Is It OK to Be Optimistic?

As last NBA season began, many expected great things from the Philadelphia 76ers. The defense would be among the league’s best, quite possibly historic. The minutes Joel Embiid missed the previous campaign that hindered Philly’s chance would be solved by Al Horford. On paper it all made sense.

I haven’t written anything about the 76ers since August amid their season crashing down in embarrassing fashion, failing to win a game in the first round of the playoffs against the Celtics. As expected, a lot has happened since. It’s weird to be excited about this team after how it ended mere months ago. Fandom will do that to you, but they also made smart decisions that essentially force you to be optimistic. Make you believe this team could be a potentially good regular season team.

Something that hasn’t been the case, frankly, since they won 52 games during the 2017-2018 season.

Frustrating doesn’t even begin to describe how it felt watching the 76ers last season. But even the season before last, when they nearly beat the Raptors in a seven-game second round series, they didn’t feel at all dominant. Sure, they had moments where things clicked. Who can forget Game 3 against the Raptors that post season? But as a regular season team, they underperformed. Even last year during an abysmal, lifeless campaign, Philadelphia managed wins over the Bucks, the Clippers and the Lakers. They annihilated the Heat in November. Too often, however, they struggled with mundane stuff. The basics became increasingly painstaking. The spacing never worked itself out. Hindsight proves it never had a chance.

Blame whomever you’d like. Seriously. Take a number. Brett Brown. Ben Simmons. Tobias Harris. Embiid. Horford. Josh Richardson. Elton Brand. The list goes on and on, which is why it was never about firing Brown, however necessary.  

There was a certain tension with last year’s team. Embiid spoke about not having fun. The team seemed to get along off the court. The thing is, believe it or not, never clicking as a unit on the court matters. The basketball became stale and unattractive. Slowly it eroded. Believe Brown for failing to adapt to his roster. He deserves some of it, but Simmons refusing to shoot threes, Richardson’s indecisiveness and Harris being forced to play wing played a role, too. Embiid didn’t have fun because the offense broke—with no identity being formed the 76ers were lost. It felt like there was always something. An injury, a suspension. Then there’s accountability, which has been the word of training camp among new head coach Doc Rivers, Simmons and Harris.

Each vowing this year will be different.

I can’t begin to imagine how the offseason would have gone without Daryl Morey in charge. It’s not just him, of course. The additions of Peter Dinwiddie and Prosper Karangwa certainly added a sorely needed jolt into an overwhelmed front office. Besides being one of the best GMs in basketball, Morey takes ownership as a decision maker. He’s proven to be an unafraid, unabashed leader—something Philadelphia hasn’t had. Trading for Danny Green and Seth Curry gives the 76ers a formidable starting lineup that harkens back to the days of Robert Covington and JJ Redick.

Big time questions remain unanswered, namely who creates offense in the half court during the postseason. It’s a legitimate question. One that will define Simmons. Boston played him off the floor three postseasons ago. Jimmy Butler was Philly’s go-to offense two years ago. Simmons never had a chance to prove himself in the bubble.

But for now, the 76ers will open the season against Russell Westbrook in two weeks, just like they did during Embiid’s debut. Unlike that game, this won’t be on national television. A couple days later will be Christmas Day where 10 teams play, none of whom will be the 76ers. It’s not a shock given how they played last season, but it’s reality to where they are now. It can be viewed as a clean slate, a fresh start.

An opportunity to build something sustainable. A reason for optimism.

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