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The state of the Philadelphia 76ers before the Jimmy Butler trade

What happens to a team built around a higher goal when they taste success? The road along the way can be bumpy, and that’s why they made a big splash.

Getty Images/SB Nation illustration

Editor’s note: This piece was originally published on Nov. 7, three days before the Jimmy Butler trade.

T.J. McConnell, the Philadelphia 76ers’ cagey backup point guard, leans against his locker and scarfs down bites of his pre-game meal before taking on the Raptors on the second night of a back-to-back. In four years, he has gone from an undrafted project, to a starter, and back to a bit player. He has endured 10-win seasons and tasted playoff victories.

And now, the second-longest tenured Sixer behind Joel Embiid (third before Robert Covington was traded to the Timberwolves) is trying to do away with the maxim that has defined his team for longer than he’s been in the league.

“As much as there’s the ‘Trust The Process’ stuff, that’s kinda in our rearview,” McConnell tells SB Nation. “That’s kinda our motto, but we gotta focus on the things that help us win games. Anything else, we can’t let it be a distraction.”

That’s been more difficult than expected. After four seasons of tanking, the Sixers were supposed to have been vindicated by last season’s 52-win outburst, powered by Ben Simmons’ Rookie of the Year campaign and Joel Embiid’s first healthy season. Flanked by sharpshooters J.J. Redick and Covington, plus Croatian wonder Dario Saric, the 76ers had one of the best starting lineups in the league.

And then came the second round of the playoffs, when the Celtics punched a hole in their motley of athleticism, length, smarts, and shooting. Boston’s bruising, switch-happy wings formed a wall against Simmons’ penetration, daring the rangeless wonder to shoot while Al Horford made Embiid feel every bit of his youth. With No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz out due to a mysterious shoulder injury that added a hitch to his once perfect jumper, the 76ers were low on shot creation and fell in five games. They looked slow-footed, easy to exploit.

So it is that Fultz, a crafty point guard who may or may not have unlimited potential, has replaced Redick in the starting lineup. They’re also revamping last year’s third-ranked defense. And by the way, Jimmy Butler is now here, coming from Minnesota in exchange for Saric, Covington, Jerryd Bayless, and a 2022 second-round pick.

“What’s our sport look like in June?” asks head coach Brett Brown prior to the Raptors game. “What’s it look like in late May? How do you coach proactively?”

If Philadelphia is letting perfect be the enemy of good, it’s not like they have much of a choice. You don’t brazenly tank for half a decade, spark a league-wide existential panic, and invite scorn from all corners of the sporting world just to be good. Sam Hinkie didn’t die for an era of second-round outs. Like it or not, the Process is still everywhere.

But on this night, it’s hard to trust. The Raptors are running roughshod over the confused 76ers’ defense, finding open shooters all over the floor and using Kawhi Leonard’s isolation game to bust switches. He treats Simmons like a sock toy in the post, and on defense, the man nicknamed The Claw shrinks the floor, intercepting passes and cutting off driving lanes.

Adjusting to a defensive scheme that asks him to call out switches, watch off-ball screens, and cover his own man, Embiid often finds himself with his back turned, opening up layup lines for Kyle Lowry.

After the game, he is stewing with frustration and pride. “I’m the guy behind, so if I call something, my teammates gotta respect it and they gotta honor it,” Embiid tells SB Nation. “We have a lot of communication problems. That’s the key to a great defense.”

“I gotta communicate better,” he adds later. “If our defense is not good, I feel like I’m not doing a great job so I gotta do a better job. I don’t ever allow someone to give up 129 points. That’s bad. I’m pissed about it.”

After dropping back-to-back games against the Bucks and Pistons a few days prior, the coaching staff gathered the team together to remind them what they were capable of being. They echoed the signs that hang all over their practice facility: Philly hard, Philly real, Philly edge. The problem wasn’t talent, the message went. It was focus, toughness, repetition, and, above all, communication.

Despite last season’s success, the Sixers are trying to meld old concepts with new ones. On defense, they want to switch forwards with forwards — “apples to apples” as Brown calls it — while asking Embiid to continue dropping back and stay close to the rim, where he can have the most impact.

But with a 6’3 point guard in Fultz interchanging with a 6’10 point guard in Simmons, it’s not as simple as switching every pick set by a wing and playing guard-big pick-and-rolls traditionally. Some mismatches will require a quick switch back, some will force doubles, and some they have to live with. They are hoping that by the post-season, the specifics will feel natural, leaving them ready for what — and who — awaits them in the NBA’s second season.

Simmons, who increasingly finds himself off the ball after switching onto wings, has zoned in on improving his awareness of weak-side cutters. Fultz has been dogged about getting around screens. Every player has made it a point to talk more. They are in fact on the upswing defensively, allowing just 103.5 points per possession in the five games since the meeting, a mark that would rank in the top five if accomplished over the entire season.

When Simmons, Fultz, and Embiid share the floor, that number drops to 95.5, despite the fact that opponents are rarely taking the ball out of the basket. Indeed, the Sixers haven’t managed to capitalize on the other end, where Fultz and Simmons struggle to extend their range and find enough space for their speed to put the hurt on opponents.

“I think there’s a genuine desire from their part to wanna make it work,” Brown says a week later prior to a loss against the Nets. “Math wouldn’t say that. And when you look at them in isolation, they’re pretty impressive numbers. Markelle especially, as a point guard, his numbers for a rookie — effectively a rookie in my eyes — are very impressive.”

Fultz is being fast-tracked, and despite his shooting struggles, he’s been pugnacious defensively and shone with the ball in his hands — that is, when Simmons hits the bench. But the 76ers need their most important players to be able to share the court, even now that Butler is one of the five.

“I’m trying to have it all, where I can grow [Simmons and Fultz] together and play them together and then give the team the best chance and Markelle the best chance to play well and that is with the ball,” Brown says. “It’s a work in progress for sure.”

The league has gotten faster and spacier than even the analytics-obsessed 76ers could have imagined. With a center that can shoot and point guards that can’t, the Sixers are somehow both archaic and modern. The contradictions could be smoothed out if Fultz or Simmons finds some range. If they don’t, the Sixers might have the tools to be the modern era’s great course-correction.

There’s Simmons — a 6’10, point-guard playing athletic marvel with no jumper — running the break with eyes in the back of his head, encouraged to crash for offensive rebounds while the rest of the league rushes their guards back to protect against perimeter 3-point threats.

“We feel that with his size and athleticism that we would be making mistake not encouraging him to go out there,” Brown says.

Then there’s Embiid, a 7’ shot blocker who operates in the restricted area as a tabletop foosball goalie. He is hyper-mobile despite weighing 250 pounds, a matchup nightmare in a the small-ball era that can also, in his own words, kick 7’, 280-pound Andre Drummond’s ass.

There are nights the Sixers make you believe. Fultz squeezes through picks, the forwards switch perfectly, and scorers funnel into Embiid’s imposing frame. Then, they’re off to the races, with Simmons and Fultz leading the break. These are the games when Brown sounds less like Don Quixote and more like a man really riding unicorns. You wonder: with their combination of patience, talent, and a steadfast bent towards analytics, could the 76ers find a formula that flips the NBA over on its head?

And then Embiid gets triple-teamed without a release valve in sight. So it goes when you’re trying to push against the ocean and win games at the same time.

Perched up against the concrete walls of the Scotiabank Arena, Brown is musing on the future of the league.

“Our sport is incredibly influenced every year and more and more by analytics,” he says. “The volume of the threes and the pace of the game is at an all-time high, and I don’t see that trend being corrected for a while.”

What, asks one reporter, would it take to tilt the balance?

Without missing a beat, Brown’s eyes perk up. He cuts the reporter off at the end of his question and replies, as though the answer is as obvious as he hopes it is.

“Joel Embiid.”