NBA playoffs: Why the 76ers front office is to blame for first-round struggles against Celtics

After a roller-coaster regular season that got derailed with injuries and then the suspension of play due to the pandemic, the Philadelphia 76ers appear poised for a first-round flameout at the hands of the rival Boston Celtics. When it comes to their struggles against the Celtics in the series, there’s plenty of blame to go around. The play has been lackluster. The Sixers turned the ball over 27 times in the first two games, and the defense has been marred by consistent open attempts — both at the rim and from the perimeter — for Boston. 

The coaching has been questionable, too. Brett Brown hasn’t altered the team’s pick-and-roll defense despite the fact that the Celtics — namely Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker — have been getting whatever they want out of the action. It’s also worth asking why Raul Neto logged major minutes in the first half of what amounted to basically a must-win Game 2. That was a bit of a head-scratcher. But, while the players and coaching staff aren’t blameless, the struggles against Boston, and throughout the whole season, are the direct result of consistent front-office failures. 

Philadelphia’s front office saw the direction that the league was trending in, with an increasing emphasis being placed on floor-spacing and dynamic guard play, and in turn less emphasis being placed on traditional post play. They saw all of this and then constructed a team that was the complete opposite of the popular paradigm.   

Despite years of consistently high draft picks, and copious picks in general, the Sixers largely opted against selecting young guards that could potentially excel in today’s game. Centers were selected in the lottery on three consecutive years, two of which never panned out in Philadelphia and netted the Sixers very little in return when they were ultimately traded. Wing players with defensive instincts — players like Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Zhaire Smith — were prioritized over guards with high upsides like Dejounte Murray or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.   

The Sixers ultimately tried to address their lack of guards capable of initiating action and knocking down shots while playing off of screens by trading up to select Markelle Fultz with the top pick in the 2017 draft. Fultz flamed out in Philly, and since then the Sixers have done little to address the issue. The fact that they passed over Jayson Tatum, who is destroying them in this first round series, to draft Fultz, and they traded a pick to do so, only adds salt to the wound. 

In free agency, instead of pursuing players who complement their two best players in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the Sixers blew the bank on two players in Tobias Harris and Al Horford that aren’t capable of consistently generating offense, that don’t make life easier for Embiid or Simmons, and just generally don’t raise the ceiling of the team much, if at all. With Simmons sidelined this postseason following knee surgery, both Harris and Horford have had an opportunity to step up, and both have failed miserably. As role players, both would be fine, but that’s not how they’re being paid by the Sixers, and that’s going to cause major problems for the team for the foreseeable future. 

Horford is under contract for three more years after this season. At 34, it’s safe to say that he isn’t going to get any better. If anything, it appears as if he’s slipping into a late-career descent. Harris is under contract for four more years. He’ll be paid $39 million during the 2023-24 season. Good luck trading either one of those deals for close to equal value. 

In order to get another franchise to consider touching one of those contracts in a trade, the Sixers would have to sweeten the pot considerably with other assets. That’s a tough ask, considering the fact that the organization ran through the majority of the cornucopia of assets left to them by former general manager Sam Hinkie while building the current iteration of the Sixers. In turn, the Sixers took what felt like endless opportunity and tinkered it into mediocrity. In the long run, the 2019 offseason will be remembered as a disastrous one for Philadelphia.  

So, where do the Sixers go from here? Brett Brown will likely be the fall guy after the season. Again, he isn’t blameless in the team’s struggles this season. And after seven years maybe a new voice will be a big difference-maker for the team moving forward. At the very least, you change the coach before you try to trade either Embiid or Simmons, as Brown is the only coach that the two have ever played for professionally. However, it would have been nice to see how Brown managed a better-balanced roster, or one that he wasn’t consistently forced to tweak due to injury issues. There has been little organizational consistency since Brown came to Philadelphia in 2013. In fact, the only constant since Hinkie resigned in 2016 is bad basketball decisions made by the front office, whether it’s been Bryan Colangelo or Elton Brand calling the shots.  

The Sixers overcame the biggest hurdle when it comes to building a contender in the NBA: Acquiring superstar-level talent. In Embiid and Simmons, they have that. But since those draft selections were made, the organization has done little to help maximize the talent — or potential — of those two players. Instead, poor decisions both in the draft and in free agency have left the Sixers ill-equipped to contend as currently constructed.  

As long as Embiid and Simmons are on the roster, all hope isn’t lost for Philly. However, it will be very tough for Philadelphia’s front office to improve the roster around their two stars moving forward, and it hasn’t provided much reason for optimism when it comes to their ability to do so. 

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