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What the Sixers Can Learn From the Thunder

For the first half of this decade, Oklahoma City built a superteam of homegrown talent that looked poised to dominate the league for years to come—and now it has all fallen apart. How can the ascendant Philly team avoid the same fate?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Philadelphia 76ers have won 20 of their last 21 games. That’s including the regular season and their first-round triumph against the Miami Heat. That works out to one loss in the last month and a half and twice as many victories as they managed for the entire season just two years ago. If that’s not reason to celebrate, what is?

My favorite part of that video (and there are many favorite parts, including but not limited to when Furkan Korkmaz casually catches a random sneaker thrown his way with one hand, like he’s Odell Beckham Jr., and then does it a second time) is when Brett Brown recognizes J.J. Redick for having a great Game 5 and asks him to ring the ceremonial postgame bell, the Sixers equivalent of handing out a game ball. Redick turns right around and gives the bell back to Brown for winning the first playoff series in Process history, at which point the team showers its head coach in every possible liquid. It was a bit of a moment, and I only had to watch it seven or eight times before I finally stopped getting misty. (Redick also got Ringer employee of the day for his effort. Sure. Let’s give it to the super handsome, rich professional basketball player with great hair and a successful podcast.)

As recently as November, Brown was catching heat from skeptical fans about his coaching ability, and people still weren’t sure where the Sixers were in their development. Now, even the most strident anti-Process propagandists can’t deny how good the Sixers are (though the true believers are here to hold them accountable for all their old, bad takes). The Sixers are here, and they’ve arrived well ahead of schedule.

“I was hired in 2013,” Brown told the media after his team sent the Heat home for the offseason, “and I sat with Josh Harris and David Blitzer and a few of the other owners and we talked about the vision, what we hoped to build and through rough times, through adversity for sure, we didn’t blink. We stayed strong in what we were trying to do and to sort of walk off that court. We’ve got more to do, we’ve got more to give.”

Brown was overly kind to Harris, Blitzer, and the other owners for not blinking—they flinched so hard at one point that the guy who’s most responsible for all this is watching from Palo Alto—but he was right about the Sixers having more to give. Turns out the Sixers didn’t need to learn to walk before they could run. They went from crawling to a full sprint this season, and it’s suddenly not so crazy to look around and wonder if the rest of the pack is already falling off the pace.

Wade was right. The Sixers look like the future, and they’re giving us an extended sneak preview right here in the present. The Eastern Conference is as wide open as it has been since before LeBron James left Cleveland to sun himself on South Beach for four years. Given how well Philly has played, would it really surprise anyone if the Sixers further accelerated their timeline and claimed the conference crown?

“A lot of people say that we have a bright future,” Joel Embiid said. “But I think our time is now. We have a pretty good chance [to contend for a title]. We have a special team.”

The old debate about whether the Process could work and if the Sixers could be any good one day is over. They’re good right now. The real question is how much better they can become—and much more importantly, how long they can sustain it.

History burps up all kinds of cautionary tales, but the loudest comes courtesy of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Not even a decade ago, the Thunder were supposed to be what the Sixers could become. Long before anyone knew what the Process was, OKC had the kind of talented young core that seemed set to be a dominant league power indefinitely.

See if this sounds familiar: In 2008-09, the Thunder won 23 games. The next season, they made a massive leap and won 50 games with Kevin Durant (then in his third year), Russell Westbrook (second year), James Harden, and Serge Ibaka (both rookies). Last season, the Sixers won 28 games. This season, they made a massive leap and won 52 games with Embiid and Dario Saric (both in their second year), and Ben Simmons (the favorite for Rookie of the Year). They also have Markelle Fultz, who might even possibly be good. Perhaps. Even if he’s not, the Sixers are set up pretty well, and they’ve already gotten further than the 2009-10 Thunder, who lost in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.

When the Thunder made the NBA Finals in 2012, it felt like a signal of something significant and lasting. Sure, they lost to the Heat in five games, but it appeared as though OKC would remain among the handful of championship contenders for the next decade. That didn’t happen. Just six seasons later, the organization that everyone had such high hopes for looks very different indeed. After somehow keeping the series alive with a crazy Game 5 comeback, the Thunder were finally evicted from the playoffs on Friday night by a Utah Jazz team that OKC never seemed to respect and that doesn’t have nearly as many high-profile players.

So what are some of the lessons the Sixers can learn from what happened to the Thunder, and how can they avoid a similar fate? For starters, and this is obvious but needs to be said yet again, they should probably not [steals away to a safe house in an undisclosed location under heavy guard where no one from Oklahoma will ever find him and also whispers so no one from Oklahoma can hear him] issue a low-ball ultimatum to one of their very best players and then inexplicably trade him for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and a host of picks that became Steven Adams, Alex Abrines, and Mitch McGary. That would be a bad idea. Maybe it wasn’t obvious to everyone at the time that Harden would become this special, but Chris Bosh recently told Bill Simmons that the Heat were scared enough of Harden in the 2012 Finals to specifically game plan against him. Besides, when you have a player on your team that’s so good he might one day be a future MVP—much less three players who fit the same description—you should treat them well and figure out a way to pay and keep them. That also didn’t happen.

Not only did the Thunder trade Harden, but they failed to retain the services of Durant—who is still passive-aggressively sniping at the only Musketeer who stayed behind in Oklahoma City (even though Durant claimed the recent Russ shade was “a total accident”). The Thunder had three future top-10 players in the league on their team at the same time, and somehow ended up tethered to the worst one. That created a cascading effect whereby the Thunder keep chasing replacement superstars to diminishing returns.

Paul George was supposed to be a big get, but Playoff P wasn’t able to help push the Thunder into the second round, and he arguably had a worse season than the guy OKC traded for him. Meanwhile, Carmelo Anthony wore a hoodie which was fun(ish), I guess. So much for Sam Presti assembling a new OKC Big Three.

Not only might George flee in free agency this offseason—possibly to Los Angeles, where he said the fans make him “feel great” and he knows “where the love is”—but the Thunder might also get stuck with Melo, who has a player option for $28 million next season. Meanwhile, five seasons from now, when Westbrook is 33, the Thunder will owe him more than $46 million for the final year of his monster contract. Maybe the Thunder can hire an accountant—either to cook the books or put them out of their misery.

Finding a way to pay and retain the homegrown talent is the first step if Sixers president Bryan Colangelo wants to avoid a similarly unfortunate fate (he already gave Embiid a max-money extension before the season started, and he’ll eventually have to do the same with Simmons), but it’s not the only puzzle he’ll have to solve. The Thunder have been searching for complementary pieces for years. With apologies to Jerami Grant, Andre Roberson, and Kyle Kuzma’s favorite “14-lb bowling ball,” they never quite came up with the right mix. Colangelo has gotten a lot of credit (perhaps a bit too much) for grabbing Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova off the NBA discard pile, and they’ve certainly helped the Sixers, who were in desperate need of shooting. So has Redick, who signed a one-year deal for $23 million. But this offseason, that will present Colangelo with some questions.

The Sixers are in good shape and could have as much as $30 million in cap space, but they’ll have to figure out what to do about the shooters that have factored so heavily into their plans this postseason. Redick and the Sixers feel like a good match for each other, but how much money and how many years is the organization willing to commit? Signing him to a three-year deal would mean he’d be 36 when the contract expired. (Which is totally not old in the grand scheme of things; I’ve had my 36th birthday for the past five years running and my podcast game has never been stronger.) Belinelli and Ilyasova have fit in well, but they’ve also bounced around the league because they’ve never been valued as much more than league-average players with replaceable skill sets. Colangelo must calculate whether they can keep it going before he retains their services or, if not, how to replace their production. Not to mention that the Sixers will need a healthy reserve fund in the not-too-distant future in order to pay Simmons and Saric (both of whom become restricted free agents in 2020).

Beyond that, the Sixers must continue the collaborative culture they’ve worked so hard to foster. Part of that is an environment where the coach is permitted to coach his players rather than the other way around. We’ve now seen two separate OKC coaches who were marginalized or ignored in favor of deference to Russ. Westbrook is the franchise player in a market that’s terrified that its superstar well will run dry. That leverage has often allowed him to indulge his whims and chase stats, even if those pursuits don’t necessarily come in the service of the greater good. What the Sixers want is to maintain what they already have—a team that passes the postgame bell around the locker room just as unselfishly as it moves the ball around the floor.

To be clear, those are all good problems for the Sixers to have. These are great times for Philly, and they’re only just beginning—provided the Sixers can navigate the obstacles that organizations like OKC couldn’t. Basketball, like life, comes at you pretty fast. One minute you’re the future of the league—then suddenly you look up, and it’s six years later, and you’re getting mocked by a man who once strapped his poor dog to the roof of the car on a family vacation.

That’s not what anyone wants for the Sixers. They have Embiid and Simmons, who could dominate the league for the foreseeable future. “Those two players have a chance to be great,” Brown said. “And. They. Are. Ours.” Spoken like a man who knows his hoops history, and would like for his team to make some of its own.