Barely 12 hours after Kawhi Leonard’s shot dropped through the net, the 76ers began trickling through the office doors, their faces still hollowed by the season’s premature end. They said one last round of hellos and goodbyes, met with the coaching staff, the medical staff, the front office. And then they were gone — off to face a month-and-a-half of uncertainty and thoughts of what might have been.
“It’s like a bad dream," said backup center Boban Marjanovic, who was standing with baited breath on the bench as Leonard’s buzzer-beating fadeaway bounced through the rim and dispatched the Sixers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Sunday night in Toronto. “Wake me up, wake me up. ... It was hard to sleep last night.”
The end of a season is always an empty feeling. By the middle of May, the rhythm of the previous eight months can feel like the natural order of things, life ticking with a singular focus on the next night’s game. And then, suddenly, there is nothing left to look forward to: no practice, no shootaround, no film session, no plane flight. When the end arrives did for the Sixers, with a flick of a wrist, and an improbable bounce, it is like a midnight train with its headlight turned off.
“It’s tough to go out like that," free agent-to-be Mike Scott said. “It’s gonna sting for a little bit. Fuel for motivation to get better over the summer. I know I’ll be thinking about that.”
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As the Sixers gathered at their Camden training facility for end-of-season exit interviews on Monday, nobody was in much of a psychological position to consider the voids in front of their faces. Head coach Brett Brown and general manager Elton Brand remained out of sight, deferring their year-end media availabilities to Tuesday. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid more or less said the things that you would hope they would say, in varying degrees of confession. Embiid spoke at length of a desire to elevate his pursuit of greatness, to improve his body, and his game, and his health. He did so mostly in a general, abstract sense, i.e., he did not pledge himself to a diet of organic plants and carbohydrates or even suggest that a food pyramid should not be built of Shake Shack burgers.
Likewise, Simmons acknowledged the legitimacy of the foremost critique of his game without offering any hint of his plan to rectify it.
Does he think he needs to be able to shoot from outside the paint?
Does he think he needs to get to a point where he attempts more than five shots in a playoff Game 7?
Is his plan still to spend the summer working on that shot with his brother Liam, a former small-school collegiate basketball player and assistant coach?
Hey, the guy has never been long on words.
Likewise, neither Jimmy Butler nor Tobias Harris revealed much about how they expect their impending free agencies to unfold, although Butler left little doubt about what it will take for the Sixers to re-sign him, saying that he expects he’ll “get a max contract anywhere I choose to go.” For what it is worth, Harris did not venture anywhere close to that territory, simply saying that he had yet to think about the upcoming negotiations and deferring to his “representatives.”
It’s a good bet that both players are aware of the leverage they hold, given the fact that the Sixers parted with virtually all of their tradeable assets to bring them into the fold. In both cases, there are strong arguments against offering a max contract. For as good as Butler was in the playoffs — and he was arguably the best all-around player on the team — he will be 30 years old next season, and the lack of a consistent three-point shot is a glaring deficiency in his game. Harris, meanwhile, has some shortcomings on the defensive end of the court. And for as good as his shooting percentage was this season, his efficiency in catch-and-shoot situations is less than ideal for this team.
Yet, in both cases, there is the same glaring rebuttal. As the Sixers learned last offseason, NBA free agency is not a buyer’s market. Call it Bjelica’s Law: July is a month when you overpay. If not Harris and/or Butler, then who?
It’s similar to the question that the Sixers must ask themselves with regard to their coaching situation, a reality that JJ Redick spelled out precisely when asked about his thoughts on Brown’s future.
“For any NBA team, when you think about a coach, and potentially replacing that coach, you have to consider what coaches are available,” the veteran shooting guard said. “You know what I mean?”
If the Sixers don’t know that, they should meditate a little bit on one of life’s ironclad laws. In the pursuit of something better, you can often make yourself worse. It’s a reality that will provide plenty of dramatic tension for the decisions they must tackle this offseason. For now, the starkest reality is that they’ll have plenty of time.