Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons
- The Philadelphia 76ers were maligned for their tanking strategy, but it worked. They finished with 52 wins, the third seed and smacked their first-round opponent.
- While the 2008-09 Blazers and 2011-12 Thunder failed dynasties can be instructive comparisons, the 2017-18 Sixers have more money and more assets incoming.
- Still, the future is never certain. The 76ers’ potential for a dynasty is set in place, but they’ll need a couple strokes of luck to fully realize their potential.
The Sixers are here. They have arrived, and they’re going to be awesome for a long time, so just get ready.
We have a tendency to project the extremes. Take the Wizards. They just got bounced in the first round, their cap sheet is tight, their ceiling seems concrete and their chemistry is dysfunctional. The common refrain in the days following their elimination is that they are an all-talk squad with little hope of getting better. Their future is bleak.
Yet, they are one year removed from a strong second-round showing that went to seven games. They still have three stellar players in John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter on long-term contracts. One good summer — just one summer where they are the team that comes up with the surprise move — and they’re in business.
Meanwhile, the Sixers are riding like they’re on a Mountain Dew high. Their season is already an unqualified success; the Process won. The Sixers finished with 52 wins, the third seed and smacked their first-round opponent. They began the series at -400 to beat Boston in the semifinals, setting up a potential conference finals run in their first real season together, which is incredible.
Even if the Sixers lose to Toronto or Cleveland in the conference finals (or Boston in the semifinals; the Celtics are tricky, as shown in Game 1 Tuesday night), the talk will be about how Philly will be the team in the East for years, even with Boston presumably getting back Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
The problem is … we’ve done this before.
Carts Before Horses
Consider this a cautionary series of tales …
In 2009, the Portland Trail Blazers lost to the Houston Rockets in the first round, 4-2. Their dynamic, huge, skilled big man Greg Oden had played 61 games, albeit under heavy restrictions. Brandon Roy was an All-Star for the second year in a row and played 78 games. LaMarcus Aldridge was emerging as one of the best power forwards in the league.
Roy was 24, Aldridge and Rudy Fernandez were 23, Oden was 21, and Nicolas Batum was just 20. They were young, they were deep and all their guys were on rookie deals. They had an All-Star-caliber guard and a big man who, if healthy, was one of the most impactful forces in the league. Just as a reminder: Roy was a bad, bad man.
For those of you too young to remember, things did not turn out well. Oden played 21 games the following season, and that was his career. Roy had dealt with knee issues throughout his career going back to college, and in April the following year suffered a torn meniscus. That was pretty much it for his career outside of the spectacular series vs. Dallas in 2011.
Aldridge remained Aldridge, and the team would rebuild into a Western Conference force thanks to the Brooklyn Nets (man they helped a lot of teams) trading the sixth overall pick in 2012 (Damian Lillard) for Gerald Wallace. But it wasn’t the same core.
Before Sixers fans flood in with discussions of Joel Embiid’s and Ben Simmons’ health, the point of this piece is not to make direct parallels. All-NBA players suffer injuries, and how they recover entirely depends on the person. Just because Oden was never the same doesn’t mean Embiid will follow the same path. Just because Simmons broke his foot his rookie year doesn’t mean he’ll have the recurrent problems Roy had. (Also, Roy had the cartilage removed, which always shortens careers; Simmons hasn’t suffered cartilage damage.)
The point is, there was a young team that everyone was sure would be a force for years to come, and it wasn’t. Life gets in the way.
But maybe those Blazers aren’t the best comparison. The comparison everyone prefers to make is …
The Starship Thunder
In this situation, Embiid is Russell Westbrook: the indomitable force and explosive personality who dictates terms. Simmons is Kevin Durant: the transcendent do-it-all forward whose athleticism and skill (passing with Simmons, shooting with KD) set him ahead of his peers. And Markelle Fultz is James Harden: the efficient combination of the two, although obviously his broken jumper complicates matters there. You can sub in Dario Saric as their Harden and make Fultz their … Ibaka, I guess? Jeff Green? Something like that. It’s not a perfect translation.
That Thunder team percolated for longer than this Sixers team did, which we’ll return to in a minute. The Thunder missed the playoffs until 2010, when they qualified as the eighth seed and challenged the mighty Lakers. It was a sign of things to come. The young Thunder took their lumps but gave Kobe & Co. hell for six games, introducing the NBA world to the kind of insane home court OKC would come to enjoy.
The next season, they made the conference finals and looked to be on the same kind of tear the Sixers are on, but the Mavericks crashed that party. The next year, finally, they arrived. Sure, they lost to LeBron and the Triad in five games, but they were competitive, and just learning.
The common refrain during that time was that you should get used to this matchup: We were going to see it over and over again ad nauseam the next five years.
The two teams never met again in the Finals. OKC never returned.
So what are the lessons that the Sixers, their fans and future investors should take from this comparison?
Lessons From a Failed Dynasty
1. Some years, other teams will just be better.
The Warriors don’t have this problem; they are always the best team on the floor, even if they don’t always play like it. But the Thunder ran into the 2011 Mavericks, a team guided by fate with a legend in Dirk Nowitzki playing at an impossible level, LeBron in maybe his best season ever in 2012, the 2014 Spurs who literally defined a style called “the beautiful game” (and OKC still likely had them on the ropes if Ibaka didn’t miss Games 1 and 2), and in 2016… well, yeah. We know what happened there with Klay Thompson becoming the sun and burning everything to ash in Game 6. Those Thunder teams were awesome. They really were. The other teams were better. Understanding that, and reacting enough to it, is important.
2. The Thunder didn’t do enough to maximize their talent and style of play.
This is incredibly difficult to do. I need to stress this, because the most common goat from these years is Scott Brooks. Look, Brooks made three Western Conference Finals in five years. The only season he didn’t was when either Durant or Westbrook was out with injury. That’s a phenomenal job, and he doesn’t get enough credit for how he molded not only Durant and Westbrook, but also Harden, Ibaka and Steven Adams into major contributors. Brooks did a great job. But the Thunder never scratched the surface of playing incredible basketball. They were a really great team with incredible talent, not an incredible team with incredible talent. That’s the gap between “perennial Western Conference finalist” and multi-time NBA champion. What gets lost while everyone is armchair quarterbacking the Thunder’s style of play and calling for a coach’s head is that much of it falls on the players. Westbrook and Durant never committed to playing differently, and their crunch-time offense was always a disaster. The two never played in symphony; they played as two solo guitarists who sometimes came into harmony.
3. The Thunder didn’t react enough to failures.
The Thunder never had crack shooting. Not once. No matter how much they needed space, they never did enough to compensate for that. In 2014, it was the old core with Thabo Sefolosha and Derek Fisher not being able to provide enough athleticism. Really, 2016 was the one year they had enough with Dion Waiters and Randy Foye boosting the perimeter along with Ibaka, who molded his game to the outside. But OKC was never able to find that perfect set of role players. If this seems like a big ask, it is — especially when you have guys starting to come on max contracts after their rookie deals. You’re not getting J.J. Redick at $24 million once Embiid’s and Simmons’ new deals kick in.
4. Sometimes it’s just not your year.
Westbrook gets run into by Patrick Beverley … there goes the 2013 season. Durant suffers his foot injury … there goes the 2015 season. The aforementioned 2014 injury to Ibaka. Even if the Sixers don’t have the kind of calamitous injury problems their history brings nightmares of, they can just have the regular kinds of injury years. A sprained ankle in a 2-2 series keeps a star out for Games 5 and 6. You need so much to go your way over and over. It’s another one of the remarkable things about Golden State: Outside of Stephen Curry in 2016, they haven’t had a major star miss time past the second round.
5. Ownership has to pay, and you have to set the tone for the organization.
I’m not going to get into a whole thing about the Harden trade because most people fundamentally misunderstand a lot of what happened there. I will say this, however: Sixers ownership has to be willing to front an absolutely grotesque luxury-tax bill to keep this team together, and those players all have to be OK with sharing the ball. Saric can’t want a bigger role. Embiid can’t be jealous if Simmons enters the MVP conversation, and vice versa. The role players all have to get along and understand their opportunity. Harden never becomes an MVP candidate in OKC. He might have gotten the money if OKC ownership was willing to pay the max (which wasn’t feasible from a business standpoint) but he would have always been in Westbrook’s and Durant’s shadow. This stuff has to be balanced, and everyone has to get paid to keep everybody happy.
So those are the areas of concern for the Sixers. However, there are a lot of reasons to believe things will be different with this squad.
The Exceptional Sixers
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
1. For starters, the Sixers play in a weaker conference.
They’re not dealing with the Warriors and Spurs. The Celtics might rise to a whole other level, but the Sixers will at least have a fighting chance as they grow and develop. Toronto is not going to be a long-term contender, even if the Raptors might take a series off them down the line. If LeBron leaves the East, all the better. If he stays in Cleveland, that’s an issue, but the East will still be weaker than the West.
2. The money is different.
The cap jump just provided a lot more room, and on top of that, the cap is expected to go up in future seasons, all before additional revenues possibly provided by legalized gambling or eSports come in. That allows more flexibility. Plus, the Sixers operate in a much bigger market with a much better TV deal than the one OKC has.
3. The team plays modern basketball.
Credit Brett Brown for this. The Sixers are a volume 3-point team with shooters they have pulled out of the scrap heap such as Marco Belinelli but also guys such as Redick and Saric. Philly clearly recognizes the need for floor-spacers with Simmons and Embiid, and they punish teams with them.
4. Embiid impacts the game on multiple levels concurrently.
Durant is a better player and will in all likelihood finish higher on the all-time lists. But when Embiid is crushing a mismatch inside, it doesn’t just produce points like Durant does; it gets guys in foul trouble, which produces more efficient scoring for everyone by getting them into the bonus. Defensively, a rim protector such as Embiid will always have more value than someone like Durant just because of how he deters perimeter action.
5. The Sixers still have more assets.
As crazy as this is … the Sixers are likely getting the Lakers’ pick this year (unless it falls in a very narrow gap to the Celtics). That’s another top-end talent they can add on a rookie contract. It’s a little embarrassing how many picks this team has racked up.
6. The LeBron factor.
I don’t consider the Sixers the favorite to land LeBron, but it’s certainly on the table — at least according to people around the league. If James goes there, and if he adopts an off-ball, tip-of-the-spear, post-up-centric approach? Good night, Nurse. There are more ways for this team to reach hitherto unseen levels than OKC had.
If nothing else, consider this to be a reminder that no matter what happens with the Sixers from here on out, the future is not certain. They’re not doomed to repeat the slings and arrows of fate or have the self-inflicted wounds of star-studded youngster teams before them, nor are they assured a spot in the conference finals every year. They have to put in the work to be great, ownership has to pay for it and management has to make the right decisions (which Process Trusters are terrified of with Bryan Colangelo at the helm).
But the Sixers are here. Now. They didn’t sneak into the eighth seed like I thought they would and bow out in the first round to an inferior team. To put it quite simply, this is the Sixers:
They are the most terrifying team in the playoffs right now, and, if healthy, they are assured to get better, year by year, for an indeterminate amount of time. There’s no telling where, or when, this team plateaus. There are pitfalls. There are reasons for caution. But there’s also every reason to think that this team will be the one to succeed where those other teams fell short.
They have the talent. They have the organizational structure.
Now all they need is a little luck.
Pictured above: Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons