This was a fait accompli two summers ago.
With Sixers Nation wallowing in pain, anger and frustration, all of it fueled by a second-round playoff loss to the Atlanta Hawks that most fans, media and, apparently, even some players lay at the feet of Ben Simmons and Doc Rivers, the reality is that the state of Philly’s NBA franchise – as it currently stands right now – was sealed in 2019.
Already five years into the process at that time, the Sixers had weathered the storms of season-ending injuries to 2014 overall No. 3 draft pick Joel Embiid and 2016 overall No. 1 draft pick Ben Simmons and the complete mental meltdown of selecting Markelle Fultz with the top pick of the 2017 NBA Draft to emerge as a playoff mainstay by 2019.
Adding Jimmy Butler in November of that 2018-19 campaign actually made the Sixers more than that. His arrival made them title contenders. For as long as they would have him.
As an alpha dog capable, and willing, to take over games he fit a role lacking with the team. For all the promise Embiid showed, and the mystique that followed Simmons, being to close was not part of the repertoire – real or imagined.
But a funny (read: sad) thing happened later that season. The Sixers then got Tobias Harris in a trade, and while Butler was busy pushing the team to the brink of the Eastern Conference finals before Kawhi Leonard’s prayer was answered to end Game 7 in the second round, Harris became a media darling, Simmons became a misused superstar and Butler became the contemptuous lout all those “in the know” professed him to be.
End result: Harris got a max contract that summer, Simmons got the keys to the Sixers’ offense back and Butler got shown the door, with Miami only too happy to be waiting there with a new deal, a new culture, a new roster … and an NBA finals appearance in 2020.
Reality: All bad for the Sixers.
Not for nothing, but as nice a player Harris is, he’s not Butler – in attitude or game – and Simmons is nowhere near the take-control floor general Butler is, either.
Keep one, hell, keep both … but don’t let Butler walk. Under any circumstance.
The missing piece everyone is clamoring for right now, the Sixers had it in Butler.
Frankly, they were better in 2019 – not all second-round, Game 7 ousters are equal – and they were improving.
Now? The process, at least as most view it, is either over, has stagnated or is headed in the opposite direction.
Trading Simmons seems the obvious “first thing to do” at this point. But is it? No doubt, the pairing of him and Embiid, at least with Simmons as the team’s point guard, does not work and Embiid has proven himself to be the far more valuable commodity – when he’s healthy. That caveat is a concern, though – on two fronts. Being injury prone means he offers a shaky foundation. Not only that, does anyone notice how dominant a player Simmons often is when Embiid is out?
The team fares pretty much the same whenever either is out, playing about .500 ball. The Kill Ben Crew may want to step back and grasp that the Sixers have reached the second round of the playoffs in three of the last four seasons. The one time they didn’t is when Simmons was injured in 2020 and Boston booted Philly from the postseason in the first round.
The other issue related to that is this misguided belief that de factor GM Daryl Morey can, and will, fix everything – first and foremost by trading Simmons. When, in the hell, has he ever shown that he could do that? The guy spent 13 years in Houston and has a reputation as some wheeler-dealer wizard based off three main moves, acquiring James Harden in 2012, Chris Paul in 2017 and Russell Westbrook in 2019 – and none of those players remain with the Rockets, nor did any combination of them result in Houston even reaching the NBA finals.
The only thing Morey displayed from his Houston days was an innate ability to craft a disjointed, awkward lineup – which the Sixers have seemed to roll out every season since their last title in 1983.
If anything, hasn’t Philly learned by now that doesn’t work.
How about firing Rivers? See Butler.