TORONTO — Where do they go?
Where do they go now?
Is losing a seven-game conference semifinal series on a last-second shot from the NBA’s best player enough to convince the Sixers’ brain trust to keep the core of The Process together? Kawhi Leonard brought Joel Embiid to tears on the court with his game-winning, 21-foot jumper that bounced four times on the rim before it fell as time expired, breaking a tie and breaking the heart of the man who, emblematic of the six-year journey to this point, calls himself The Process.
“I don’t give a damn about The Process,” Embiid said afterward. Which was exactly the right thing to say for the centerpiece of a team that’s going places.
Embiid had ended the game with his hands over his head, dumbstruck by Leonard’s lucky bounces. Moments later he sobbed in the arms of Marc Gasol, the man Toronto acquired in February to stop him. It took the first Game 7-winning buzzer-beater in NBA history to end the Sixers’ latest roller-coaster season. The team built around Embiid literally could not have come closer to advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in 18 years.
But was it enough?
Enough to earn Jimmy Butler a maximum contract? Enough to max out Tobias Harris?
Enough to save Brett Brown’s job? Brown knows it is in peril, incredibly, but sources close to him say he isn’t fretting: “The club can respond to that.”
Brown patted Ben Simmons on the shoulder on the way back to the locker room. He hugged Embiid in the doorway. He seemed at peace, no matter what happens. Why?
Because Brown has done what he was asked to do.
“We can compete with the best,” Simmons said. “We haven’t been together [long] with this group. There’s a lot of potential.”
“They have the potential to be great,” Butler said of Simmons and Embiid. Last summer, Butler skewered Timberwolves teammates Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, but, since he landed in Philly via trade in November, he’s fallen in love with Ben and Jo. “These are the type of cornerstones you want in your organization. They’re going to do some special things in this league.”
They will need the sort of guidance Brown has provided, and they will need good teammates like Butler and Harris.
And, so, the answers should be yeses all around. For a normal franchise whose nucleus was formed just 3 months ago, the answers would be yeses all around.
But the Sixers are anything but normal.
They are owned by a group fronted by a couple of Penn private-equity bros, Josh Harris and David Blitzer, whose absentee management has fostered an atmosphere of unstructured chaos. Will they finally choose stability over change?
In these six seasons, two general mangers have exited in different degrees of disgrace. The current GM, Elton Brand, was promoted this summer after an extensive search determined that no one else would take the job. Brand reconstructed the team twice this season. In this absence of normalcy, nothing is predictable.
Well, almost nothing.
Embiid will remain the centerpiece; or, as Brown calls him, the “crown jewel.” The crown jewel struggled Sunday night: 21 points, 11 rebounds, three blocked shots, but just 6-for-18 shooting, with misses on his first nine jump shots and his first five three-point tries. He was imperfect, but, without a viable backup, he was utterly necessary. The managing partners consider Simmons imperfect but untouchable.
Otherwise, the setting in which the crown jewel operates might change dramatically.
First, Butler, who, at 29, came to the Sixers via trade in November carrying the baggage of disruption and insubordination. He has shown only glimpses of either flaw with the Sixers, and was brilliant on the court and in the locker room during the playoffs, his Game 7 stumble notwithstanding: 16 points on 5-for-14 shooting, 1-for-6 from three-point range. Yes, he tied the game with 4.2 seconds to play, but he’d botched two earlier possessions entirely on his own. Still, his performances for the entire season and his leadership should earn him the 5 years and $188 million the Sixers can give him — or, if he chooses to elsewhere, should clear his path to more suitors, though they can give him less money for fewer years.
Butler declined to discuss the issue Sunday night.
Next, to Tobias Harris, an emerging star who wilted as the heat got hotter. Perhaps he has another level; certainly he showed some starch in Game 7, with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Harris will ask for a max deal, too. It will cost the Sixers dearly to find out if he can elevate his game.
And, finally, to Brown. He has shepherded the team through six years, during which every single high draft pick was injured, and many proved unworthy of their slot: Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, Markelle Fultz.
Brown was the voice of reason and maturity during seasons that saw them win 19, then 18, then 10, then 28 games. Brown was the voice of logic as the team built around Embiid, who never played basketball until he was 15, then got hurt in his only college season, then missed his first two NBA seasons, then played just 30 games two seasons ago. Brown was the voice of hope and genius when he decided to convert Simmons from power forward to point guard after Simmons spent his first NBA year sidelined with a broken foot.
Brown was the voice of triumph when the Sixers won 52 games last season and 51 games this season, earned the conference’s No. 3 seed and won a playoff series each year. On Sunday, Brown coached a team that was reconstructed in February but, due mainly to injuries, played only its 21st game together.
Will that matter? Josh Harris has warned Brown twice since March that the Sixers had to make it to the conference finals this season. Will that warning prove dire? Did Brown show his bosses enough to earn a full season with his first real roster?
Did Butler show the bosses enough to stay? Did Harris?
From here: Yes.
So: Where do they go now?