Welcome to ‘Winning Culture’ the new column focusing on the Philadelphia 76ers for tapintothemainline.com. Throughout the season we will be following the Sixers and trying to make sense of going from 10 wins to hopefully 55 in just three years. Be sure to check back each week for offbeat insights, weird references, and as many words about Joel Embiid as we can write.
At about the 3:30 mark in the Aerosmith song “Living on the Edge” from their 1993 album “Get a Grip” the music stops, and everything is silent for four seconds. The silence is broken by four resounding drum beats, followed by the music coming back in an explosion of sound. When I watched the shot that ended the Sixers season, that’s what I heard in my head. I’m sure there was sound in the arena when the ball was inbounded, but I didn’t hear any of it. Everything was silent until the ball, having bounced on the rim an improbable four times, slipped silently through the hoop, then just like in the song, an eruption of noise. The Sixers had been living on the edge for the whole game, and finally just slipped off into the oblivion of the offseason.
I watched the game alone in my tv room. I’m not sure if it was cold or if anxiety watching the game had caused the heat to flee from my body, but I was wrapped in a blanket on my couch with my hands gripping a pillow. Once the game, and the season, was over I was spent. I shed the blanket, got up, and walked around my house for a few minutes. My wife tried to console me, but there isn’t much to say in those moments to a sports fan. Knowing I would see replays of the shot that broke my heart in two for the rest of my life is not something to easily console. It sounds ridiculous when you verbalize that, but that’s the curse of being a fanatic after all; it’s not rational.
The series had been an emotional affair with all the highs and lows you would expect in a seven-game series. The stakes of the final game had been heightened about 24 hours earlier when a report broke that Brett Brown’s job might have hung in the balance of the game. Much of the discussion in Sixers fan circles leading up to the game had been about how ridiculous that would be. Brown had coached his butt off during the playoffs, largely winning the coaching matchup in both series. His adjustments against Toronto were nothing short of masterful. After every player sang his praises during exit interviews, Adrian Wojnarowski dropped a late night tweet saying that Brown would be back next year, but it was a long 48 hours wondering if the General of the Process had coached his last game for the Sixers.
Although Toronto won the series, they never truly felt like the better team. As each team matched each other punch for punch until the final four bounces, the series felt like it came down to a simple question: Who could survive the minutes when their superstar sat? The answer was Toronto. In game seven, when Embiid took a break, the Raptors obliterated the Sixers and their overmatched rotation of backup bigs. The Sixers couldn’t quite match as big a swing when Kawhi sat, and that was largely the game. For the record Joel Embiid played 45:12 out of a possible 48, Leonard played 43:17. Greg Monroe, Embiid’s journeyman backup, played 1:41 and was -9 during that span. If that isn’t living on the edge, I don’t know what is.
The series ended with each team blowing the other out twice, and the Raptors winning two close games to the Sixers one. Every other game felt like something completely different from the one before, which made it a fitting way for the Sixers season to end.
And so here we are, looking back at the season after losing the second round for the second year in a row. I would have to say that while this year’s end was more heartbreaking, it is decidedly less frustrating. The Sixers went toe to toe with a higher seed in a road game seven, and it came down to four lucky bounces and a historically significant effort from perhaps the league’s best player. Last year the Sixers lost in five to our most hated rival. I’ll take the former 100 out of 100 times.
The end of last season did probably more to set the tone for this season than the Raptors series will for next year. The loss to the Celtics caused the Sixers to wonder if they were as far along as their 52 win season implied.
The off-season after the Celtics loss felt like an existential crisis. Although all but one of the games in the series had been close, it was hard not to question whether the Sixers could catch Boston. The Celtics felt ascendant at the time whereas the no one was sure what the Sixers were going to be.
The pure insanity of Burner-Gate didn’t help the feelings of anxiety, and the scandal touched off by the revelation that Sixers awful GM Bryan Colangelo had been using anonymous Twitter accounts to argue with fans and criticize his players. The Sixers always seem to have some drama surrounding them but nothing will ever compare to the week between the revelation in an article for the TheRinger.com by longtime Sixers contrarian Ben Detrick, and the press conference announcing Colangelo was gone. Someday someone will write a book about it, including long chapters on the detective work done by members of ‘Sixers Twitter.’
Colangelo’s tenure had been mind-bogglingly and hopefully career-endingly bad for the Sixers. As a result, when Brett Brown took over as interim GM, it was fair to wonder if the war chest of assets was going to be enough to catch their Eastern Rivals.
The answers to those questions started to come on draft day when the Sixers had their best draft-day since grabbing Joel Embiid with the 3rd overall pick a few years prior.
The draft started for the Sixers with them drafting hometown Villanova hero Mikael Bridges number 10 overall. It was an expected and safe move. The shock came when very soon after they traded him to the Phoenix Suns for the rights to Zhaire Smith and the unprotected first-round draft pick of the Miami Heat in the 2021 draft.
It was a move right out of the playbook of former GM Sam Hinkie. They had traded the polished ready-now Bridges for the raw but electrically athletic Smith and a huge asset in the Miami pick. It was controversial and bold and smart. It signaled an end to the wasteful and shortsighted Colangelo era. Although Smith lost most of the season to a foot injury and a bizarre medical issue related to a sesame allergy, his future looks very bright.
A few picks later the team drafted sharpshooting Landry Shamet. At the time the pick felt like a reach, but during the year it would prove to be a fantastic get. The Sixers also scored when the took high upside pick Shake Milton at 54. I had hoped Milton would be the pick at 26 when the took Shamet, so I was extremely excited to get him so late. Shamet and the Miami pick would be the centerpieces of the trade for Tobias Harris late in the season, but before that he went from unheralded to all-rookie team candidate and played major minutes for both the Sixers and Clippers. Milton only played in 20 games for the Sixers, but he showed flashes of talent that should earn him a real shot at rotation minutes next season.
The rest of the off-season was somewhat uneventful. The Sixers picked up a few rotation pieces, but mostly stayed pat and looked to go into the season with much of the same roster they ended with.
The significant addition was supposed to be a rejuvenated Markelle Fultz. The first month of the season seemed to revolve entirely around him as he tried to make an impression. He certainly had his moments, hitting a few threes and landing a few highlight dunks, but he never felt settled. Much like the Colangelo saga, there is very little of Fultz’s time with the Sixers that you wouldn’t classify as bizarre. He was eventually traded at the deadline for an OKC first round pick that may or may not convey and unrepentant-own-number-called Jonathon Simmons. It was an ignominious but much-needed end for Fultz time with the organization. He has yet to play a minute with the Orlando Magic.
The idea that Process heroes Dario Saric and Robert Covington would both play their final game as Sixers before Fultz played would have seemed absurd at the time, but that is just what happened when they were sent to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Jimmy Butler. Jerryd Bayless and Justin Patton also switched teams in the deal. It was the first of two seismic shifts for the Sixers.
Butler made his debut in a Wednesday night road game against the Orlando Magic. The Sixers lost but would go on to win eight out of their next ten. Three games after Butler’s debut Fultz played his last game in blue. While the team and the fanbase were riding high with Butler, Fultz left the team and announced he would be getting evaluated on his shoulder issues by an outside specialist. There were plenty of twists and turns, but the net result was the same. The player the Sixers had drafted number one overall would end his Philadelphia career as the symbol of Colangelo’s failure. It wasn’t fun.
The team was on a roll with Butler, and it was hard to not look at the Christmas day matchup with the Celtics as a barometer of where the big three era of the Sixers were. Naturally, they lost, ruining the holiday. It was a close game, but a loss is a loss, especially to Boston. This led to what felt like another existential crisis with the team and the fans.
A few days later after the team was obliterated on the road in Portland news broke that Butler and Brown had had some sort of post-game confrontation. The local and national media had been champing at the bit for some Butler related drama after his high profile issues in Minnesota, and here it was. Despite the team winning their next four, everything felt in disarray. Two terrible losses to Washington and Atlanta after the four-game win streak put the fanbase in a tailspin. At the time the Sixers were looking at the toughest part of their schedule with twelve straight games against teams .500 or better. The season very much felt like it was balanced on the edge of a knife.
It turned out we were worried for nothing. Philly got warmed up treating the Timberwolves like a summer league team, beating them 149-107. They would go on to beat the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors during the twelve game test.
At the far end of the tough stretch was the NBA trade deadline. This would be the last huge change for the organization. It was a furious deadline, but when the dust settled the Sixers had traded away Shamet, Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, Markelle Fultz and various draft picks for Tobias Harris, Mike Scott, Boban Marjanovic, Jonathon Simmons, and James Ennis. Over the course of three days, he remade just about the entire bench and added when was hoped as the final piece to the Sixers starting lineup.
The Sixers won their first two games after the deadline verse the Denver Nuggets and the Los Angeles Lakers in convincing fashion. It was perhaps the highest point of the season going into the third Celtics game on the season. Naturally, they lost 112-109.
The rest of the season was an up and down affair. The highs included beating the Eastern conference leading Milwaukee Bucks. The lows included a three-game losing streak against the Dallas Mavericks, the Atlanta Hawks, and the Eastern conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks and Joel Embiid missing eight straight games with load management (knee issues).
The game that meant the most down the stretch was the March 20th game vs. the Celtics. This one was a back and forth affair before the Sixers finally got the better of them. Joel Embiid, who had been very mortal in each of the previous games, seemed to solve nemesis Al Horford to the tune of 37 points and 22 rebounds. Jimmy Butler hit an iconic shot to seal the victory, and the Sixers finally managed to shed the monkey off their back.
It was something of a symbolic victory as there were still trials and tribulations after it, but it showed that the Sixers had finally taken the lead in their rivalry with Boston. Sure the Celtics took 3 out of 4 games, but the Sixers were decisively the higher seed with the better record. They played better in the playoffs, and they go into the offseason looking like they may be in the pole position for the Eastern Conference next season. The Celtics season could easily be classified as ‘disaster.’ Their future looks uncertain after the shellacking they took from Milwaukee in the second round, with Kyrie Irving making noise about leaving, and their treasure trove of assets looking devalued. They will still make a run at Anthony Davis, and honestly, I hope they get him since Joel Embiid is better and has made a career out of dominating the Pelican.
The Sixers season ended in heartbreaking fashion with four seconds and four bounces, but there is every hope the future is bright. There is every reason to believe the Sixers will offer max contracts to Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler. Mike Scott has stated that he wanted to come back, having been as embraced by the Mike Scott Hive as thoroughly as any Sixer ever has been. Redick wants to return. We will probably lose Process hero TJ McConnell, but hopefully, he will show someone his floor slapping ways before leaving for more money that the Sixers can give him.
It’s a make-or-break offseason for sure, but as long as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are in Philadelphia, the team is a contender.
It was a season of living on the edge, as the song says, that ended by the thinnest of margins. It was at times exhausting, at other times, exhilarating. From burners to bounces, it was nothing short of one of the most memorable seasons in Sixers history.
Trust the Process.
Jacob Jones-Goldstein has written about the Sixers for Roundballrev.com, loves statistics, and Trusts the Process. He dabbles in fiction, watches a lot of movies, and goes to more concerts than he should.