Let us, for a moment, consider the donut burger. The ingredients that result in its existence are, without question, good. Hamburger patties, topped with cheese, bacon, pickles and whatever condiments you heart desires, bookended by two donuts. To bite into something like that should be the peak of human existence. And yet, something is missing.
Perhaps it’s the knowledge that you’re ingesting upwards of 1500 calories in one sitting. Perhaps the sweetness of the donut doesn’t match the greasiness of the traditional hamburger. Frustration mounts, and afterwards, you just feel awful.
The Philadelphia 76ers, replete with enticing ingredients, is that very donut burger. After being dispatched from the NBA playoffs in the second round for the second straight season, this time because of a shot from Kawhi Leonard that will be used in promos for the league for eternity, a team that went all in at the trade deadline sulked off the court, the pressure that came with the expectation of going all-in still weighing heavily on their shoulders.
This iteration of the 76ers, the one that added Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris to a lineup that already boasted Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, was confounding. In 173 minutes together during the postseason, the 76ers starting lineup of Simmons, Harris, Butler, Redick and Embiid were a +24.9. That’s the best number of any starting five that’s played more than 50 minutes together this postseason, per NBA.com, dwarfing the likes of Golden State’s death lineup and the whirling dervish that made up the Denver Nuggets starting unit.
Even hen looked at individually, each of the members of Philly’s starting five posted a positive net rating over these playoffs. Harris was a +6.8. Butler was a +12.6. And Embiid, the anchor of the 76ers, was an absurd +20.7. And yet, when asked to play different roles with different lineups in order to stagger rest, they failed. Against the Raptors, the 76ers success fluctuated wildly from one lineup to the next, and the end result was another disappointing postseason exit.
Remove Butler from the starting lineup and replace him with Mike Scott, a unit coach Brett Brown used the fourth most in the series, and the 76ers net rating plummeted from 8.7 to -29.6. Harris was unable to bolster multiple bench units with his offense, and after scoring 20-plus points 14 times in the regular season after being acquired by Philadelphia, Harris didn’t crack the 20-point mark in any game against the Raptors. Butler shot just 5-14 in Game 7 when they needed their blockbuster acquisition to show up most, with far too many possessions ended up looking like this.
A team desperately relying on its top-heavy starting lineup didn’t get nearly enough from the pieces off the bench. James Ennis and Scott barely made a ripple. T.J. McConnell didn’t play in three of the seven games against the Raps, and when he did, he was an atrocious -28.7. Greg Monroe was a disaster backing up Embiid after Boban Marojanovic proved unplayable, leading to one of the most unbelievable stats of the year coming out of Game 7.
Philadelphia’s disappointing end leaves the team’s brass with some difficult decisions about fit. Harris and Butler are free agents. Simmons remains without any semblance of a jumpshot, and can often clog the lane for his teammates when he meanders around the dunker spot, which he spent a large chunk of time doing against Toronto. Trade whispers surrounding the Australian All-Star point guard are as loud as they’ve ever been.
The 76ers will have precious little cap space to sign anyone of consequence if they’re hellbent on bringing back Harris, Butler and Redick, espeically if the plan is to keep Simmons in the fold when his rookie deal expires,. Those decisions are made harder by a postseason that only brought two answers (Embiid is very good, and the starting lineup plays well together) and a hundred other questions.
Do you decide that the ingredients have too much potential and run things back for the foreseeable future? Or will the feeling that something’s not quite right force the 76ers to let one or more pieces of this current roster walk? They went all-in on this season and lost. Now the question is whether to double down with this roster or make even more sweeping changes in pursuit of a title. This offseason for Philadelphia is bigger than the trades they made to get them here.