As the third quarter of Game 6 flipped to Philadelphia’s favor, it felt different. Finally, they’d make it past the second round.
Sports are silly. You spend time and money. You exhaust energy. For something you literally cannot control no matter how much you think you can. It’s not my fault I grew up where I did. I gravitated strongly towards some sub-six-foot guard from Georgetown. I watched in awe as he led a team to the NBA Finals. I was eight. I didn’t know any better. I still don’t.
It’s been a long time since then. We’re constantly reminded of that. And for most of my life, the 76ers have been irrelevant. They rotated coaches like a rowdy game of musical chairs. Consistently played mediocre or below-average basketball. They didn’t matter. Now, even if they’ve won a bunch of games over these past six seasons. They’re still irrelevant. Maybe that’s dramatic. But it’s the truth. It’s a hard pill to swallow if I’m being honest. What’s the point?
Joel Embiid has meant everything to this team. Everyone knew this postseason would be gigantic. With the James Harden free agent decision looming, this seemed like the opportunity for Embiid to shine brightest. MVP. First team All-NBA. Everything fell cleanly into place. Except, the ball didn’t find its way to Embiid down the stretch of Game 6. He was mostly good throughout that game. Jayson Tatum gave Boston the lead with 4:14 left. Embiid then took a 19-foot jumper that rimmed out with just under four minutes left. Tatum promptly made another three (and a couple more) while Embiid didn’t take another shot the rest of the way. Thirteen fourth quarter points as a team. Then Game 7 happened. Whatever that was. I truly don’t want to replay it or think about it ever again. Tatum was very good. Embiid and Harden were very bad. Ten third quarter points as a team. An MVP season wasted. Now, they pivot.
This morning, Philadelphia fired Doc Rivers. He didn’t necessarily deserve it, but it’s the easiest thing to do in a star-driven league. A new voice should help, but it’s obviously not the only thing that needs to be addressed. It’s a monumental offseason. You have the Harden question. Tyrese Maxey will be here. As should PJ Tucker. But everyone else? Daryl Morey will need to be creative with limited draft capital (they can swap picks, or trade a 2029 first, but the latter seems insanely risky unless they’re getting a legitimate starter in return). Tobias Harris will most likely be traded now that his contract has one year remaining. It still won’t be easy, and it’ll be interesting to see what type of player they can get for him, but it needs to happen. Someone willing to jack 10 threes a game. Someone capable of catching a lob pass or even executing a two-on-one fastbreak.
It’s dejecting. The whole situation. Especially because nobody will really care how the Sixers play next regular season. As Miami has proven again, it’s only about the playoffs. How you adapt. How you adjust to tendencies. It’s not like the Sixers played some terrible series. Winning three times against a team many anticipate will win the championship. But it doesn’t matter. Excuses have long lost their luster. Right now, Embiid hasn’t made it out of the second round. Until he does, he won’t be taken seriously as a top echelon player. Nor should he.
But it’s not all dire. Of course, I’ll take the half glass full approach. That’s fandom for you. Embiid remains in his prime. Maxey will continue to get better. There’s a lot to like about the Sixers. A new coach addition automatically brings more energy and excitement on its own. And then whatever roster decisions around the edges could be fruitful for the Sixers. Another thing to consider: the era of super teams is over, especially with the upcoming CBA. Boston looks like they will be a contender for the foreseeable future, Denver looks pretty good, too. Milwaukee will be there, as well. But unless the Lakers win this year’s title, the NBA will see its fifth unique champion in as many years, which hasn’t happened since 1977-1981 (Blazers, Bullets, SuperSonics, Lakers, and Celtics). Parity (somewhat) exists right now. So, it’s not all doom and gloom.
However, the bottom line remains the same. No words, transactions, or regular season performance will change the perception.
Embiid must show up when it matters most. Otherwise, what was the point?
Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images