Last Wednesday night around 10:45 p.m., I exhaled and tried to cope with the reality that the Sixers would not add to Philadelphia’s incredible sports success in the past year. You might say that I should have been prepared for the Sixers to lose the series against the Celtics because no NBA team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit, but I really believed that this very special team would turn in one more incredible performance by winning four games in a row. I really believed the mantra “one game at a time.” After the Sixers won Game 4 on Monday night, I was a true believer, and when they surged to a 109-105 lead with a minute left, I thought, just two more to go. Unfortunately, fate abandoned us. JJ Redick shot a three-pointer that went 3/4 of the way down into the basket before spinning out. T.J. McConnell missed a 10-foot shot in the lane. And when the Sixers fell behind, Joel Embiid, who at times was incredibly dominant, missed an easy layup. It just wasn’t to be.
What now? Where do the Sixers go from here? Well, let’s start with the good news. If Sixers fans are honest with themselves, this team succeeded beyond our wildest expectations. In the fall when they had a losing record, is there anyone of you who wouldn’t have settled for a 52-win season and a near sweep in the first round of the playoffs? You would have thought that those achievements would have made the season a great step forward. Despite our disappointment, the fact is it truly was progress. What’s clear from this achievement is that those of us who “Trusted the Process” can already say the process has worked. Not only did it produce Embiid and Ben Simmons, two of the top 15 players in the NBA, but it also brought is Dario Saric whose two 25-point performances in Games 4 and 5 of the Celtics series demonstrated just how far he has come and that he is certain to be a very good NBA player. I remember back in 2014 when the Sixers quickly traded for Saric after he was selected by the Orlando Magic with the 12th pick in the first round, and it was widely accepted that he wouldn’t be playing in America for at least three years. I was angry that we had passed over Doug McDermott, who I thought had the potential to be the outside shooter we so desperately needed, and that Redick has now become. Even though McDermott led the NBA in three-point percentage in the second half of the season (49.8 percent), he is nowhere near the all-around player Saric has become. Making a move for Saric in the first round, while knowing he wouldn’t be playing here for three years, was a gutsy move, but the process worked again.
After the Sixers were eliminated a number of commentators opined that they were much like the 2007 Phillies, who disappointed us by losing in the first round of the playoffs but went on to win two pennants and one World Series shortly thereafter. That comparison could turn out to be correct, but it is no sure thing. First, the Sixers have to find a way to integrate Markelle Fultz into the offense. If they can, he will be another weapon with the athletic ability to create his own scoring opportunities. Next, they need a little more scoring depth. Preferably, from a forward free agent – someone like Paul George. Third, we have to re-sign Redick for a number of years. Although the Celtics did a good job containing him in the last two games, his ability to hit difficult threes forced them to reconfigure their defense and opened up the paint for Simmons and Embiid to have a field day. Fourth, to quote the great Allen Iverson, Simmons has to “practice, practice, practice” his jump shot. He doesn’t have to become a great jump shooter, just an adequate one. Interestingly, in his rookie season LeBron James had a field goal percentage of 41.7 percent and he was 29 percent from three-point range. But LeBron worked hard and taught himself to become a better jump shooter. This past season, he shot 54.2 percent from the field and 36.7 percent from three-point range. So, go to it Ben.
Lastly, we must come to grips with the reality that even if we do all of these things, there is one road block to us becoming the dominate team in the Eastern Conference – the Boston Celtics. Consider what the Celtics did without their two best players, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. You might say that if those two were in the lineup the Celtics wouldn’t have had the same chemistry, but adding two players of their ability would create a different and better dynamic for any team. So just as the Larry Bird/Julius Erving era dominated the Eastern Conference for years and years, I think the next decade will see the Celtics and Sixers battling each other for superiority time and time again. We may not win them all, but we’ll win our share and it’s sure to be great fun.