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December 07, 2018

The Sixers' biggest obstacles to contention are all internal

Every time the Sixers lose to a team near the top of the league hierarchy, the people outside of the team want to convince you the sky is falling. Questions are raised about the long-term viability of building around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, fans want to fire head coach Brett Brown, demands are made to make trades or free agency acquisitions, the sky falls. So it goes.

Not all of these concerns are misplaced. Building a franchise around two players who are polar opposites in how they play and what they need around them is a monumental task. One plays slow, the other fast; both occupy the same spaces in the painted area; both are worse off floating around the perimeter, even if the reasons are much different. If there is stagnation over an extended period of time, something will have to give.

But that is really the crux of the issue here. Expectations were raised after a 52-win season and second-round appearance in the playoffs, but this group is in its second season of play together. Embiid, talented as he is, is still a relative novice at the sport he is dominating. Simmons is being asked to play a position he has never played full-time while trying to thrive in an NBA that rejects players with his glaring weakness. It should not surprise anyone that success is coming in fits and starts.

It is understandably frustrating to watch the Sixers get beaten by the best teams in the league. I think this is where the weight of "The Process" really shows. Most young teams don't have the top-end talent of the Sixers, but most young teams are given much more time to grow than the Sixers have been. Philadelphia made clear the goal of their race to the bottom was about procuring stars to win championships. It's just that the former does not instantly equal the latter, at least if you're relying on the draft to get there.

Before Wednesday's loss to the Toronto Raptors even happened, it was being described with all sorts of grand terms. A "litmus test," a "statement game," a "barometer of where they are in the league." And maybe the sentiment fits. It just all seems a bit rushed, a bit overzealous to spell out the impending doom of the Sixers because of a basketball game on December 5.

Keep in mind that this Raptors team is not exactly some flash in the pan or a big surprise that came out of nowhere. They swapped out a four-time All Star for a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and a former Finals MVP in the offseason, picking up a good veteran wing as an added bonus. Kyle Lowry, the elder statesman up north, is his seventh season just with the Raptors, having spent the six seasons before that with Memphis and Houston. Even a guy like Jonas Valanciunas has been in Toronto for seven seasons, settling into a bench role to allow Serge Ibaka and a leaner starting five to thrive.

The point is this: Toronto has been through a whole hell of a lot to get where they are today. You can say the same to varying degrees about other competitors for the East crown. Giannis Antetokounmpo is six seasons deep. Kyrie Irving has been to multiple Finals thanks to a partnership with LeBron James. Look behind the Sixers at Indiana, and you see Victor Oladipo leading the charge, thriving on his third team after being viewed as not enough help to get Russell Westbrook and the Thunder where they need to go.

NBA history is jam-packed with lessons about the value of time and experience. Pick from the list of the game's iconic figures — LeBron James, Michael Jordan, and onward down the line — and more often than not the trajectory is the same. It would be wrong to say failure is necessary to get where the Sixers need to go, but at the very least it should be expected.

For the longest time, Philadelphia has simply been fighting for NBA relevancy. Weirdly enough, it is their current GM you can point to as an example of this. Elton Brand represented one of the biggest free agency acquisitions in recent franchise history when he left the Clippers to come here, and he was in the process of returning from a devastating Achilles injury when they got him on board. This has not been a destination franchise, period, predominantly because the Sixers have had no one here that excited other players to join up with.

The Sixers have achieved the hardest part, which is getting the stars that good players know and want to play with. They are no longer a fun young story, which is tough for Embiid and Simmons to deal with at this moment but good for their chances in free agency. Pro athletes are aware of upside, but unless you're moving to L.A. to make movies, most want to see tangible proof they can win with you before committing their future to the cause. Philly is on the way there.

None of this, obviously, excuses the very real concerns you should have about the viability of the core moving forward. Jimmy Butler has been great, but the concerns with him have always been long-term, long after the honeymoon period is over. Some fans have made an effort to point to Antetokounmpo's success without a jumper as a blueprint for Simmons, but the context is not the same. Milwaukee's young star is on a team of his own, not paired with a traditional, post-up center, and will have the roster catered to his strengths and weaknesses for as long as he is there. The physical gifts are not the same either.

Philadelphia's braintrust must prove they are capable of making something other than "no duh" moves. Swapping two role players for Butler, even role players as good and beloved as Robert Covington and Dario Saric, was a pretty easy decision. But the Sixers now have to nail the moves where they've failed since Bryan Colangelo took over: on the margins. Brand has done nothing to warrant lack of faith so far, but he has the same inexperience as his young stars and is tasked with finding players that need to fit around very unique stars. Who knows if Brett Brown is the guy to combine all those talents once they're assembled, anyway.

And a major question, albeit one harder to pinpoint, is exactly how good Philadelphia's ownership is. There's evidence that they lean toward the "too involved" end of the spectrum, with Joshua Harris involving himself in the Butler talks specifically. Front office personnel will tell you privately they're great and prepared to spend deep into the luxury tax if it means building a winner, but that's nothing but talk until we see it happen. Ownership influences every level of the team, for better or for worse.

Still, it would just be nice to talk about the Sixers without every waking moment being treated as a harbinger of doom. Sometimes a December loss to the No. 1 seed in the East is just that, and not proof the Sixers are going to top out as second-round fodder for the duration of the Embiid/Simmons era. Sometimes you get your butt handed to you in the playoffs by the same opponent for years, with the sting of failure shaping the man and the player you become in the years that follow.

Following a team during the social media era might convince you otherwise, but the story of the post-Process Sixers has hardly even started. There will be nights where they come out and blow a playoff team off the court in the opening quarter. There will be nights when they look like they're trying to play with their hands tied behind their backs. And yes, there will be envy of how far along some of their competition is in comparison.

But I promise you there is plenty of time to figure things out, and that you'll probably enjoy watching them a lot more if you keep that fact in mind.

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