Sixers fans, answer me this: are you better off today than you were 10 years ago? It’s the same question posed by out-party politicians since time immemorial, but Sunday’s spectacular face-plant against the Boston Celtics that prompted Tuesday’s sacking of head coach Doc Rivers demands a far more wholesale inquest of Philadelphia’s once-proud basketball team. And the picture is not a pleasant one.
With a three-games-to-two lead over their archrivals in the Eastern Conference semi-finals – needing one win from two cracks for the team’s first trip to the NBA’s final four in more than two decades – the Sixers let the Celtics off the hook in Game 6 and were blown out of the gym in Sunday’s decider. Boston star Jayson Tatum, whom Philadelphia passed over after trading up for Markelle Fultz in the 2017 draft, gored them for 51 points – the most in a Game 7 in NBA history. In a city where sports famously mean a little too much, the Mother’s Day Massacre will leave scars.
Nothing the front-office frontman Daryl Morey offered at Wednesday’s official postmortem offered meaningful solace for the future, least of all the recycled claim that “there’s like 26 teams that would rather have our roster” – as if the yawning gap in class and mental toughness between the Sixers and the NBA’s elite tier wasn’t laid bare in front of an undivided national audience only a few days before.
Somehow, to the extent it’s even possible, Philadelphia find themselves even more adrift than when their bold rebuilding plan known as the Process was launched a decade ago this week with the appointment of Sam Hinkie as the team’s president and general manager – which itself came on the heels of a far more respectable Game 7 loss at Boston at the same stage.
Ten years into the most ambitious, audacious and controversial rebuild in the history of professional sports, the Sixers entered this year’s playoffs with their finished product finally in place and legitimate title aspirations intact. Now? They’re even worse off than the purgatory that inspired their bold bet on failure: defined by a gutless, joyless identity starting from the top down that calls for nothing less than a scorched-earth rebuild. Let’s take them one by one.
The ownership. Josh Harris, the Maryland-born private-equity interloper who became the team’s first non-local owner when he purchased the team with David Blitzer in 2011, has since bought controlling stakes in the NHL’s New Jersey Devils and the NFL’s Washington Commanders after trying his hardest to buy the New York Mets – all three sworn adversaries of the local teams. (Were the Cowboys not for sale?) Never have the Sixers felt more like a number in a spreadsheet. Say what you want about the meddlesome Harold Katz – the Nutrisystem founder who delivered a title early in his ownership before steering the team into disaster in the early 1990s – but at least he wasn’t a technocratic carpetbagger whose desired endgame included a “superregional” sports network aligning the Sixers with some of Philadelphia’s most detested rivals.
The coach. Rivers, the glorified journeyman and notorious choke artist whose most prominent headlines over the past 12 months came when he was caught liking porn on Twitter, is mercifully gone but was a mistake from the start. Competent at keeping his players bought in during the overlong NBA regular season, Rivers has been repeatedly exposed as tactically bankrupt when the game slows down in the playoffs and every possession counts – a shortcoming that had long since been hammered home before the Sixers appointed him. The bold move would be to hire Dawn Staley, a hometown hero on the global stage who’s managed the impossible feat of toppling Geno Auriemma as college basketball’s Big Boss, as the first female coach in NBA history. But with safer retreads like Monty Williams, Mike Budenholzer, Nick Nurse and (gulp) Mike D’Antoni on the market, it’s all but certain these owners won’t even have the courage to make the approach.
The star. Joel Embiid, the brittle but unbowed talisman of the Process era, turned in the worst playoff showing of his tenure in a game that represented his destiny. He has built up enough goodwill where even a C-minus effort might have earned him the benefit of the doubt. Instead, the newly minted Most Valuable Player, laid an egg that will echo through the ages, cruelly validating the persistent rumblings he was gifted the MVP award out of voter fatigue. A lot of players don’t get even one Game 7 to define their career narratives; Embiid’s no-show on Sunday marks his third. He’s 29 years old at a position where the dropoff past 30 can be steep. It’s over. Trade him.
In fact, no one on the roster besides gifted ingenue Tyrese Maxey and hard-working reserve Paul Reed should be safe. But Morey’s remarks on Wednesday suggested the Sixers remain firmly in the contender class, deluding themselves and their hopelessly devoted fans that a championship is only a few tweaks away.
Maintaining the illusion of success will surely help as Harris and co return to the more urgent business of getting out of South Philadelphia, where their lease at the Wells Fargo Center expires in 2031, and lobbying to construct a $1.3bn downtown arena. The proposed venue will be privately funded (though I’d continue to read the fine print), but has been met with overwhelming opposition from the nearby Chinatown community over valid fears of displacement and gentrification. Will they relocate the team across the river to New Jersey to pursue their commercial development ambitions if they don’t get their way in Center City? Who knows!
The thinking behind the Process was sound enough: disembowel the roster and lose games on purpose with the aim of stockpiling assets over time, mitigating the inherent risks of the draft while reserving cap space for splashy free-agent signings when the time was right. It was a brazen attempt to hack the NBA’s mechanics, one that flew in the face of the competitive ethos underpinning pro sports.
But as the misfires piled up – from Nerlens Noel to Michael Carter-Williams to Jahlil Okafor to Ben Simmons to Markelle Fultz – the blows became harder to absorb. And when ownership strayed from the blueprint by cutting Hinkie loose and bringing on Bryan Colangelo and Elton Brand – a clean, irrevocable break with ownership’s do no harm policy to that point – the groundwork was spoiled and their fate was sealed. From there it was merely a countdown to Sunday’s unequivocal verdict on the Process: the basketball gods have spoken and the language was vengeance.
How good were the Sixers at one point in time? Somehow they are still the third winningest franchise in NBA history despite starting later than both clubs ahead of them and having accomplished next to nothing in the four decades since their third title. The team that came closest to a fourth in the years since was fatally flawed but operated with a lunch-pail style and uncompromising defiance that was at least interesting. But by playing it safe in all of the worst ways, Philadelphia is only ensuring their best days will remain behind them.