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A Rational Conversation About the Self-Destructing Philadelphia 76ers

Has a 28-16 team ever produced this many think pieces, Twitter threads masquerading as group-therapy sessions, fake trades, and locker-room gossip? You must be new here: This is how we do it in Philadelphia.

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Justin Verrier: Jimmy Butler will face off against the Timberwolves on Tuesday for the first time since his trade to the 76ers, and while the jerseys and the names have changed, the Charlie Brown cloud that loomed over his final weeks in Minnesota has followed him to Philly. Virtually every game with Jimmy has shined a light on a new flaw in the franchise’s foundation. Joel Embiid is unhappy about how he’s being used. Ben Simmons doesn’t fit with Embiid. Jimmy is unhappy about everything except for his personalized coffee cups (which are dope). Brett Brown might not be the right coach. The team needs more depth. Is life with Jimmy as great as it sounds?

Chris Ryan: It really depends on how deeply you want to bore down. It will come as little surprise to you that I am situated somewhere around the earth’s core, and the view kind of sucks. On the surface, the Sixers are 28-16, which is really good. Embiid is having an MVP-caliber season, and they are one of two NBA teams that can reasonably claim to have three top-20 players on their roster. But the deeper you go, the darker it gets. Butler’s arrival hasn’t just caused growing pains, it’s brought about a minor-to-major crisis in confidence in the entire Sixers project. I’m being hysterical, but I’m also being a Philadelphian. Already prone to soap operatics, the team appears to have sprung a few new media leaks ever since Butler hit town. And even the stuff that should feel good—like wins—feels weird, because nothing is coming easy.

The biggest thing I am coming to terms with over this last week or so—outside of wondering whether or not Brown can hold this team together, much less improve on last season’s finish—is how much Butler actually cost.

There’s a great argument to be made that the Sixers had to do this deal. Elton Brand made it on Zach Lowe’s podcast earlier in the season, when he told Lowe that the Sixers’ window for adding a marquee player was essentially the remainder of Ben Simmons’s rookie contract. I get it, and I don’t think the sticker price for Butler was that steep. But every day, I feel more and more like Butler might have been the wrong star to trade for.

Verrier: If they clear Markelle Fultz’s contract, they’ll have enough room to bring back Jimmy and add another high-level player (or the necessary role players to fill in around this Big Three). It was the correct move purely from a logistical standpoint. And as we draw closer to the trade deadline, we’re seeing how sharp the drop-off is from Butler to the next best target (Kevin Love with one hand? Nikola Vucevic?). It’s possible, maybe even likely, that we’re in the Sixers’ darkest-before-the-dawn moment.

But there’s also a case that this is the one time the franchise shouldn’t have erred on the side of the cold, hard business decision. (It’s honestly wild how cutthroat the organization has been—from dealing Philly native Mikal Bridges for a future draft pick and Zhaire Smith, to the robotic nature of their PR approach to injury news—since running Sam Hinkie out of town for not being nice enough to agents.) Their core group (Embiid, Simmons, JJ Redick, Dario Saric, Robert Covington) was not only good, it was impervious to melodrama. A year of agonizing Fultz updates, a potential clash of your two best players, the realization that your LeBron 2.0 may be fatally flawed—that monsoon of palace intrigue would’ve crushed most franchises. Yet, somehow, we (foolishly) still picked this team to compete for a title in the preseason?

I think a lot of that stems from the cultlike good vibes of the fan base. “Trust the Process” was not just a rallying call, it became a magic eraser for the franchise’s many screwups. Our no. 1 overall doesn’t have full range of motion over his shooting arm? Let’s make a T-shirt about it! The Butler trade not only dealt away two of the team’s most lovable characters, it let a fox into the chicken coop. As we saw in the weeks leading up to his exit from Minnesota, and as we’re seeing now with stories like the one ESPN dropped at the top of the month, Butler is an agent of chaos. And the only way to survive in the court of public opinion is to be as vicious as he is. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ben and Jo start backchanneling every gripe they have to the media, too.

Ryan: I mean, there’s speculation that that’s already begun! If Brett didn’t leak the Film Session That Shook the World (or Sixers Twitter), and Jimmy didn’t leak it …

I will say this for Butler: He’s certainly had an impact. We are just approaching his two-month anniversary in town, and I already feel like every postgame press conference has August: Osage County potential. I know he’s supposed to be on his best behavior so as to not torpedo his chances at a five-year deal with the Sixers or a four-year deal somewhere else, but if this is his best behavior, it’s not a great advertisement for what’s to come once he’s locked up long term. Ironically, the things ailing the Sixers since Butler arrived are the very things Butler would seemingly preach against: namely, defensive frailty and lack of competitive fire.

Since the trade went down, the Sixers are some kind of inverted peak-Warriors team. Their hot first quarters (they lead the league in first-quarter scoring) are impossible to enjoy because you know what’s coming: a second-half defensive effort that feels like five guys scrolling through their phones rather than helping on D. The Sixers are ranked 18th in third-quarter defense, and they’re even worse in the fourth. The scariest part is these are the numbers after Philly … hasn’t really played anyone yet! Their best wins have come against a Kawhi-less Raps, a struggling Jazz (twice), and the Clippers (twice). They are about to embark on a brutal stretch (Pacers, Thunder, Rockets, Spurs, Nuggets, the always fun American Ninja Warrior obstacle course that is the West Coast, wrapping up back home with … the Raptors and the Nuggets again) leading into the All-Star break, and if I sound particularly moody today, it’s because the team is coming off a run of losing to the Wizards and Hawks and barely beating a Knicks team that they were smoking for most of the game.

Verrier: Such a precipitous fall-off screams two things to me: They aren’t all on the same page yet—and, to be fair, this core hasn’t even been together for two months—and the team is unable to develop role players to fill the void of the role players they just traded.

Ryan: I want to get your opinion on this thing that’s been bugging me ever since I heard Bill Simmons on Zach’s pod last week. Is it possible that while the Sixers were engineering their own Big Three, the NBA pivoted away from that paradigm? Bill was talking about how much he likes what the Bucks have built around Giannis Antetokounmpo, with all the complementary pieces playing specific roles. They go 10-deep, with an eclectic ensemble of supporting actors, all of whom seem to be thriving in Mike Budenholzer’s system. This same general blueprint is successful in Denver, Toronto, and, perhaps unintentionally, Houston. Are the Sixers showing us the perils of putting all your eggs in three baskets?

Verrier: Just look at the teams that recently jettisoned stars in favor of young veterans: The Pacers are better off without Paul George. The Kings are better off without Boogie. The Spurs are doing just fine without Kawhi Leonard. Even the Wolves looked feisty when Robert Covington was healthy. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the top three teams in each conference have quality players up and down their rosters. Among the many trends the Warriors have ushered in is putting five capable offensive players on the court at one time without sacrificing on defense, which has made it harder for everyone else to punt a position or two on nonshooters—the Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins spots on the 2007-08 Celtics, basically. The Thunder, who dealt depth for George, and later Carmelo Anthony, are probably the best case study for this idea. They’ve dispersed Melo’s minutes and responsibilities to solid veterans and are thriving as a result, even without Andre Roberson and with their former MVP shooting like he’s Michael Carter-Westbrook.

But it goes the other way, too. OKC is excelling this season because it has someone like George playing at an MVP level. Indy is doing quite well without him, sure, but we’d stop short of calling the Pacers a title contender, specifically because they don’t have a player of George’s caliber (Victor Oladipo may get there, someday, if he stays healthy). It just took a season to get the right players around George—which is the same excuse the Sixers can use about their now-top-heavy team.

I’m starting to think this is a new question with the same bottom-line answer we end up at for virtually every existential NBA question: Talent will eventually win out. The Bucks are thriving now, but do they have a bulletproof five-man combination that can hold up against a defense with multiple days of prep work? The Celtics exposed Simmons in one game; can you imagine what Brad Stevens can do against Brook Lopez’s streetsweeper mobility? I would still favor the Celtics, despite all of their recent infighting and Kyrie’s misguided attempts to solve their issues through stern talk and healing crystals, in a series. That feels important.

Ryan: If a couple of things had broken differently (or not broken, in the case of Zhaire Smith’s foot), Philly could have one of those dangerously deep teams, especially if they had kept Bridges on draft night. That really feels like looking a gift horse in the mouth. If the Sixers keep Bridges, and don’t do the Butler trade, they have a 4-10 (after Simmons, Embiid, and JJ Redick) of Covington, Dario Saric, Bridges, Wilson Chandler, T.J. McConnell, Mike Muscala, and Landry Shamet. That’s putting a lot on Joel’s and Ben’s shoulders, but it’s still a sight better than Chandler, T.J., Shamet, Jonah Bolden, Muscala, and Furkan Korkmaz.

The Christmas game in Boston seems like a real inflection point this season. With all the caveats about it being early in the Jimmy era, it just felt like the Sixers had done all this maneuvering only to be beat by the same team in a slightly different way. Everything that seemed groundbreaking about Philly last year seems off this year. The only thing Brett has going for him in a playoff series against the Celtics is that it’s unclear what kind of offensive system Philly runs at all. I’m not even sure what Stevens would scheme against!

Before we even get to the postseason, we have to get through the trade deadline without doing something stupid. I’m firmly on the Don’t You Fucking Dare side of the Trade Ben debate. Short of blowing it up, do you see any kind of deal that could help the team for the second half of the season? Or do you think I’m being too precious about my nonshooting point forward?

Verrier: I am firmly in the camp that Ben and Jo should be split up, but I’m also in the camp that you don’t trade Ben for anything short of an Anthony Davis–like talent, because he can still be a transformative player in the right context. It’s a very large camp. I still want to see this team with the proper role players around them, and they aren’t going to fall into their lap like they did last season. You’ve already pulled the Band-Aid off and time-warped the franchise to win-now mode. The mistake would to be to stop dealing now.

Fultz for Jeremy Lamb—who says no?

Ryan: I’m not a fan of bringing in Brandon Rush, Corey Brewer, or Jodie Meeks, and the time to trade Fultz was before he stepped foot on the court this season. If you’ve come this far with him, I think you have to stick it out at least to the end of the season, with the hope that he accrues a little more value, for Philly or whichever team they can deal him to.

The real person I’d like to trade is Butler. Spike Eskin, who cohosts the Rights to Ricky Sanchez podcast, wrote a piece this past weekend that advocated going back to the teams that wanted Butler in November and seeing what Philly could get out of them. Would Miami give up Josh Richardson, if Philly also took on Kelly Olynyk’s remaining three years? The real question is whether or not Philly wants to give up any of the actual assets it has—namely that 2021 Heat pick—to improve the team drastically this season. Or do they play wait-and-see through a postseason, hoping that their best three or four can beat Boston’s or Toronto’s or Milwaukee’s best eight? I don’t know. I just wish we still had the Homie.