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May 12, 2019

Sixers' heartbreaking Game 7 loss kicks off summer of uncertainty

Sixers NBA
Joel Embiid Kawhi Leonard Dan Hamilton/USA Today

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard, right, is embraced by Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid at the end of Game 7 of the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena.

TORONTO — No one hands you an instruction manual that tells you how to respond to moments of great adversity in your life. When Kawhi Leonard's shot bounced four times on the rim before killing off the Sixers' season, there was an instant, emotional reaction from Philadelphia's best player. He cried when embraced by Toronto's Marc Gasol at mid-court, he cried as he walked back to the locker room, and he stood by the entrance of Philadelphia's locker room long after most of his teammates had left, still wearing his full uniform.

The emotion on Embiid's face was about watching the opportunity they had in front of them slip away in an instant. But look elsewhere around the room, and you begin to understand what the repercussions of a loss like this could look like.

To borrow an oft-used phrase from Brett Brown, where do you begin? There is the mercurial star free agent in Jimmy Butler, the deadline acquisition you paid a heavy price for in Tobias Harris, the coach who was fighting job security rumors the day before the biggest game the franchise has had in 18 years, and that's all before you get to guys like JJ Redick, indispensable to Philadelphia's team these last two seasons.

Redick has seen heartbreak before, but he will be 35 in June and knows there are not many of these opportunities left for him, in Philadelphia or elsewhere. He could barely muster a response when he was asked how it made him feel to watch Embiid weep on the court after the game, with Redick battling tears of his own in the locker room.

Eventually, he found the words to describe what it's like to see your season washed away with the flick of a wrist.

"We play a team sport, and the beauty of team sports is having connections with other people. It's what makes our game beautiful, it's why I enjoy playing basketball," Redick said. "It's not just teammates, it's coaches, support staff, trainers, people in the video room working 18-hour days during the season. You go down the list, you're experiencing it not just with 14 other guys on the court, but with 15-75 other guys along the way...they're an extension of your family, essentially."

Families don't deal with this level of uncertainty. Each decision from the individuals and the organization will reverberate in ways that are hard to plan for, bending the arc of the franchise moving forward.

The most pressing issue in the immediate term is what the Sixers will decide to do with their head coach. Rumors have swirled in recent days that a second-round loss would spell Brown's doom, and if the Sixers are interested in changing the guard after Game 7, that is the first order of business to take care of. A new man would need to be chosen prior to the draft and free agency get underway, in order to help build synergy between the various parties involved in building a contender.

That new man, by the way, would likely have the freedom to wipe away many of the staffers in place to build the backroom staff in their own image. Nobody is safe there — lead assistants, player-development staffers, video coordinators, sports science crew, there are dozens of people instrumental to the day-to-day process of the Sixers whose jobs would suddenly be jeopardy.

In the aftermath of Game 7, Brown had no interest in addressing the noise.

"Stuff like that, we've talked internally a lot, the club can respond to that," Brown told reporters at the podium on Sunday.

The holdovers from Brown's earliest days, the guys who have known Brown through thick and thin, are scarcer in quantity these days. There is Embiid, the longest-tenured Sixers player, and T.J. McConnell, whose role vanished when times got tough in the playoffs. Brown is affable and proved he was capable of making impactful adjustments this postseason, but there are all sorts of variables to consider here.

Consider one hypothetical — Ben Simmons is represented by an agency notorious for snatching up power wherever they can take it. The former No. 1 overall pick arrived as one of the most-hyped prospects in recent memory, and in spite of accomplishing plenty in two seasons has watched as the team has catered predominantly to the needs of Embiid. Would they view this as an opportunity to influence the complexion of the team by speaking up for a candidate who wanted to empower him more?

And then the conversation drifts naturally into what the free agents in Philadelphia are looking for. Tobias Harris has said he wants to be somewhere that wants him, after bouncing around the league the last eight seasons. Butler wants to win at all costs, as he reminds you at every opportunity. Easy needs to meet on the surface.

But what really drives these men? That's harder to say. Imagine you are Butler or Harris, with numerous suitors lining up to pay you big-time money this summer. You have been put under a blinding spotlight these last few months, called the greatest starting five in the league that isn't Golden State. And at the end of it all, you still fall short in round two, with all the criticism and second-guessing that comes in that moment.

Is that really a preferable situation to you, as the third or fourth most important player on the team, than one where you can make the same money, compete with fewer expectations, and expect to command touches befitting of the best or second-best player on a team? 

Those are the sort of questions Butler and Harris will have to answer in July. It was not an appropriate time to ask them following Game 7, as they spoke in hushed tones about suffering the worst defeat of their lives. And in that moment, they put on the faces of good men and good teammates, embracing their brothers in arms for one last time this season.

"They have so much potential to be great. And the best thing about them is they want their teammates to be just as great as they are. They're constantly working," Butler said of Embiid and Simmons. "Those are the type of cornerstones you want in an organization. They compete, they hate to lose, and they bring it every single day. I've got nothing but good things to say about both of them."

"Obviously they're going to continue to get better, they're going to go down in history, and they're going to do some special things."

The version of this team we watched take the floor for Game 7 will never exist again. Even if the roster remained exactly the same, they will have been altered by the crushing blow of defeat, the growth of additional experience, and the impact of Father Time, who will be kinder to some than he is to others.

The looming question as we sit here today is just how different they will be by the time training camp rolls around in September. Four bounces on a rim could determine the future of countless people, including the stories we will one day tell about Embiid and Simmons' place within the history of the sport they cherish so much.

It is a cruel and beautiful game in that way.

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