The turbulent journey that the Sixers took in the post-Iverson years came to a proverbial crossroads prior to the infamous Sam Hinkie era in Philadelphia.
Let’s go back to the start of the 2012-13 season – specifically 10 August, 2012. The Sixers had just made a blockbuster trade for center Andrew Bynum who, in his heyday, was as dominant as any big-man around. Bynum’s problem – like many freakishly tall people – was injuries, particularly to his knees. However, the injury that forced his career into shut down mode was a very avoidable one, and one that effectively helped send the Sixers into half a decade of tanking.
That right there folks, is why bowling wasn’t designed for 7-feet tall, 285lb NBA centers.
This bizarre turn of events eventually led to Bynum being wheeled out the door, making way for the GM that has brought the Sixers to a point where they can almost forget about that particular horror show.While Sam Hinkie is not the one directly reaping the rewards of his laborious asset piling, he’s laid the foundations for a team that’s gone from a wing duo of Hollis Thompson and Jakarr Sampson to a star-studded team featuring Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris.
But for all of their talent and promise, there’s still a lot of ‘processing’ to be done. The next stage of the Sixers’ journey won’t be carried out in the same way as during the very beginnings of Brett Brown’s tenure, alongside a GM who was the complete embodiment of tanking in Sam Hinkie. Under Hinkie, it’s safe to say the Sixers had a rough time.
But his goal was simple; stockpile assets and wait. Sure, in that waiting period, Philly found themselves finishing the 2015-16 season with a spectacularly poor 10-72 record. That currently ranks as the second worst record in league history only behind – you guessed it – another historically abysmal Sixers team, this time the sorry Sixers of some forty-three years prior.
But long gone are those days – that’s if you count three seasons ago as particularly ‘long gone’ – and the Sixers seem to finally be gearing up to challenge for a shot at the finals.
Their first signs of looking like a good basketball team came last season as they made it to the Eastern Conference second round, before being coached out of the playoffs by Brad Stevens, making their first playoff appearance since 2012. But this season has brought the Sixers even closer to what Hinkie has envisaged back in the 2012 off-season; a championship. While a championship won’t happen now (this season) simply because the Warriors are still “a thing”, it doesn’t mean that Hinkie’s vision is completely redundant.
For all their current faults that they have to iron out, the potential for this team to make a finals run and be the team that eventually takes the crown from Golden State is there in plain sight. Right now, the Sixers three main issues are roster depth, team chemistry and a distinct lack of successful playoff experience. The latter is arguably the main reason many are so quick to write off the Sixers when it comes to the post-season. But let’s analyse these three potential drawbacks in isolation:
The current nine-man rotation that the Sixers run is very top heavy. While the Sixers made some valuable additions of Boban Marjanovic, James Ennis and Mike Scott to the bench lineup, they’ve given up a lot of depth – the latest casualty being promising young rookie Landry Shamet in the Tobias Harris deal to the Clippers. The staring five is absolutely stacked right now; Simmons has looked particularly aggressive, seemingly at the perfect time in the lead up to the post-season while Embiid is having a career season, dominating games and feasting down in the low block. With JJ Redick having a career year in scoring (now in his 12th season) coupled with Harris and Butler finding their feet in this lineup (we’ll get to that) the starting lineup has no glaring flaws.
However, off the bench, Philly really struggles. They rank 27th for bench points, 27th once more in bench efficiency and interestingly 28th in minutes played by bench players. The latter stat particularly highlights the lack of faith Brett Brown has in his bench players and further emphasises his tendency to stick with the starters far more than go with the significantly weaker bench unit. Individually, the Sixers have some decent bench pieces when you add TJ McConnell to the aforementioned list. But as a unit, this is one of the Sixers’ biggest downfalls.
This particular issue with the Sixers is slowly but surely being eked out, and predictably so. However, some of the original issues do still linger. Of course, having a team with four All-Star calibre players on it means that there’s bound to be issues. Adding Jimmy Butler was always going to bring a whole host of storylines centred around him being terrible locker room guy and how he’d ruin the team chemistry. While none of that has transpired in the slightest, there’s still three other star players to consider. A Ringer article about “The Jimmy Butler Effect” put it best, saying: “The chemistry experiment in Philadelphia will start to look like a meth lab”.
But the issues so far haven’t arisen off court (let’s wait for free agency to witness those fun and games). Predominantly, the chemistry problems have come with the expected difficulties in the new players finding their role on the team. While Jimmy for example has been the 4th quarter guy and has lit up in the final stretch of most games, he’s been noticeably quiet and has been shooting at a sub-par rate for the majority of games. Similarly with Tobias Harris, who’s also experiencing teething problems with his new teammates. His first few games were solid, with scoring nights of 25+ occurring frequently. In the latest ten game stretch, Harris has taken a slight dip and has found himself shooting in the low 20% range from three to go alongside sub-par efficiency from the field as a whole.
But this period of experimentation is entirely normal. Let’s not forget Hinkie’s original plan for the Sixers, being this good so soon after their tanking experience has come way earlier than the ownership had expected. We still also have to bear in mind that only three years ago, this Sixers team was winding down a season which they started off 1-21 and finished the season with the infamously poor record.
Fast forward three year, that franchise is now making a serious playoff push and has some of the league’s best young talent as it’s fingertips.
But with such an unequivocally talented team comes the inevitable question; who’s the “main man”? Right now, the answer to that seems to be Joel Embiid. Averaging 27.3 points, 13.7 rebounds to go along with 1.9 blocks per contest makes him the clear frontrunner for being the number one guy on the team. However, with three more All-Star calibre players on the roster, it’s not quite as simple as this.
For instance, the main scoring threat in the fourth quarter right now is Butler. He takes all the last second shots and generally seems to takeover come crunch time. But let’s say that he does end up re-signing for another couple of seasons, just as Embiid is entering his prime, then it’s very likely that JoJo could begin to demand the ball and make those last second plays – potentially causing a rift in the team’s chemistry further down the line. So, while Embiid is obviously the primary scorer of the ball across the course of a game, there are potential issues that could arise in high-octane scenarios.
This is just one example of some problems that Brett Brown may well encounter chemistry-wise, and there are plenty more that could crop up as this team grows and finds its way in a wide open Eastern Conference.
Lack of successful playoff experience:
The last main obstacle I see in the Sixers’ finals aspirations is something that’s easily fixable if they’re able to keep both Butler and Harris when free agency comes rolling back around. It will obviously take time for this team to mould into a real powerhouse (as discussed in the last point) but the current main drawback for the Sixers in trying to make the finals is their obvious lack of successful playoff runs.
While last year was a real step in the right direction for Philadelphia, they need to make a real push for the Eastern Conference Finals this season and look convincing in a series matchup with at least one of the Bucks, Raptors and especially the Celtics. If Simmons can begin to improve his free throw shooting, the ‘hack-a-Ben’ tactic that teams have been using on him down the stretch in games will cease to hold back the Sixers. If they end up playing Boston in the post-season at all, Brett Brown will need to find a way to play against Brad Stevens’ defensive setup of last year’s matchup, when the Celtics limited Simmons’ ability to make plays by sagging off of him in the half-court.
Bearing in mind how young the core of this roster still is, they still certainly need time to develop into the Eastern Conference powerhouses they can be. The Simmons/Embiid dynamic is something that’s developing seemingly by the game, and if the pieces surrounding them are firing on all cylinders, this team can make a real shot at the finals this postseason.
But even if the Sixers once again don’t progress further than the second round of the playoffs this year, it’s still a far cry from the losing culture that was set in Philly for the duration of the past half a decade.
Now The Process has officially ran its course, it’s time to set a winning culture at the Wells Fargo Center for the foreseeable future.