Surprise! Sixers Twitter is a hot mess today.
And Phillies Twitter is sort of a mess, but not nearly as bad.
On the basketball side, I think most of this is overreaction to Brett Brown’s “star hunting” quote, the idea that the general manager-less Sixers were ready to go out and sign a big free agent superstar (LeBron) or trade for one (Kawhi Leonard) to complete the Process and leapfrog Boston as the favorite to win the Eastern Conference.
So when the Spurs traded Kawhi and Danny Green to Toronto for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a 1st round draft pick, the reactions were predictable:
“Brett Brown sucks! This team needs a GM!”
“Boston is gonna roll the Sixers in the playoffs again!”
“This team isn’t good enough!”
“No one wants to come here!”
“The Process wasn’t worth it!”
So on and so forth.
But let’s start with the trade itself, which is a Hail Mary for Toronto, who just fired Coach of the Year Dwane Casey because his 59-win team couldn’t beat LeBron James in the postseason. LeBron is now in the Western Conference, the Raps have a new coach, and they just made a risky trade for a guy that doesn’t want to play for them. This is their last chance to get it done, win the East, and have the distinction of getting swept by the Warriors in the finals.
As for the Spurs, Gregg Popovich needs to see the writing on the wall. San Antonio is done. They are not going to compete with the Warriors, Rockets, Thunder, Jazz, and Blazers. A team of LaMarcus Aldridge, DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Pau Gasol, Marco Belinelli, and Dejounte Murray is not gonna do the job. Pop obviously doesn’t wanna rebuild before calling it a career, but this squad is destined for purgatory. It is what it is for one of the greatest coaches of all time.
Now let’s say that Kawhi settles in and actually enjoys playing for Toronto before inevitably leaving at the end of the year. Does this team beat Boston and Philadelphia in the East? –
- Kawhi Leonard
- Kyle Lowry
- Danny Green
- CJ Miles
- OG Anunoby
- Jonas Valanciunas
- Delon Wright
- Serge Ibaka
- Fred VanVleet
I dunno. I really don’t know, but I don’t think the gap between Boston/Toronto/Philly is not as big as everybody thinks. If I had to rank the East right now, I think I’d have Boston at 1, Toronto and Philly at 2a and 2b, and God knows who at four. Indiana? Milwaukee? We’ll see.
Boston is one hell of a team. You’re looking at a group of Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and more. They’ve got depth, scoring, and defense, especially on the perimeter, which really killed the Sixers last year. On paper, of course you’d say they’re the favorite to win the conference.
But we don’t simulate the season “on paper” or just bitch at each other on Twitter, we actually play the games. There are legitimate questions surrounding that squad. Irving and Hayward coming back moves other people to the bench. Does Tatum or Brown regress at all? Do they make it through the season healthy or suffer more season-ending injuries? None of that is unfair or unreasonable to ask. It’s just naive to think that everything is going to play out the same exact way that it did last year. And that goes for the Sixers, too, who could see one of their stars plateau or not even get close to reaching the pinnacle.
As a simple exercise, let’s continue with a recap of what the Sixers currently have in the starting lineup:
- reigning rookie of the year at point (Ben Simmons)
- dynamic all star center (Joel Embiid)
- utility knife 3 and D wing (Robert Covington)
- veteran pure shooter (JJ Redick)
- talented stretch four (Dario Saric)
And the bench:
- veteran two-way wing (Wilson Chandler)
- #1 overall draft pick from last year (Markelle Fultz)
- #16 draft pick from this year (Zhaire Smith)
- gritty overachieving point guard (T.J. McConnell)
- a bunch of wings that can’t create their own shot, but might improve this year (Furkan Korkmaz, TLC, Justin Anderson)
- question marks (Richaun Holmes, Jonah Bolden, Landry Shamet, etc)
I really think a lot of people are undervaluing the concept of year-to-year development. Ben Simmons put up 16/8/8 as a rookie without a jump shot. Embiid played 63 games last year and is going through a full offseason for the first time in his career. Fultz is a guy who showed flashes of brilliance last year and will either be a boom or bust sophomore.
In other league-wide examples, James Harden started as a 12 points per game third option and became a superstar from year two to year four. Same with Paul George, who went from 12/5/6 to 17/7/8 and became the NBA’s Most Improved Player in his third season. You can find all sorts of these success stories.
It’s simply insane to think that players never change, that they are forever what they are. Reading NBA Twitter, you’d think that no one ever improves and that the coaches are idiots, that once they’re “exposed” they just shrivel up and die and never adjust or evolve or learn how to game plan against weaknesses or soft spots.
Beyond individual growth, you’re bringing back a starting five that played together for the first time last season. This group comes into the season with existing chemistry and the understanding of Brown’s system, which allows him to go deeper into his playbook to build off the common horns, dribble hand-off, and pistol looks you saw last year. Maybe they throw in some floppy sets for JJ Redick or evolve the pick and roll game that we didn’t see a lot of last year.
Would Kawhi or LeBron have put you over the top? Maybe, but it’s not the only path to a title. It really isn’t.
Did the Warriors need Kevin Durant to win their first championship? No, they did it with a trio of players they drafted 7th, 11th, and 35th overall. It was a core of in-house talent, developed over the course of a few seasons and complemented with peripheral free agent pieces like Andre Iguodala, who went on to win finals MVP without even starting in each game. That group was good enough to win it all. They only added Durant after losing in 2016 to the Cavaliers, then went on to win two more titles as a bona fide superteam. But the heart of that squad as a nascent powerhouse was a group of organically developed draft picks, not high priced mercenaries.
So why can’t the Sixers do the same thing? If Fultz starts to play like the consensus #1 overall pick, you’re looking at a core that includes a #1 overall pick, a #1 overall pick, and a #3 overall pick. Then you’re looking at Klay Thompson, Kawhi, and Kemba Walker in free agency next season with the expiration of JJ Redick, Amir Johnson, and Jerryd Bayless’s contracts. They essentially get a mulligan and get to try it again next summer. This team absolutely did not have to make a risky trade for a rental just one year removed from a 28-win campaign.
I understand the window is small. I really do. I know Ben Simmons will need to be paid sooner rather than later. Same for Fultz if he pans out. This amount of financial flexibility is not going to hold year over year, which is why it seemed ideal right now for the Sixers to make a splash in free agency. If they don’t turn the corner this season or add a piece next summer, the criticism will be entirely justifiable. I just don’t think we’re there yet.
So please stop with the “sky is falling” mentality. The sky is not falling. The Sixers are in great position to challenge the Celtics and Raptors for the Eastern Conference title. I don’t think anybody is beating the Warriors in the finals, but that’s another story for another day.