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May 31, 2019

This year's Sixers were closer to winning a title than we thought

In the moments after Kawhi Leonard's shot ended their season, it was hard to have any sort of rational discussion of the Sixers. When you lose a Game 7 in that way, with the cloud of head coaching rumors hanging over the team, assessing what went wrong and how close the team was took a backseat to the raw, emotional impact of defeat on the people in question.

But as we sit here today, following a Game 1 win in the NBA Finals for the Toronto Raptors, it seems fair to say that the Sixers were a lot closer to winning a title this season than anyone could have guessed coming into the playoffs.

Let's talk about why.

They had the personnel (and tactical choices) to make any team work

The NBA, as players and broadcasters alike love to tell you, is a make-or-miss league. Framing it this way makes it seem as though your team's fate will be determined by their ability to hit shots, but that is only half of the story here.

If you've spent any time watching the Raptors since they sent the Sixers packing in mid-May, you will have seen Toronto's role players playing roughly two or three levels above where they were in the Philly series. There is some game-to-game, series-to-series variance to account for, but Philadelphia's size can't be discounted as a factor here. They were a big, mean team to play against and they took one of Toronto's big strengths (the bench) and vaporized it.

Removing T.J. McConnell from the rotation after Game 1 of the Brooklyn series allowed the Sixers to put bench lineups on the floor that featured no one smaller than 6'8". With players like Jimmy Butler or James Ennis guarding the likes of Fred Van Vleet, Toronto's bench pacesetter found it impossible to get going. There are bad shooting slumps, and then there are series where an opposing team puts you in a straitjacket. The latter happened to Van Vleet against Philadelphia — he shot just 3/24 over the course of seven games.

These struggles, and many more around the team, were connected to how the Sixers decided to play Kawhi Leonard. Yes, Leonard was absolutely sensational and there are arguments to be made about whether they should have thrown doubles at him sooner/more often. But by baiting Toronto into isolation offense over and over again and living with the results, the Sixers kept other Raptors disconnected from the flow of the game, with shots coming at an irregular pace for the non-Leonard Raptors.

If that seems like a small thing, it's not. Rhythm is a fundamental part of a successful NBA offense, and when you're not even touching the ball, let alone shooting the ball for extended periods of time, it is hard to suddenly find your groove no matter how many reps you put in before this moment. Ben Simmons' ability to hang tough on Leonard allowed Philadelphia's other players to press their men, junking up the Toronto offense.

And by virtue of their personnel, the Sixers had the ability to make meaningful adjustments on the fly in a way many teams in the playoffs did not.

In Game 1 against the Warriors, Pascal Siakam came out and dominated in one of the most impressive Finals debuts in history. He was excellent in a comfortable Game 1 win over the Sixers in round two as well. Then the Sixers decided to switch Joel Embiid onto him, and Siakam shot under 40 percent from the field in Games 2-7. They conceded the above-the-break threes he's still poor at shooting and fought him in the areas where he loves to operate, with great results.

The Warriors, meanwhile, do not exactly have the same option available to them. Siakam shredded Draymond Green, one of the best defenders on the planet, in Game 1 on Thursday. Sticking Jordan Bell or Kevon Looney on Toronto's young perimeter star is not exactly going to produce the same impact.

All of this was the case, by the way, in a series where the Sixers had a sick and hurting Embiid. He was not himself on offense, and while you give credit to Marc Gasol for bothering him on defense, the series is likely over in five or six if Embiid doesn't come down with an out-of-nowhere illness 

Their holes were (seemingly) easy ones to fill

As much as the Sixers were crushed for their lack of depth all year, in the end they were not that far away from having a bench deep enough to win a title. There is an argument to be made that with one, or perhaps two meaningful additions, they would have been playing on Thursday night.

If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times — the Sixers invested a lot of resources in the backup center position and got absolutely nothing out of it when it mattered. Nobody should have been shocked when Boban Marjanovic got run off of the floor, or when Greg Monroe couldn't hold up against an elite offensive team. These were problems that were predictable in April, when I wrote this about the Monroe signing:

But the defense is the big story here for me. The Sixers keep adding big men without solving the problem they have beyond Embiid — I don't know if any of them can competently defend against the teams they need to beat in the postseason. You're either playing someone slow-footed or someone who is too young to make the proper reads.

Monroe did end up having utility in the playoffs, and swapping him in for Justin Patton was as helpful as you'd hope a roster move could be in early April. It was letting it get to that point that was the problem in the first place.

The Sixers needed to arrive in mid-April with a better plan, whether that was taking more time to develop Jonah Bolden at the five spot or searching for a young, athletic big who could give you a small chunk of minutes behind Embiid in the playoffs. You did not need a world beater — a guy like Khem Birch, who played for pennies in Orlando this season, would have been everything they needed on the back end.

Let's make this clear once again — Joel Embiid played 45 minutes in Game 7 and was a +10. If they had a backup who could have at least played Toronto to a standstill, the Sixers win easily. Monroe was a -9 in less than two minutes. Boban Marjanovic was a -18 in less than seven minutes in Game 6, which the Sixers won. That's how absurd this problem is and was.

(A counterpoint here — if the Sixers are going to invest max resources in this core moving forward, they should probably be able to get by even if a subpar backup center is on the floor. By hook or by crook, they should be able to avoid getting obliterated regardless of who the second big man is.)

And while Philadelphia's lack of guard depth wasn't as big of a problem with shortened rotations — and playing smaller guards might have neutralized their aforementioned advantages anyway — having a guard they could turn to off of the bench that could knock down threes would have been helpful to have in their back pocket. It's also the easiest sort of skill set to find, simply because there are more dudes out there who are in the low 6' range and can shoot a basketball than there are on the other end of the NBA height range.

Getting someone who can avoid being carved to pieces in 10 minutes or less of action should not be hard. With Embiid's health and wellness a constant concern, it's obviously a spot where the Sixers are going to invest some resources.

So where do the Sixers go from here?

This, of course, is the question that actually matters. No one is going to award the Sixers a theoretical championship, no one is going to feel any better because the Sixers made the Raptors work hard, and none of this will mean anything if the core breaks up this summer and Philadelphia is forced to start over.

That is where it all begins. The matchup problems Philadelphia presented were a direct function of their star-studded roster. There were no places for defenders to hide, as the Celtics did against the Sixers' role players last season. If the top of the roster changes, no one should head into next year thinking the Sixers should have real title aspirations.

But if the Sixers manage to bring back Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris next year, it will take very little (save for a clean bill of health) for them to barge into the title picture. With a core intact heading into the year, they can continue folding more pick-and-roll into the offense, they will have more defensive continuity, and they can develop counters, styles, and plays that they simply couldn't work on during the amount of time they had to close the year.

Another pivotal goal — they can fight for homecourt advantage beyond the first round, which they've fallen short of each of the past two years. That will take a better defensive commitment and, frankly, better effort late into the year than the Sixers proved they were willing to offer in the regular season.

But after a season filled with promises of turning it up a notch in the playoffs, the Sixers actually did that. The results are what they are, but the forces driving Philadelphia in the playoffs are all relatively sustainable. Their elite player was elite, the supporting cast locked in on defense, and they lost a series to a team up 1-0 in the Finals on the margins.

Those margins concern their stars, too. Slight improvements from Ben Simmons and a few more made shots from Harris would have swung the series. The Sixers need everyone's best to push further into the playoffs than they have the last two seasons, and it starts with their stars playing like stars.

The Sixers have a base that allows them to compete with anybody in the league. It has been a long time since anyone has been able to say that about the franchise. But there have been many teams like that in NBA history who went on to accomplish nothing. Turning this promise into hardware is the task in front of them.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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