When Kawhi Leonard’s game-winning, buzzer-beating, fading corner shot bounced off the rim four times and fell through the net, scratching every hope the Sixers had of overtime and potentially advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals, the faces told the entire story.
One one side, Leonard’s shriek of success was the most emotion we’ve ever seen the robotic all-star show on the court. His teammates swarmed him, celebrating what may be the greatest shot in Raptors’ history.
But on the other side, Joel Embiid was reduced to tears. Tobias Harris couldn’t believe what he had witnessed. Jimmy Butler, who had just gone coast-to-coast to tie the game at 90 with 4.2 seconds left in the fourth, was in disbelief. Ben Simmons was upset, to say the least. J.J. Redick couldn’t find words to describe his emotions.
This was the worst way for this Sixers team to lose. It felt like a championship or bust season for a Philadelphia team that went all-in two times in one year, first by trading for Butler in November, then again by dealing Landry Shamet and four draft picks for Harris at the trade deadline. There were even reports that Brett Brown was coaching for his job.
Their championship push ended on four bounces off the rim, and one into the net.
Now, the Sixers face an off-season with decisions across the board, from key players becoming free agents to a longtime head coach who could be replaced or extended.
Only one route makes sense for Philadelphia to push forward: They need to run it back.
That includes Brett Brown.
He has proven to be a worthy head coach for this talented team, even if he isn’t perfect.
This has been a bizarre ride for Brown, who went playoff stretches without knowing whether Embiid would play until moments before tip-off. He had his roster upended twice in one season, and still managed to coach the Sixers to one shot shy of an overtime that could have sent his team to the Eastern Conference Finals. It wouldn’t be fair to sack Brown based on losing on a buzzer-beater to a team that has as good a chance at hoisting an NBA Finals trophy in June.
True, the Sixers had multiple blunders on the offensive end in Game 7, including a bewildering shot-clock violation out of a timeout on a key fourth-quarter possession. You can also quarrel with Embiid’s positioning on the perimeter instead of in the paint. But if you fire Brown, you had better replace him with a championship-caliber head coach. Phil Jackson ain’t walking through that door. Neither are Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, Mike Budenholzer or, apparently, Nick Nurse. The league’s best coaches are already employed by other teams.
The starting lineup Brown had to work with — Harris, Butler, Redick, Simmons, and Embiid — quickly became the NBA’s second-best starting lineup behind only the Warriors. It was also the best five-man unit through two playoff rounds. That lineup, though, only shared 11 regular-season games together on the court before making its playoff push. That’s because Embiid, Philly’s most dominant player, found himself in and out of action after the Harris trade with nagging injuries deemed “load management”. The Sixers are two different teams when their centerpiece is on the court and when he’s off.
Xs and Os are one thing. Chemistry is another. The 76ers desperately need to give Brown more time to build the latter.
Keeping these Sixers together will be expensive, but worthwhile
Embiid is in the second-year of a five-year, $147 million rookie scale extension. Simmons has a similar contract with his name on it waiting for him in 2020. Redick took a $10 million pay cut and still made $12.5 million last season.
Most importantly, both Butler and Harris will become unrestricted free agents in a summer where a third of NBA teams can create space for a max free agent, and two teams in the best markets (the Clippers and Knicks) can create space for two superstars. A max contract for both Butler and Harris begins with a $32.7 million salary in Year 1 and could rocket to as high as a five-year deal worth $188 million.
Butler is a star who earned his max contract in the playoffs, not the regular season. He has a concerning injury history and will turn 30 before the beginning of next season, but he and Embiid have a bond that cannot be denied.
Harris has never made an NBA All-Star Game or an All-NBA team, but at least one franchise (Brooklyn and Sacramento come to mind) will offer him a max contract. He has been able to impose his will, at times, without dominating the ball, though he only shot 39 percent from the field and 32 percent from three in the series against Toronto.
Sixers owner Joshua Harris recently bought a new home for $45 million. Will he shovel out two or three times that amount in luxury tax payments to keep this Sixers team together though 2024? He should.
What’s the alternative? Letting (or having no say in the matter if) both Harris and Butler walk, firing Brown, and building a brand new team around Simmons and Embiid next season?
Philly only has $41 million in guaranteed salaries committed in that scenario, which leaves $61 million in room if the Sixers are forced start from scratch. A star point guard like Kemba Walker would work wonders for Philadelphia, but then they’d have gaping holes on the wings and bench depth they can’t make up.
Again, the Sixers assembled this team by dealing six draft picks — two firsts and two seconds to the Clippers, and two seconds to Minnesota — two key role players, and a promising rookie in Shamet who became a playoff starter elsewhere. Pulling the plug after just a couple months wouldn’t allow this talented group to reach their fullest potential.
Philly needs to do right by Embiid, whose health has been in flux more often than not. The Sixers were a comical 40 points better per 100 possessions in playoff minutes Embiid spent on the floor. Their championship window is open as long as he remains healthy, but he appeared to be laboring more and more every trip up and down the floor. His window is now, not later. The 76ers can’t keep retooling his roster.
Should the 76ers keep the core together, they will have to be creative filling out the roster. The Sixers can sign Redick from anywhere between a minimum contract and $21.5 million, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks. Philly will more than likely waive Jonathon Simmons before his $5.7 million salary guarantees for next season, but that may not help them retain Mike Scott, who has played his way into at least double his $4.3 million salary. James Ennis is also expected to opt-out of his $1.9 million salary for next season after an impressive playoff showing. The Sixers will operate as a non-taxpaying team, so long as they only use $7.7 million of their mid-level exception, per Marks.
That exception, plus minimum contracts, will be Philly’s only mechanisms to sign free agents. From the outside looking in, do they have enough championship potential for quality veterans to take a pay cut? They certainly have more now than if they start over again.
What’s done is done. The key is what’s best for the future
The Sixers are in this position because Markelle Fultz’s shoulder syndrome forced them to rush the process. Now, they’re at a crossroads: bring back the gang with moderate improvements, or start from scratch around Simmons and Embiid, forfeiting all the assets traded to assemble this team.
There’s really only one choice.
Philadelphia had the second-best starting lineup in the NBA and the best five-man unit in the playoffs. That unit only played 11 regular season games together. How good can they be with an entire 82-game year under their belt, using the motivation of a heart-breaking Game 7 buzzer-beater that touched the rim four times before dropping? Sixers management owes it to Brown and this star-studded roster to find out.