Facing Boston in the second round felt like a true lose-lose situation. Win and everybody says Boston wasn’t at full strength. Lose and everybody mocks this prematurely anointed 76ers squad. The hype felt out of control. Everything seemed to be happening so fast. One week, the 76ers take out the Miami Heat, becoming Eastern Conference Finals favorites, the next week the Celtics win three straight to take a commanding lead. That’s the beauty of it all. Watching a team try and put the pieces together.
It’s been several days since Philadelphia lost in five to the Boston Celtics. The initial reaction had to be anger. There was an opportunity, a damn good opportunity. Brad Stevens appeared to be this genius strategist, carefully selecting lineups to carve up Philadelphia’s supposedly good defense while employing a defense that hamstrung Ben Simmons. After watching five games, one thing remains clear: Philadelphia needs wings.
Last year, Philadelphia trading up to snag Markelle Fultz made too much sense. The ideal pairing with Simmons and Embiid is Fultz, a heady playmaker capable of knocking down spot-up threes. When the NBA lottery results transpired on the third Tuesday of May, the 76ers were slated to pick third. Josh Jackson was the name that resonated strongest in the ensuing weeks. Jayson Tatum’s name had been mentioned, too. Tatum, this silky smooth wing didn’t appear to have three-point range, at least he didn’t show it consistently during his lone season at Duke. I remember liking Tatum, thinking his skill set would translate well to the NBA, but his name wasn’t necessarily linked to the 76ers at three, partially because his defense didn’t appear to be too savvy. Philadelphia only had one top prospect visit before making the trade with Boston, and that was Malik Monk. So, in reality, nobody knows which way Philadelphia leaned if the third pick remained in its possession.
I avoided Twitter at all costs during the Boston series, knowing the amount of outrage the website would feature about potential All-Defense member Robert Covington. Covington played brutally defensively in Games 1 and 2. Offensively, he couldn’t find his shot, besides Game 2. Nobody said Covington would be this dynamic offensive option. He’s a capable three-point shooter with a limited handle and playmaking ability. Covington can defend with the best of them. The problem, though, is NBA teams smartly attack the team’s weakest defender, so just like my sixth-grade football coach would say about our offensive line: you’re only as good as your weakest link. Boston smartly attacked JJ Redick and Marco Belinelli.
Fultz wasn’t necessarily supposed to be this star-level rookie. Tatum being so freakishly good hurts his situation. There’s no way Tatum would have been there at three, though. The 76ers could have used the first pick to select Tatum but, like Zach Lowe said Monday in his podcast with Bill Simmons: Boston would have selected Tatum first overall, so Boston fleeced Philadelphia in the process. Fultz has to be a go-to scorer for the 76ers, and even if his rookie season ranks near the top in terms of sheer bizarreness, there’s reason to expect Fultz to find his jumper this summer. Fans actively wondered why Brett Brown never went to Fultz this series, but there was little benefit by throwing Fultz out there against what clearly was a superior defensive team. Fultz will feel the weight next spring, certainly. He’ll be expected to carry an offensive load, regardless of what Philadelphia adds this summer.
As much as an engaged, productive Fultz would have helped Philly against Boston, specifically in pick-and-rolls and end of game situations, the lack of wing options still would have hampered the 76ers chances. With Boston building a wing factory, addressing the wing position jolts to the top of Philadelphia’s summer needs. Yes, adding Paul George, Kawhi Leonard or LeBron James to the 76ers roster will make things all better. But regardless of Philadelphia’s plans in July’s free agency, the assumed 10th pick after tomorrow’s lottery should be a wing. (Mikal Bridges, please).
Watching Boston do whatever it wanted against Cleveland soften the blow of losing the series in five games slightly. Philadelphia, aside from Game 1, had opportunities to win each game. It’s no wonder most fans took the half-glass full approach to the 76ers season. Fifty two wins, a three seed and the notion that Philadelphia finished fifth in the NBA because their game five loss happened a mere 24 hours after the Jazz and Pelicans loss. This season served as the most fun since the days I turned my childhood home’s unfinished basement into a mock stadium for 2001 playoff games. That year we spray painted a sheet with encouraging words to support the unlikely Finals run on our front porch.
It’s only going to get bigger from now, the hype that is. Depending on what the 76ers do this off-season, reaching the Finals next year might be expected. I wrote earlier this season how this year’s postseason run would be the last without heightened expectations. Sure, things broke differently as Philadelphia was the favorites to make the Finals after beating Miami in five games during the first round. And there’s the sour taste of disappointment that continues to linger. It felt right, though. Watching this team make mistakes, hoping this team would pull out wins in the end, knowing this team played games that actually mattered.