Photo Credit: Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBA via Getty Images
It’s very rare that you can pinpoint exactly when a franchise missed its moment. But with the Philadelphia 76ers, it’s as if we’re Bart Simpson holding the remote, and we can show you the exact moment where Sixers fans’ hearts were ripped in half.
Fans of the Sixers should probably skip the video below, but fans of anyone else, feel free to watch it again.
While this obviously was a launch point for the Toronto Raptors’ first championship, it also marked a point in which the Sixers went in the opposite trajectory. Before Philly fans get upset, yes I realize the Raptors had a worse season than you last year. But a championship in the last 20 years means more than your regular-season victories. Believe me, I would know.
But what at the time looked like the beginning of a new era for Sixers basketball has turned into chaos and failure. Let me be clear, I’m not saying The Process failed. The goal of Sam Hinkie’s infamous Process was to get a generational star player in the draft. They may have whiffed, but Joel Embiid is that star player that Hinkie wanted.
Anyway, when Kawhi Leonard hit that miraculous shot, I don’t think anyone expected us to be at this point only two full seasons later. Since that shot, the Sixers have won 92 regular-season games and have a 61 percent winning percentage. In the playoffs, they’ve won seven games and have a 43 percent winning percentage.
The Sixers had a starting lineup of Ben Simmons-J.J. Redick-Jimmy Butler-Tobias Harris-Joel Embiid in that Game 7. It would also be the last time those five players were on the court together as teammates. That lineup was an absolute force once they added the final piece in Harris in February of 2019. In 161 minutes, that five-man unit produced a plus-19.4 net rating, easily the best of any lineup that played at least 150 minutes.
Things were looking up for the Sixers; they had two young stars in Embiid and Simmons, a veteran leader in Butler, and complimentary scorers in Harris and Redick. Sure, the bench needed some work but that could be solved and sure, the coach wasn’t ideal but they were so close to beating the eventual NBA champions, it wasn’t an incredible concern — yet.
Then in the following offseason, Butler decides to take his talents to South Beach and Redick wants to play with Jrue Holiday so he goes to New Orleans and the Sixers fill the void with… Al Horford and Josh Richardson? In fairness, the lineup did have a plus-8.4 net rating but they just didn’t get to play enough games together for it to matter (only 246 minutes in 21 games). For comparison, the Raptors starters last year of Kyle Lowry-Fred VanVleet-OG Anunoby-Pascal Siakam-Marc Gasol had a plus-12.9 net rating in 361 minutes and if you swap Lowry with Powell, it was plus-16.8 in 201 minutes.
Let’s go back to the coach, Brett Brown. He had long been criticized by Sixers fans and they felt they needed a new lead man. That criticism only strengthened after Butler revealed that Brown was the cause of a lot of dysfunction within the Sixers locker room. The biggest reason being the drastic switch from having Simmons play on the ball to giving Butler most of the ball-handling responsibilities. It was a switch that Butler recommended come gradually, but Brown decided to switch it all at once.
It was a decision that Simmons didn’t take too kindly to and Sixers management decided that it was reportedly best to let Butler go than to deal with Simmons potentially being upset that Butler was handling the primary playmaking and ball-handling duties.
Butler handled the ball a considerable amount more and had more of the offence thrust onto his shoulders. His usage rate even spiked by around seven percent from the Sixers’ first-round series to their series against the Raptors.
The bet that Sixers management effectively placed on Simmons improving has, well, not paid off. The Sixers flamed out in the second round once again and Simmons was at the forefront of all the backlash. Similar to their second-round exit two years prior, Simmons was being criticised for his lack of aggression in critical moments and his passive nature. The Sixers nearly got by with that because they had Butler two years ago. This time, the Sixers didn’t have that luxury.
But back to Brown, who was fired after being swept in the first round of the playoffs in 2020. It wasn’t all his fault, as Simmons missed the entire series with an injury, but it was time for him to go. The Sixers replaced him with Doc Rivers, who the Los Angeles Clippers fired after their own playoff disappointment. Rivers should shoulder some of the blame for the second-round loss to the Atlanta Hawks as well after some very questionable lineup decisions, sometimes going too deep into his bench.
After their second exit in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in three years, the Sixers are in a much worse place than they were after the Leonard shot. There isn’t an elite starting five. One of their young stars doesn’t want to be there and his value is at its lowest point. The coach, while an improvement, is still not ideal and they’re lagging behind some of the East’s other contenders. All of this as we approach Joel Embiid’s impending supermax contract decision.
This was all created by one shot that took four bounces to fall into the hoop. It’s as if we’re watching an episode in SB Nation’s Collapse series in real-time. The only difference is that the Sixers aren’t collapsing from a championship. They’re collapsing from heartbreak.