Things have gone from bad to worse for the Philadelphia 76ers, who lost to the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night and lost Joel Embiid to a sprained shoulder in the process -- no pun intended. The Sixers, now 9-21 on the road, would play the Heat in the first round, without home-court advantage, if the playoffs were to start today, and however the top four teams end up shaking out, a first-round exit for Philly is feeling increasingly possible.
If that happens, coach Brett Brown is almost certainly gone, and general manager Elton Brand, who perhaps deserves the most blame for the manner in which this Sixers experiment has gone south, might not be far behind. Once seen as the co-star foundation of a future championship team, Embiid and Ben Simmons are suddenly a cautionary tale of the perils of ill-fitting talents. Talk of trading one of them would only grow with a playoff disappointment. Whether that's realistic feels beside the point. The Sixers, given their flawed roster and lack of flexibility, are running out of options and up against a state of desperation.
Two years ago, when the Sixers won 16 straight games to close out the 2017-18 regular season and blew through the Heat in the first round, or even last year, when they were perhaps one rim-rolling Kawhi Leonard game-winner from a conference finals berth, this isn't the how anyone saw this going.
But here we are. When Embiid was out a few weeks back, all the talk was about how much different, and better, the Sixers looked with Simmons at the helm of a faster-paced, better-spaced attack. When Simmons went out with a nerve impingement in his back that will reportedly keep him out at least two weeks, it was supposed to be Embiid's time to shine. He had a career-high 49 points in a recent win over the Hawks. Now he'll be in street clothes along with Simmons for who knows how long after his MRI, which is scheduled for Thursday.
What do the Sixers' prospects look like absent their two best players? Their three still-healthy expected starters -- Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson and Al Horford -- combined for 30 points on 12-of-35 shooting in Wednesday's loss.
It speaks to the hasty, narrow-sighted manner in which this roster was constructed in the first place. Look at a team like the Rockets, who have taken extreme, small-ball measures to ensure their peripheral pieces form a conducive environment in which their two superstars can thrive, and the Sixers' polar-opposite route looks even more perplexing.
Hindsight is 20/20 with regard to then general manager Bryan Colangelo's decision to not only draft Markelle Fultz with the No. 1 overall pick in 2017, but also trade a future first-round pick for the right to do so. But even with that debacle, the Sixers were set up to become a powerhouse on the strength of Simmons and Embiid alone. Yes, in many ways their games run counter to each other, but in another way they both require the same supporting skillset: shooting.
The Sixers had that in abundance two years ago. That aforementioned 2017-18 team that, for a minute, was looking like an ahead-of-schedule threat to contend for a Finals berth, flanked Simmons and Embiid with range specialists like JJ Redick, Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova. Rather than betting on the growth and cohesion, of that complementary roster (or equivalent pieces in the cases of Belinelli and Ilyasova) the Sixers went big-name -- but not necessarily big-game -- hunting.
First, they traded Saric and Covington for Jimmy Butler, who was, and is, a far better player than either one of those guys but still represented one shooter trying to replace two. Then they traded a boatload of future draft picks (along with Landry Shamet -- who incidentally fit with Simmons and Embiid perfectly as a knock-down shooter on a rookie contract to boot) for Tobias Harris, who they somewhat desperately re-signed to a five-year, $180 million max contract after Butler left for Miami, which also sent back Josh Richardson.
Harris and Richardson are good players. But they're not great, and being that neither is a particularly threatening 3-point shooter, the Sixers need them to be great to offset the fit complications. Perhaps the simple act of re-signing Redick could've cured many of these ills. He remains one of the best shooters in the world, and his two-man game with Embiid was probably the most reliable component of Philly's half-court and late-game offense.
The Peilcans got Redick this past summer for $26 million over two years, while the Sixers zeroed in 33-year-old Al Horford, who they went on to sign for $109 million over four years. To say Horford has been a disaster this year would be an understatement. He's redundant while on the floor with Embiid, which takes him out of the low- and high-post areas in which he thrives and shoves him out to the 3-point line, where he's shooting 31 percent, which in turn does Simmons absolutely no good.
The Sixers signed Horford because they were a mess when Embiid was off the floor last year, particularly in the playoffs, but a backup center is hardly worth $109 million. They also liked that Horford, in the past, has been a viable defender for Bucks MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, but what good is a decent defender on Antetokounmpo if you can't make it far enough in the playoffs to face him anyway?
The opportunity cost of Horford could've been a guy like Malcolm Brogdon, who signed with Indiana for almost $25 million less, or Bojan Bogdanovic, who signed with Utah for $35 million less. Either one of those guys would've fit perfectly with Philly. You could argue the Sixers would be the best team in the East with one of them. Bogdanovic is every bit the player that Harris is, but for $107 million less.
The Sixers felt forced to sign Harris to that giant deal because they sensed Butler was gone, and they had Harris' Bird rights and seemingly no viable means of replacing him. Had they signed Bogdanovic instead of Harris, for instance, there wouldn't have been money for anyone else outside their own roster. Still, a "big three" of Simmons, Embiid and Bogdanovic, in addition to Richardson, would be a better championship bet. Retain Redick with his Bird rights, and the Sixers might be among the favorites with far greater flexibility moving forward.
But now that flexibility is gone, and whatever patience Sixers fans have left isn't far behind. Horford's contract looks like a negative asset. Harris' might be one, too. They have very little draft capital in the tank, and now Embiid and Simmons, who still don't fit together, are both hurt. This is what it looks like when a situation goes from bad to worse, and you have to wonder how the Sixers can possibly come out of it without any casualties.