When Philadelphia 76ers general manager Elton Brand strode to the makeshift dais inside the team’s practice facility the day after last month’s trade deadline, he could’ve downplayed the expectations he had created for his dramatically remade team.
He did not.
“We believe we are in position to contend now,” Brand said, “and our moves reflect that belief.”
And when 76ers owner Josh Harris was asked by ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan about the possibility of a first-round matchup against the Boston Celtics, he could’ve waved off any real concern about an early playoff exit.
He did not.
“It would be problematic,” Harris said. “Very problematic. It would not be what we’re playing for.
“We’d be unhappy. I’d be unhappy. The city would be unhappy. We’re going to work hard to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Less than two years removed from being one of the worst teams in the league, the Sixers are making it clear that competing for championships is the only acceptable standard. But the top of the Eastern Conference features three other teams — the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors and Celtics — with those same aspirations. All four will enter the playoffs walking a perilously high tightrope with significant consequences for those that fail to make it across safely.
Among those teams, none has bet on itself as boldly as Philadelphia.
“We get it,” head coach Brett Brown told ESPN. “We understand fully this is why we started what we started. It’s really, in my eyes, that simple.”
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons have blossomed into the cornerstones of Philadelphia’s roster. They’re the reasons why Brand so aggressively pursued star talent in his opening months on the job in blockbuster trades for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. That enviable star power has placed Brown and the coaching staff in a position that rarely works: remaking an ambitious team on the fly after a marquee addition.
Arguably the last time these kinds of moves led directly to a championship was 2004, when Rasheed Wallace wound up with the Detroit Pistons and spurred that team to a title. Integrating one star is difficult enough. Philadelphia has to integrate two — and develop a bench that features several players (Jonathon Simmons, Mike Scott, James Ennis, Boban Marjanovic) who were not there at the start of February.
As Brown correctly says, Philadelphia is working with its third team this season. Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington and Dario Saric were starting alongside Simmons and Embiid for the first team during training camp. Then came the second iteration following the Butler trade. Now there are the Sixers and their Phantastic 5, along with that makeshift bench and no Fultz. (Yes, there have been many complaints about this nickname. So, a challenge: Come up with a better one. I’m all ears.)
The Sixers are left with the difficult job of making this all work.
“It’s easy,” Embiid said. “It goes back to our culture. When these guys got here — Jimmy, Tobias — what we told them was it is all about sharing the ball, and it is all about defense.
“I haven’t been playing basketball for a long time. It’s only been like, what, nine years? But watching Golden State, I’ve come to figure out you have to play together, you have to move the ball, you have got to work as a team, and that’s how we’ve got to play.”
Saying that is one thing. Doing it is another. Butler, Harris and JJ Redick will be free agents this summer. So, too, will the new additions to the bench. They’ve been thrown together in a midseason chemistry experiment like few have tried before — one made more difficult by Embiid missing the past several games with knee soreness and Marjanovic now out for an extended period with a knee injury of his own. And while there has been plenty of focus on the star power of Philadelphia’s starting five, the limitations of the second unit from a talent standpoint are easy to see.
Marjanovic can terrorize opposing centers, but in the right matchup he can be run off the court. Scott can be a lethal shooter then give away just as many points as he scores. Ennis and Simmons were castoffs from the Houston Rockets and Orlando Magic — two teams with playoff aspirations of their own.
But there is enough top-end talent in Philadelphia that it just might work anyway. The Sixers’ starting lineup features no player ranked lower than No. 83 (Simmons) in ESPN’s real plus-minus, a claim only the Raptors and Bucks can match.
Brown is attempting to leverage that talent by giving his team a simple mantra: Master “the vanilla.” In other words: Keep it simple, stupid.
“It’s not the play, it’s the players,” Brown said. “Always is, always will be. It’s nothing but space and concepts. … How do you create that environment with the players I now coach?”
With a month to go until the playoffs begin, the Sixers don’t have a choice to do it any other way.
“To be great at simple, be great at vanilla, is the world that I am now living in,” Brown said. “You’re cramming a little bit because it’s true it is our third team, and you don’t just click your heels and beat Milwaukee or Toronto or Boston or whatever.”
Typically at this stage of the season, teams have a defined philosophy for how they want to play. Milwaukee has surrounded Giannis Antetokounmpo with shooting. Even after trading for Marc Gasol, Toronto is able to unleash Kawhi Leonard in isolation and ping the ball around the court with Kyle Lowry. Boston, for all of its woes, can attack teams in a variety of ways — and can give the ball to Kyrie Irving, one of the league’s best closers, in the final minutes of games.
Brown’s ideology for how the sport should be played turned Philadelphia into a team that operates unlike most of the league. The singular and complex skill sets of Simmons and Embiid also necessitate innovation. But as Brown has tried to mold this group in short order, it has at times meant going away from the free-flowing offense that made his team stand out.
In last week’s victory in Oklahoma City, the Sixers let Butler go to work in one of the most basic of basketball plays: the middle pick-and-roll. No team has utilized fewer picks this season than the Sixers, according to Second Spectrum tracking data. Philadelphia was also last in that stat in each of the past two seasons, as Brown has largely shunned the league-wide trend to gravitate toward spread pick-and-roll sets. Yet Butler and Harris have proven adept at running the play in previous stops, so Brown is working it in.
“To be great at simple, be great at vanilla, is the world that I am now living in.”
76ers head coach Brett Brown
These conventional shifts help the two new stars feel connected and comfortable. The tweaks also could give Philadelphia something to rely on late in games — situations in which the Embiid-Simmons Sixers could struggle.
These are the kinds of adjustments Philadelphia will have to make over the next few weeks in order to fully embrace its potential. After all, raising the ceiling was the point of the Sixers’ big moves. They could’ve played it safe, let the Embiid-Simmons partnership grow organically and see how things developed.
But the Sixers instead chose to push their chips to the center of the table. Both Brand and Harris have said Philadelphia has the money to pay their star free agents this summer — something that would send the team soaring into the luxury tax for years to come. It’s a statement that is met around the league with skepticism.
It also will require a desire on both sides to keep this group together. If the Sixers go as deep as they think they can, those conversations could be quick and easy. But if they don’t? The offseason consequences could shake up the franchise yet again.
Rather than worry about that, the Sixers have embraced the expectations and accepted them as the only acceptable outcome.
“We added Jimmy and we just added Tobias, Mike, Boban and they’re taking us to another level,” Embiid said. “They’re making us believe even more that we have a good chance of winning [the title], and that’s the goal.
“We have a great opportunity. The window is open.”
There is no questioning what Philadelphia thinks is possible. All the Sixers have to do now is prove it.