From Title Contenders to a First-Round Exit: What Happened to the Philadelphia 76ers?

Heading into the 2020 NBA season, many experts predicted that the Philadelphia 76ers’ would be the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. Their unique combination of size and defensive ability led many to believe they had the best shot at taking down the likely top-seeded Bucks’.

These predictions weren’t considered hot takes at the time. It was simply a way of showing respect to a team that had come within a couple of bounces away from playing in the Eastern Conference Finals a few months prior. This team was a legit contender, RIGHT?


The date is now August 23, 2020 and the Boston Celtics have just completed a four-game sweep of the sixth-seed 76ers’. Without context, that sounds like nothing out of the ordinary — except it was the first round. The team that many experts had picked to reach the NBA Finals had just been swept in the first round of the playoffs.

How does a team with title aspirations find themselves in this position?

While there are many variables that contributed to Philadelphia’s collapse, there are a few that stick out above the rest.


POOR OFFSEASON DECISION MAKING

With a non-shooter in Ben Simmons and a below average outside shooter in Joel Embiid to build around, finding shooters to place next to them should have been the main goal heading into the 2020 season. Heck, it’s what worked in 2019 that placed them in position for an ECF birth until Kawhi bounced in a game-winner.

Instead, they let JJ Redick — one of the deadliest three-point marksman in NBA history — walk in free agency and in turn, the team signed veteran center Al Horford to a 4 year, $109 million deal with $97 million fully guaranteed. More importantly, a career 36% shooter from three.

Horford’s inability to stretch the floor caused major spacing issues for the Sixers early on and he basically became unplayable at certain times. With so much money tied up in Horford, who will turn 35 in June, the Sixers will now be forced to find a team willing to take on that enormous contract.

Another offseason mistake came when Philadelphia’s brass was forced to choose between Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. With one max spot available and both players vying for the nomination, it was a tough decision at the time.

They chose Harris.

Butler was then traded to the Miami Heat as part of a four-team deal that landed the Sixers Josh Richardson. The Heat went on to sign Butler to a four year, $142 million deal.

Obviously hindsight is 20/20 but it’s clear that the Sixers maxed the wrong guy. Harris is a fine player, but his inability to produce in the playoffs is concerning. In four games against the Celtics’ in the first round of the playoffs, Harris averaged only 15.7 points while shooting under 40% from the field.

To add insult to injury, the Sixers were forced to watch Jimmy Butler carry the Heat all the way to the NBA Finals on 22.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game.

LACK OF ACCOUNTABILITY

Take a look around any championship-winning organization and there will always be one trait they share in common: ACCOUNTABILITY.

In winning cultures, players are often extensions of the coaching staff and constantly keep each other in check when it comes to their responsibilities – both on and off the court.

Accountability, or lack thereof, ultimately proved to be the processes biggest problem.

Jimmy Butler and JJ Reddick, two former Sixers’, got together during the season on a podcast and discussed this topic while referring directly to their time in Philadelphia:

According to Butler, who spent half a season in Philadelphia before being traded to the Miami Heat in the offseason, stated that he didn’t even know who to talk to about on-court issues that he felt needed tweaking. That is a major red flag.

With Joel Embiid (26) and Ben Simmons (24) both young in their careers, it’s clear this team needed leadership. There needed to be a unifying voice able to rally the troops when things got tough.

Based on Butler’s actions and his results since joining the Miami Heat, it appears he could have been that guy all along. Unfortunately for Sixers fans, multiple sources claim that former head coach Brett Brown had a major hand in Butler’s departure last summer.

Brown was relieved of his head coaching duties shortly after the teams first round exit in late August.

INJURIES

Along with poor leadership, it wouldn’t be fair to gloss over the fact that they were plagued by various injuries to key players. Ben Simmons missed 16 games, Joel Embiid missed 22 games and Josh Richardson missed 18 games at different points of the season.

Simmons’ second big injury of the season came at a crucial point as well — a knee injury forced him to sit out the playoffs.

It’s unlikely that a healthy lineup would be enough to overcome the chemistry and coaching issues that plagued the Sixers, though it’s possible it would have helped them avoid a first round exit.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN THE DOC RIVERS ERA?

A few days after their early departure from the playoffs, the Sixers relieved Brett Brown of his coaching duties and began their search to find the next coach. With the well-documented culture issues surrounding the organization, this new coach needed to be carefully selected.

As the search was underway, it just so happened that Doc Rivers and the Clippers had mutually agreed to part ways, opening up the possibility of Rivers interviewing for the vacancy in Philadelphia.

The two sides expressed interest and after meeting multiple times, the Sixers’ announced Rivers as their new head coach on October 3rd.

Rivers’ move to Philadelphia is eerily similar to his Clippers hiring back in 2013. There was a trio of talent in Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan that had achieved minimal success but couldn’t seem to break into the next level. His teams in Los Angeles were always contenders and averaged more than 54 wins across his first four seasons as coach.

Despite last winning an NBA title with the Celtics in 2008, Rivers presence in the locker room tends to perpetuate a team-first version of basketball.

It’s part of your job [as a head coach] to be truthful and to be hard on guys, to try to make them better teammates. They’ve already in their mind figured out the basketball part — and maybe they have individually. But have they figured it out team-wise? –

Doc Rivers

It’s clear that the Sixers have a long way to go and some interesting roster decisions to make. They need shooters and shot creators — things that can come via trade or through the draft — but the biggest role Rivers will be tasked with will be to inspire and corral the Sixers young stars in Simmons and Embiid. If he can earn their trust — something Brown was never able to accomplish — this team has no ceiling.


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