three-point range during the regular season and averaged 10 minutes per game in the postseason. This year, he has averaged 30.7 minutes per playoff game while averaging 10.1 points and shooting 40.5% from deep. Three years ago, Robert Williams was a raw, second-year center who played a bit role in the Celtics’ run to the bubble’s Eastern Conference finals. This year, he has started nine games, averaging 21.4 minutes.
Granted, the Celtics would not be where they are if Tatum was not one of a small handful of elite players capable of winning a game on his own, nor if Brown did not do so many things at a nearly elite level. Boston happened to have the top-three picks necessary to draft both players, but they are stars all the same. Nobody is arguing that stars don’t matter.
At the same time, it’s impossible to ignore the recent fates of the teams that have been assembled in the Super Team mold. The Clippers, the Nets, the Lakers — these are the teams that are now asking themselves, “Where can we go from here?”
The difference between the Heat and the Sixers wasn’t Jimmy Butler versus Embiid and Harden. It was the bench. It was the depth. It was the collective grit.
The Sixers are at a point where they need to do the heavy lifting that they’ve spent four years convincing themselves they can wheel-and-deal themselves out of. They need to develop players like Isaiah Joe, Charles Bassey, and Paul Reed. They need to challenge Matisse Thybulle to become a serious role player or trade him for someone who still has that potential. They need to add complementary parts who fit. Most of all, they need to allow Maxey, Harden, and Embiid to develop the synergy that every great basketball team needs. It may not be a perfect trio, but it’s the one that they have. And after a whirlwind four years, there is value in that.