From 2013-2017, the Philadelphia 76ers were the worst team in basketball. In those four seasons, only once did Philly manage to top 20 wins. But throughout this period of ineptitude on the court, the Sixers front office began a long and brutal rebuilding phase to bring a winner back to Philly. Philadelphia’s rebuild, dubbed “The Process”, has morphed the 76ers from East bottom feeder, to borderline championship contender.
Since 2013, draft choices, trades and signings from The Process such as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons have emerged as all stars and top-15 players in the league. This dynamic duo, with the help of a veteran bench lifted the Sixers back into serious playoff contention in 2018, before they were bested by the rival Celtics in the second round. The next year, despite losing depth, the team acquired all star forward Jimmy Butler and 20 PPG scorer Tobias Harris. Philly clinched the third seed in the east with their second straight 50 win season, but were eliminated in heartbreaking fashion, at the buzzer in game-seven against the eventual champion Toronto Raptors. With back to back years of some playoff success and improvement to the team, the 76ers entered the 2019-20 season as one of the favorites in the Eastern Conference and a legitimate championship contender. Well, that hasn’t happened.
The 76ers played well below their lofty yet reasonable expectations for this season up to this point. The team ended the regular season going just 43-30, with a very concerning road mark of 12-26. And with just a 4-4 record in the bubble and now having been eliminated by Celtics in the first round, it’s clear Philly has been a big disappointment. It all started in last year’s offseason where the team passed on resigning the intense all star wing in Jimmy Butler in which the 3 & D forward walked to Miami in a sign and trade that brought back guard Josh Richardson, whom hasn’t been anything special. With the money that should’ve been used on Butler, Philadelphia instead signed a 34-yea-old Al Horford to a massive four-year, $97 million deal. Add this to an offseason in which the Sixers also dished out a supermax contract to one way forward Tobias Harris at a five-year, $180 million price tag. Only to add to an expensive offseason, franchise cornerstone Ben Simmons was also given a supermax deal at five-years, $170 million bucks. And after already locking up the best center in the league in Joel Embiid the year before, who got five- years, $147 million of his own, the Sixers clearly have next to none financial flexibility. Until the summer of 2023, the Sixers have four players taking up around $120 million, which exceeds the 2020 salary cap of $109 million. Yikes.
Obviously, franchise players Embiid and Simmons are insanely valuable and unlikely to be traded, though rumors say that could change, more on that soon. Tobias Harris is a good player and an efficient scorer but being given a super-max contract as the third option on a mid-tier playoff team is not smart managing and no team would take on his money without serious assets being thrown in, which the Sixers greatly lack. But the albatross of a contract given to Al Horford is where it gets worse. With a completely unmovable deal and being 34 years old and coming off his worst season stats wise since his rookie year in 2008, choosing Horford over Butler proves to be dead wrong again. And with the 76ers only real trade chips coming in an average Josh Richardson, a young defender with high upside in Matisse Thybulle and draft picks which will be at this rate no lower than the high teens for the forseable future, big moves are likely not possible.
Even though the Sixers now field a playoff team, this squad is one that does not mesh very well together especially between the team’s two best players. Joel Embiid is a game changing big man who can dominate the paint on both ends but also knock down the three. Ben Simmons, while being one of the best point guards and overall defenders in the game, is infamous for his inability to make shots outside of 20 feet. And with the team’s only other shooters coming somewhat from Harris, Alec Burks and Shake Milton, Philadelphia absolutely relies on points in the post. What they need is an elite shooting threat at point guard to keep Embiid in the paint controlling the game. This is something Ben Simmons is not capable of but with him being the team’s only elite defender on the perimeter right now, he is just as valuable to the team as Embiid, meaning all the talks of the Sixers needing to decide between one of them is false.
The 76ers are comparable to the Maple Leafs in hockey or current-era LA Dodgers in baseball. They have massive amounts of talent, receive hype and recognition as a top team, but when it comes down to it, they never get it done.
This offseason is critical to the future of the 76ers as if they can’t find a way to sure up depth in all facets of the game, seasons like this will only repeat. Yes, there is still years and years left of contention led by Simmons and Embiid but with no cap room, limited trade assets, non lottery picks and differing play styles in their hands and with their best result in the playoffs coming in two second round exits, it seems like The Process is in serious danger of breaking down.
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