The Philadelphia 76ers have not been this good since Allen Iverson stepped over Tyronn Lue, Kanye West had zero albums in his discography, and Markelle Fultz was two years old. But despite their descent into a disturbing 0-3 hole against the depleted Boston Celtics, this team is still widely expected to reign over the Eastern Conference for (at least) an entire generation.
Led by two maturing All-NBA talents who have a combined 175 starts between them, the roadmap to perennial relevance and recurring cracks at the Larry O’Brien trophy isn’t hard to see. Ben Simmons is 21 years old, eases his way into triple-doubles with a combination of power, speed, and spontaneous recognition that’s already extremely rare before you weigh in his height (6’10”!) or innate defensive instincts.
Joel Embiid is a literal giant with touch, a ballerina’s footwork, and arguably the most unstoppable one-on-one profile of any player his age in recent NBA history. (Fultz is either the most consequential bust since Greg Oden or a 19-year-old with All-Star potential—the only thing about him that’s guaranteed is the $8.3 million he's due next season.) The Sixers also have their own 26th overall pick in next month’s draft, plus a lottery pick from the Los Angeles Lakers that currently has the 10th-highest odds of leaping into the top three—if it lands in the second or third slot then it belongs to Boston, and the Sixers will enjoy an unprotected first-round pick from the Sacramento Kings in 2019.
But nothing is certain in a league that eats optimistic futures for breakfast. (The Oklahoma City Thunder were a lock for greatness, and right before them the Portland Trail Blazers were penciled in as a looming dynasty.) This isn’t a conversation about luck or risk, though. Every organization is vulnerable to a torn ACL or broken foot. Embiid, Fultz, and Simmons have each suffered significant injuries in their short careers, but, again, the biggest obstacle is less about the unaccountable and more about how their front office is able to progress with limited flexibility as they build around two cornerstones.
With Simmons and Embiid, Philadelphia may already have its most important boxes checked, but that by itself isn’t enough to actually win at the highest level, especially if Simmons never develops a reliable jumper and Embiid’s continuous physical maladies are a test throughout his career.
It’s here where the Sixers’s cap sheet comes into play. Philadelphia can just about clear max room for LeBron James by renouncing all its free agents (including J.J. Redick, Marco Belinelli, and Ersan Ilyasova, three critical role players who complement Simmons and Embiid while defining the team’s offensive personality), declining team options for T.J. McConnell and Richaun Holmes, then dumping Jerryd Bayless’s expiring contract along with either Dario Saric, Justin Anderson, or the Lakers’s pick onto another team. (To get there for Paul George, whose max tag starts about $5 million lower than LeBron’s, Philly still needs to renounce everyone but not part with as many pieces.)
But what happens if neither James nor George has any interest in joining a team that overachieved, to team up with an inexperienced core that's accomplished nothing with skill-sets that don't supplement their own strengths? The issue is far worse with LeBron, who may still be better next to four Kyle Korver clones than Simmons and Embiid. The punch behind that trio would be undeniable, of course, but the fit is illogical without top-notch shooting.
How would they match up against the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets, let alone a Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford closing five? Philadelphia’s defense would be a wall of crocodiles, but how does Embiid function in an offense that severely cuts into his mid and low-post touches? How could Simmons operate off the ball, and in what ways would doing so affect his own evolution?
And if you are George, which scenario sounds more appealing: Move to Los Angeles and be the face of a young, exciting Lakers team that still has enough cap space to add another max player the following summer (when Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, and Jimmy Butler are available), or work as the third option in Pennsylvania, on a team that lacks space on the court and in the books?
It's dizzying, the uncountable options and variables Philadelphia is already mulling over. Kawhi Leonard may be available, and if James flees to the Western Conference, Kevin Love would be a perfect fit. Fultz, Saric, and the Lakers pick are all intriguing assets this front office should be willing to dangle as a means to upgrade before Simmons’s max extension locks the team into what it is. Maybe it takes a somewhat-implausible swing at a restricted free agent like Aaron Gordon or Rodney Hood. Going after Marcus Smart would be a ruthless swipe at their rival, too.
All is not lost if the Sixers strike out on George and LeBron. They can pitch Redick—or another free agent, like Will Barton, Trevor Ariza, Wayne Ellington, Danny Green, Mike Scott, Isaiah Thomas, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, or Avery Bradley—on another big-money one-year deal, then bank on internal improvement by Fultz, Simmons, Embiid, and Saric. But given how the Sixers have crumbled in the second round, after finishing with the NBA's best net rating after January 1st, going down that road makes their progress far less linear and certain than it'd otherwise be.
In approaching Philadelphia’s future, it’s necessary to zoom out and remember what Sam Hinkie’s team-building strategy was all about. The Sixers did not want to top out in the second round or conference finals, regardless of how competitive or exciting their product was. The goal wasn’t even to raise one banner and then roll back down the hill. Hinkie wanted annual title contention, with dynastic talent leading the way. The idea was to build through the draft and stockpile blue-chip prospects who were destined to become top-10 players. That stage is officially over.
After this year’s Lakers pick, Philly will not have anymore bites at the apple beyond their own draft picks. They are now at the mercy of trade partners and free agency. The good news is Simmons and Embiid are both on track to flourish as top-15 players in their prime. The bad news is Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, and Fultz could instead be Kristaps Porzingis, Tatum, or another useful asset/contributor. (This logic is somewhat flawed—had they drafted Porzingis would they have still won the 2016 lottery?—but the overall point still stands.)
Instead, with Simmons and Embiid as their foundation, the Sixers must now overcome the same barrier that originally kick-started “The Process”: an arduous journey from good to great. (In 2012, their last season in the playoffs, Philly finished fifth in net rating and third in defense. This year they finished fourth in net rating and third in defense.)
Organic growth will not be enough. Sixers GM Bryan Colangelo has a narrow opportunity to utilize his cap space, and only so long before his trade chips decline low enough to the point where a fundamental identity is bound in place. And if the result of said identity is not regular championship contention, well, the Sixers may find themselves back where they started, desperate for flexibility in a situation where hard decisions need to be made about their core.
Over half the league would happily trade places with the Sixers tomorrow. Their window feels like it’ll be open forever, and depending on what’s accomplished over the next two summers it may be. But favorable circumstances may also shrink well before they reach the mountaintop.
The NBA is forever two things: cyclical and difficult to accurately forecast. In addition to the Celtics—a team even younger than Philly that doesn’t have its 25-year-old franchise point guard and does have more future assets—there are teams at the bottom (Atlanta, Brooklyn, New York, Chicago, Orlando, etc.) that have committed themselves to replicating Philly’s tank-at-all-costs strategy. They will not be in the basement forever.
Franchise-altering talent will soon flood their rosters and four years from now thar talent may be even more dominant than Simmons and Embiid. (The conference’s middle class—Indiana and Milwaukee, most notably—isn’t going anywhere, either.).
The prohibitive favorite to win Rookie of the Year does not limit a vast majority of his shots to within an arm's length of the rim just because he can get there at will, he forgoes any benefit hoisting the occasional jumper might bring because it exposes his most crippling flaw and sole insecurity. Even though the downhill pressure he puts on defenders tends to open up advantages elsewhere on the floor, Simmons's growth is steeped in assumption. If never a threat from the perimeter, he may ultimately be more novel commodity than transcendent unicorn, far too dependent on others than a genuine superstar has to be.
And as more big men with outside touch enter the league, other teams will be able to duplicate Boston's current tactics against Simmons and Embiid—who can't guard Horford and won't suddenly get faster on the perimeter—unless they sharpen their weaknesses. In a half-court setting, both rely on spacers to create efficient scoring opportunities. Redick won't be around forever, and what he and players like him provide isn't cheap.
Some of this criticism is admittedly harsh. Players that young aren't supposed to headline 52-game winning ball clubs. Thanks to their rare production, the Sixers are deservedly perceived as a triumphant Cinderella story. Two years ago they won ten games. McConnell was their Win Shares leader in 2017.
But to repeat an annoying yet true adage: Nothing in (NBA) life is guaranteed. While there is honesty packed into Philly’s ahead-of-schedule narrative, that doesn’t mean they won’t live to regret losing a second-round series in which they were heavily favored through the first four games.