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The Sixers’ Gut-wrenching Loss Is Only a Prelude

As demoralizing as Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer-beater to rip away Game 7 may be, things will only get messier for Philly, which has to make big decisions on the fate of virtually every important player and its head coach this offseason

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Joel Embiid was devastated. How could he not be? How could all the Sixers not be? Kawhi Leonard’s physics-defying shot at the buzzer bounced four times before it fell through the hoop. It must have been painful to watch—and even harder to handle the aftermath. That one shot won Game 7 and the series for Toronto—and ended the season for the Sixers.

Embiid took it hard. He looked dazed on the court afterward—to the point that even the Raptors consoled him. Serge Ibaka whispered in his ear. Pascal Siakam gave him a hug. Marc Gasol offered words of encouragement. It was a nice bit of sportsmanship.

As difficult as it was and is likely to remain for a while, Brett Brown figured the loss will double as a “life memory” that will give Embiid and the Sixers “greater clarity on what this time of year represents.” That might be true, but Embiid wasn’t able to pull back and consider the wide angle.

“Game 7, losing a game that way, last shot, after a hard-fought game, I feel like we had a chance,” Embiid said. He had 21 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, and three blocks. He made eight of his nine free throws. He played a playoff career-high 45 minutes. It wasn’t enough. “A lot of things go through your mind. It sucks. I can’t explain it. It just sucks.”

The shot aside—and that is a massive moment to put aside for all the obvious reasons—the Sixers did not play particularly well in Game 7. They missed their first nine shots and finished at 43.1 percent from the floor, including making just nine of 27 3-point attempts. Despite the sheer size and physicality of their starting five, the Sixers got ruined by the Raptors on the boards. Toronto had 16 offensive rebounds. Ibaka had four all by himself—or the same number of offensive rebounds as all five Sixers starters combined. Ben Simmons wasn’t as good as he was in Game 6. JJ Redick and Tobias Harris had flashes, but it never seemed like either of them would take over and deliver the Sixers to the Eastern Conference finals. As superteams go, they didn’t look so super on Sunday night. When they absolutely needed someone to take over, Jimmy Butler was really the only option to create a shot for himself and potentially hero-ball them into the next round. It didn’t go down that way, of course. Butler didn’t have the kind of game that prompts Brown to fondly refer to him as the “adult in the room.” For all their stars, no one shined when the Sixers needed it most. The Raptors’ supporting cast wasn’t very good, either—Toronto shot just 38.2 percent from the floor—but in the end they only needed their headliner.

“He hit a tough one,” Butler said about Leonard. “You tip your hat to that. He’s an incredible player. We know it. We all know it. There’s not too much more you can say about it.”

It was Kawhi’s night, just as it was Kawhi’s series. There’s no shame in that for the Sixers—but there are repercussions.

Questions abound now for Philly, and there are no easy answers. Should the team offer Butler a five-year max contract that will tie him to the team until he’s 34? And does he even want that, or is he already out the door? (Butler declined to answer questions about his future following the game.) What kind of money and years is Harris worth? He’s younger than Butler—he’ll be 27 in July; Butler will be 30 in September—and the Sixers gave up a lot to get him (including two first-round picks, one of which was Miami’s unprotected 2021 gem), but he’s also been more of a complementary piece since coming to Philly. (His field goal, 3-point, and true shooting percentages all dipped from his time with the Clippers, as did his PER.)

If they bring back both, what will that mean for Simmons? Butler assumed more of the point guard duties in the playoffs, and he was especially effective in the pick-and-roll with Embiid. That effectively marginalized Simmons on offense. Against the Nets and Raptors, Brown at times used Simmons as a floor spacer/decoy to “free up shooters on the perimeter” and also put him on the baseline in the dunker spot. That last bit evidently didn’t go over great with Simmons, who told ESPN his role is “definitely not that. I’m more valuable than that.” OK, but at present he can’t or won’t shoot, which limits his effectiveness as a point guard, as we’ve seen in the past two postseasons. Maybe, as my Ringer teammate Jonathan Tjarks posited, they should move Simmons from the backcourt to the frontcourt—though I wonder how Simmons, who has always called himself a point guard, would respond to that shift in designation, or how the Sixers would distribute minutes between him and Embiid thereafter. Simmons is also eligible for an extension on July 1. Maxing Butler and Harris and extending Simmons would mean committing the vast majority of the Sixers’ payroll to just four players and inch them awfully close to the luxury tax, which would in turn make rounding out the rest of the roster more challenging. There is also the not-insignificant matter of keeping Embiid healthy and upright, because without him this whole thing probably craters pretty quickly. And then there is the head coach, whose figurative (and maybe literal?) survival might have been determined by the Game 7 loss.

The Sixers won more than 50 games for the second consecutive season—the first time that’s happened in more than 30 years—and came within one win of the Eastern finals. Brown has presided over what has safely been the best period of Sixers basketball since the Allen Iverson era of the late ’90s–early ’00s. There’s a case to be made that Brown has been the better head coach in three of his four playoff series to date. And yet there have been lingering questions about his job security. That has a lot to do with majority owner Josh Harris giving him a tepid-at-best endorsement before the playoffs began and declining to assure everyone that Brown will be back next year as the head coach.

After Game 7, Brown was asked whether he’s had any conversations with management about what his “future might look like with the organization.” “Stuff like that, we talk internally a lot,” Brown said. “The club can respond to that.” It was a weird, truncated answer.

I wrote lots of words about why I think the criticism of Brown has been unfair. But even if we put wins and losses and ownership’s outsize playoff expectations aside, what about just keeping Brown because he’s a professional human who has served as a sea wall against the tidal wave of drama that constantly crashes upon this organization?

It seems inexplicable that so much of what ownership might decide to do this offseason could be tethered to losing a Game 7, on the road, against a team that was heavily favored to win the series—especially when Embiid hasn’t looked fully healthy in months and the five starters were so new to each other going into the playoffs that they should have worn name tags. Evan Turner saw a wise man express that very sentiment on Twitter and hit the like button. (I’d link to it, but he blocked me years ago for reasons I’m still not sure about but probably deserved; ET, unblock me!) Perhaps Turner was reminiscing about his own experience in Philly. I’ve certainly thought about it a lot lately.

The last time the Sixers played a Game 7 with a shot to go to the Eastern Conference finals was in 2012. Turner was still on the team. I covered that game in Boston. It was a weird season for the Sixers and the league. The lockout shortened the schedule, and the Sixers got out of the first round in part because of a Derrick Rose injury. The Celtics—with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo—had the better team and were heavily favored. The Sixers—with Turner, Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holiday, Thad Young, and Lou Williams—were a good (not great) team that pushed Boston the distance but lost the series. That summer changed everything. The Sixers traded for Andrew Bynum and offloaded Iguodala and Nikola Vucevic in the process. It was a bold and risky move, and I applauded them at the time for the gambit. It failed miserably. Bynum never played for the Sixers, and the team won just 34 games. That prompted this very same ownership group to get rid of Doug Collins as the head coach, overhaul the front office, and hire Sam Hinkie. You know the rest. The ripple effects from that one offseason, after that one Game 7 loss, reverberate even now.

But you don’t even have to go back that far to find proof that these high-stakes organizational decisions can be tricky and don’t always work out the way you want or expect. Not even a year ago, after the Celtics dispatched the Sixers from the second round of the playoffs, Brown declared the franchise was “star hunting.” He made it pretty plain that the Sixers, as previously constituted, did not have enough talent. The thinking was that they were behind Boston and would be even further off the Celtics’ pace once Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward were healthy. That self-audit informed a host of decisions and led to their trading a cache of players and assets—including, but not limited to, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Landry Shamet, and two first-round picks—to acquire Butler and Harris.

But just 12 months after many of us thought Boston and Philly would battle each other for Eastern Conference supremacy for the next decade, both organizations are faced with challenging offseasons. The Celtics have to figure out what to do about Irving, determine whether they can actually acquire Anthony Davis, and make decisions on Al Horford (player option) and Terry Rozier (restricted free agent). Jaylen Brown is also in line for an extension. And the Sixers … [long exhale] … have to decide what to do about the back end of the roster, how many max contracts to ladle out, how to best use Simmons, how to keep Embiid healthy and happy, and whether to bring back the most successful coach the organization has had in more than three decades. It’s a lot. (Not surprisingly, there’s a heavy schadenfreude element for both Boston and Philly right now.) It doesn’t have to be that complicated, of course. The Sixers could just keep the gang together, Brown included, and run the whole thing back (provided Butler and Harris are of a similar mind). That’s my inclination. It seems like the simple and smart thing to do, though I fear ownership will opt for something messier and more complicated. For the second straight summer, it’s a critical offseason for the Sixers with the potential to go sideways on them pretty fast.