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Exit Interview: Philadelphia 76ers

Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Co. looked unstoppable until running into Boston. How do they keep the Process on the right track next season?

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

Sometime between Sam Hinkie saying in 2013 that the Philadelphia 76ers “talk a lot about process, not outcome,” and the end of a fifth straight losing season, the world opted out on Philly basketball.

What will Philadelphians defend now that the Process is bearing fruit? Former first overall pick Ben Simmons led the Sixers to a 20-3 close to the regular season, former third overall pick Joel Embiid stayed relatively healthy, and first overall pick Markelle Fultz played actual minutes by season’s end. Losing in five games to an undermanned Celtics team leaves some cause for concern, but this season, Philadelphia gave proof of both that there is a future to look forward to, and that it might be here sooner than predicted. Here are three offseason questions for the Sixers.

Should the Sixers Be Worried About Ben Simmons’s Postseason?

What Simmons needs is Scared Straight!—not with shouting convicts in his face, but with a room full of back-to-the-basket big men who have been pushed into obsolescence. Roy Hibbert is screaming warnings about what happens when you don’t develop an outside shot. Dwight Howard hasn’t blinked in 18 minutes. In the corner is DeAndre Jordan, whispering about a max contract that will never come.

Shooting is a job requirement in today’s NBA, even for most bigs, yet Simmons, a point guard, didn’t take a single 3 this season outside of buzzer-beater heaves. Not only did he survive without a deep shot in the regular season, Simmons spellbound us into forgetting he needed one. As The Ringer’s Danny Chau wrote in March, “Simmons knows you know he can’t shoot, and to take advantage of that perception in the interim, he’s leaned even further into the bit.” A wave of Simmons’s 7-foot wingspan of a wand and sagging defenses became assist opportunities. Drives into traffic turned into open looks at the basket.

But the second round of the playoffs changed everything. (Which is to say, Brad Stevens’s imagination changed everything.) After Game 3, Kevin O’Connor broke down just how the Celtics slowed down Simmons. Boston had the rookie exactly where it wanted him: in a half-court set, near the perimeter with the ball in hand.

What Simmons was chastised for most during the playoffs—specifically in Game 3, when he finished with only one point and four field goal attempts—was his refusal to shoot, even when open. Mind-set, as much as tweaking his shot, needs to be the focus of his offseason. Monday, Kobe Bryant suggested that for Simmons to fix his jumper, he “build that thing anew.” (Kobe must read KOC.)

Inadequate deep shooting is creating even more comparisons between Simmons and LeBron James, who, as a rookie, shot 29 percent from 3. But within that comparison is a distinct difference: When we say LeBron had no outside shot, we didn’t mean it literally.

Can Philly Add Another Star?

Speaking of LeBron [throws powder into the air], Philadelphia (1) is reportedly on his short list and (2) has $25 million in cap space this offseason. There are some caveats to that figure: It doesn’t include T.J. McConnell and Richaun Holmes, whose options could be picked up for $1.6 million apiece. Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova will become free agents, and if Philadelphia pursues the Hawks expats again, they’ll cost more than this season’s combined $847,915. J.J. Redick, a more reliable wing option than Robert Covington (who got paid $62 million last season) during the playoffs, is also a free agent.

The Sixers would likely have to lose several key contributors to fit LeBron into their books. Plus, not everyone is convinced that having LBJ as a teammate is in Simmons’s best interest in the long term. There are options. Paul George is also a free agent this summer. And the Spurs’ relationship with Kawhi Leonard might be so irreconcilable that he may be on the table.

If Philly wants to trade its way into a third major piece, it’s armed with assets. Despite his shooting struggles, Markelle Fultz was the no. 1 pick less than a year ago. Bryan Colangelo also has five 2018 NBA draft picks in his pocket (the Sixers’ first-rounder at 26 and their own second-rounder in addition to one each from the Rockets, Nets, and Knicks) and one that would require divine intervention (i.e., 1985 David Stern) to not secure: The Sixers will get the Lakers’ first-round pick if it goes first overall (a 1.1 percent chance) or if it’s the sixth pick or higher. If Los Angeles draws pick no. 2 or no. 3 (a 1.6 percent chance), it will go to Boston. The Sixers originally acquired the pick in the Michael Carter-Williams deal three years ago; MCW wished Philadelphia “nothing but the best” at the time. Chances are slim that the Sixers will get the best pick, but thanks to Carter-Williams, they have a shot!

Is Brett Brown the Right Coach Going Forward?

“Irony” is being labeled “on the hot seat” for one bad round in the playoffs after surviving a 75-253 record over the four previous seasons. Congratulations, Brett, you are now coaching a team with standards.

This was Brown’s first head-coaching job after nine seasons with the Spurs as an assistant. He prevailed. He got extended in the middle of a 10-72 season.

But Brown’s first taste of the playoffs did, five years into the job, shine the spotlight on him. In Game 2, he was scrutinized for not calling a timeout during a Boston run in the second quarter (the Celtics ended up cutting a 22-point lead to a five-point deficit at the break) and for putting Simmons into the game after a T.J. McConnell–led run.

Almost any coach will look like a disappointment against Stevens, and Brown’s in-game coaching has been called iffy before over the years, but never on such a big stage. With his contract up in 2018-19, Brown will have one more year to prove he’s the man for the job. The more successful the Sixers are, the more important the clipboard becomes.