The Sixers just had their worst four-season record in franchise history and have never been more popular. It is a fascinating dichotomy, one I discovered through years on the front lines of sports talk radio.
Some subset of fans generally dislikes the players they know and are certain that, if management trades and/or gives away veterans at or near their peak and stocks up on draft picks, championships are sure to follow.
I found that belief to be true in every sport, but it is obviously most true in basketball when one player can change everything. Yes, that was LeBron James just playing in his seventh consecutive NBA Finals for two teams.
The 2000-01 Sixers were incredibly popular because what they did was so unexpected when that season began. This feels different.
As the Sixers gear up to make the first pick in the NBA draft for the second consecutive year, the overwhelming emotions appear to be hope and belief.
Hope that all this losing will beget just as much winning. And belief that all the young talent will morph into a championship team.
When last season began, I had no idea Joel Embiid was going to be that good and did not particularly like the team’s overall athleticism. Assuming they are all healthy (a big assumption, I know), the Sixers, with Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz playing big minutes, suddenly become quite athletic.
Check out Fultz’s dunk at the end of this high school highlight.
And three Simmons dunks at LSU against Wake Forest. The last of the three is ridiculous.
The talent infusion is now obvious. What is less obvious is what happens next.
Nobody wins in the NBA without elite talent. Embiid has all-NBA skills and the motor to match. Simmons has wonderful court vision and perfect touch on his passes. He also has questions to answer about his shooting and defense. Fultz has elite athleticism and an intriguing offensive game. He also shot just 65 percent from the free throw line and 50 percent on twos in his one season at Washington.
One of my complaints as this Sixers team was being assembled was how few two-way players they had. Embiid obviously is a two-way player. Robert Covington, who led the league in deflections last season, is there on defense, but his shooting is erratic.
For the last several days, I have been asking myself: Why did the Celtics trade the rights to the No. 1 pick? Danny Ainge is saying the Celtics will get the player they wanted all along at No. 3. So that is telling us he thinks Player X is better than Fultz or Lonzo Ball or perhaps just better suited for how the Celtics play and how Brad Stevens coaches.
I am almost certain I know why the Celtics did not want Ball, beyond the fact that they are stocked with guards. The UCLA point guard played zero defense last season, just like his team. Stevens, one of the sport’s best coaches, built his teams at Butler and in Boston through defense. Butler routinely put on defensive clinics during its run to consecutive NCAA championship games in 2010 and 2011, forever one of the great coaching jobs in sports history. These Celtics run enough good offense, but it is their commitment to defense that has made them one of the better teams in the league.
Given how bad Washington was and how often the Huskies were blown out, it is hard to draw any conclusions on Fultz’s defense. My suspicion, however, is that Boston was not thrilled with the defensive commitment it saw on tape. Mike Jones, Fultz’s coach at DeMatha High, insists Fultz is a very good defender. Time will tell if Boston was right to pass on Fultz.
Now, the time has come to see who on the Sixers wants to be great and will sacrifice something of themselves for the good of the team. When I watched the Sixers last season, I was most impressed by how much the players seemed to like playing with each other. That is a tribute to coach Brett Brown, who, through all the chaos, never stopped trying to give his players confidence.
So now we are on the clock to see if those who always believed in this course were right. Time will tell on that, too.