The entire idea behind The Process was for the Philadelphia 76ers to acquire stars in any number of ways. They got a pair in the NBA Draft that worked out in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and while they were unable to go three-for-three in this endeavor, this was the logic behind trading up to select Markelle Fultz.
Even when that third move didn’t pan out for a myriad of reasons, Philly still had a pair of tentpoles in their two young All-Stars. Despite the fact that they’re getting closer and closer to their primes — Embiid turns 27 next season, Simmons just turned 24 — the Sixers still have a window to win a ton of basketball games and compete for a title solely because the two of them are around, which makes the last few years of relatively weird roster management so strange.
As I’ve written in the past, Philly has never been wrong to prioritize having stars on its roster. The weird thing they’ve done in recent years that has been a flaw in this plan is to get stars who do not necessarily fit next to their two youngsters. Jimmy Butler was quite good for the Sixers, but he ended up being a year-long rental. Tobias Harris theoretically fits well next to the two, but he is not a star, even if he is compensated like one. Al Horford’s signing was curious (at best) at the time and quickly evolved into baffling.
Their attempts to acquire stars has, basically, been “let’s get big names and hope they figure things out.” Maybe they would have won a championship in 2019 if not for an historically great shot by Kawhi Leonard, but last season showed that this plan has limits. It’s part of why the team replaced Brett Brown with Doc Rivers, brought in Daryl Morey, and did some tweaking to the front office in the aftermath. Regardless, the Sixers roster has not always had the sort of cohesiveness that you need to win, oftentimes lacking something — consistent shooting, a playmaker, a big man who could take minutes when Embiid sat, etc. — that ended up being crippling.
It took Morey, Elton Brand, and the rest of the front office about six hours to take positive steps towards fixing this. The big move was getting out from under Horford’s contract, a potential millstone around the franchise’s neck that cost a 2025 first-round pick and a second-round selection on Wednesday night, but managed to net them a useful player in Danny Green, who should provide floor spacing and perimeter defending if he’s healthy (a big if, especially with the Sixers, which seem preordained to always be Extremely Injured to one extent or another), and a bouncy young wing in Terrance Ferguson whose shooting has run hot and cold.
The Draft rolled around and Philly managed to nab three players — Tyrese Maxey, Isaiah Joe, Paul Reed — who have skills that help. Maxey gives them a guard who fits snug onto their roster in a number of ways, Joe brings potentially elite shooting, and Reed is a funky but sound defender in the frontcourt. They also flipped Josh Richardson, a good player who struggled during his one year in Philadelphia with a constantly-changing role, for Seth Curry, another backcourt player who provides elite shooting.
None of these players are the kind of superstars that could bring a team to new heights, nor do are any of them a silver bullet that will resolve every single issue on this team. But as Morey said in his press conference on Thursday afternoon, all of them complement Embiid and Simmons in such a way that you have to wonder why this hasn’t been the objective in Philadelphia prior to this offseason.
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) November 19, 2020
There were eight teams in the NBA last season — Boston, Houston, Miami, Milwaukee, Philly, Utah, and the Los Angeles squads — that had two players participate in the 2020 All-Star Game. Inarguably, none of them did a worse job building a team that brings out the best in those two players than Philadelphia did. Embiid and Simmons need shooting, playmaking, and perimeter defending around them, and while there were players who were able to provide this from time to time on the Sixers last season, few could consistently. Add in that the general thesis of that team was “we are going to be so good defensively that we’ll survive some hiccups on offense,” and that they ended up being eighth in defensive rating, and the entire thing fell apart, especially once Simmons got injured in the NBA’s Orlando Bubble.
Now, Philly is starting to realize that having two of those sorts of players is something you should lean all the way into. The amount of space that both Embiid and Simmons will have to work should be increased by having shooters around them (although it must be said that the two of them plus Harris is a frontcourt that doesn’t fit perfectly, especially if the latter’s shot isn’t falling), while guards like Maxey and Curry should be much better at getting them the ball than the various guys they tried at that position last year. Defensive drop offs probably won’t be too terribly stark, because Embiid and Simmons can still be the lynchpins of any NBA defense.
It has been maddening watching the Sixers in recent years, as their priority have seemed to be things other than “we have Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, which needs to inform all of our other decisions.” The last day or so is one heck of a start to doing this for the first time since Embiid and Simmons ascended to stardom.