They can’t afford to do nothing. That was obvious before, and it is obvious now. Nothing about what happened on Saturday night should change the way we look at this Sixers roster. But it sure was telling.
The situation in question occurred with about a minute-and-a-half remaining of a 115-108 loss to the Kings. Ben Simmons was driving the lane, and a teammate was spotting up in the corner. The defense collapsed, and Simmons reacted as he often does, spotting the open man and sending a pass straight into his shooting pocket for what seemed a pristine look at a potential go-ahead three-pointer.
Except, the open shooter was Shake Milton.
That is probably an unfair way to start an explanation of what Elton Brand needs to accomplish between now and Thursday’s trade deadline. There’s a chance that, three years from now, we look at Milton as the sort of player that represents the finishing touch on an NBA champion’s roster. There’s a reason why he and not some other young player was on the court with the Sixers locked in the closing minutes of a dogfight against a surprisingly plucky Kings team. He could easily become the sort of player who is the finishing touch of an NBA champion. The No. 54 overall player in this past year’s draft, Milton is a combo guard with a seven-foot wingspan who has connected on 10 of his first 25 NBA three-point attempts.
But he shouldn’t be on the court in crunch time. Not at this point in time. Not, at least, for a team that considers itself a legitimate NBA contender.
And let’s be clear: the Sixers should consider themselves exactly that. Because that is who they are. A contender. A legitimate one. They entered this current gauntlet with plenty to prove. If they played the exact opposite as they have played, we would certainly interpret it as a sign that they are not yet ready for prime time. So let’s be intellectually consistent and give them their due for playing as they have. They look ready for prime time. Thursday’s win over the Warriors wasn’t proof. But it was evidence.
Joel Embiid increasingly looks like his ceiling is Greatest Of All Time. Ben Simmons looks to be entering that phase of exponential improvement where promising young players become superstars before our eyes. The combination of them looks potent enough that the Sixers should tread very carefully this summer when it comes to their dealings with Jimmy Butler: the No. 1 mission of this organization should be to keep Simmons and Embiid happy and confident enough that they remain here for the duration of their careers. If that means parting ways with Butler, so be it.
They are good enough that they are within a couple of complementary pieces of stringing together three more wins of the sort we saw against the Warriors. But they are definitely still short. Take that possession we referenced at the top of this story. It ended as you might have expected, with a second-round rookie hesitating to take an open jumper and then driving himself into a contested layup attempt that was dead on its arrival at the rim.
Maybe that would have still been the case if you’d swapped out Milton for any of the number of veteran guards currently available on the trade market. But you can be darn sure that it would have improved the probability of such a situation resulting in points, instead of a transition opportunity going the other way. That is the reality at which Elton Brand is looking as he contemplates the first trade deadline of his career as an NBA general manager.
It’s an interesting situation -- since the advent of Tanking, this has been the most interesting time of the year for the Sixers and their fans. This year, though, is different. The stakes, I mean. During the Hinkie years, it was always about maximizing value three to five years from the present. Last year, it was about getting the roster to a point where it might challenge for a playoff spot.
The Sixers can be legitimate contenders. With Embiid and Simmons, they will have two of the top three players on the court at all times, against any team in the Eastern Conference playoffs. There’s an argument to be made that, with Jimmy Butler, they will always have three of the top four.