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March 31, 2020

Would a canceled NBA season help or hurt the Sixers?

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4_Matisse_Thybulle_Ben_Simmons_sixers_76ersvsCeltics_KateFrese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Sixers head coach Brett Brown talking to Ben Simmons (25) and Matisse Thybulle (22).

Each day that passes during the COVID-19 pandemic brings more doom and gloom, even when the outbreak itself is not being discussed. In the sports world, events are being canceled left and right, with Wimbledon — an event that has not been canceled since World War II — the latest victim of the strange time we find ourselves in.

It stands to reason, then, that the NBA might eventually go the same route. So far, the league has resisted official comments and timelines for a continued season, choosing instead to leak potential return timeframes and neutral-site locations to reporters around the country. But those leaks have come as cities around North America impose their own restrictions on events, public interaction, and the ability to live our everyday lives, with some cities mandating restrictions all the way through the month of June. 

As much as some people would like to think so, sports are not a special entity exempt from the consequences of this virus. Cancellation is the last-resort option, but it's one that we may have to grapple with sooner than later.

So, dear reader, I ask you this — if it comes down to it, how are the Sixers impacted by a canceled season? It isn't all bad, but it is certainly not a net positive for the hometown franchise.

Help: Ben Simmons' back can properly heal

The season has been on hold for so long that I would not blame anyone for forgetting about the health of Philadelphia's roster, but at the point the year stopped, we had been given absolutely no clarity on the state of Ben Simmons' back injury that took him out of the lineup. If there is a major silver lining of the NBA hiatus for Philly, it is that one of their cornerstone players has been allowed to rest and recover without needing to expose him to additional risk. 

When PhillyVoice spoke with a local board-certified therapist about Simmons' nerve impingement, NovaCare's Roxanne Smith explained that knowing he had a nerve impingement does not necessarily explain to us what the root cause of the issue is/was. 

"What happens when you have a nerve impingement is there’s some type of injury where a nerve gets compressed or pinched. Many things can happen and occur to have that type of injury," Smith told PhillyVoice in late February. "It could be that he was hit in the back and twisted suddenly, it could be a disc that’s inflamed, it could be many different reasons why that would occur. Short version of the story is when you have something like that, there’s a lot of inflammation involved."

The media finally got to speak with Simmons about his back before their game against the Pistons that would end up being Philly's last for a while, and he didn't exactly offer much clarity on the root of the problem.

"It’s just something I’m rehabbing now. There’s no timeline on it, so whenever I’m back, I’m back," Simmons said. "Whenever I’m 100 percent, I’m coming back. I’m not here to sit out and just wait. But when I’m healthy, I’ll be playing."

This was all setting up for a situation where the Sixers might have to take a stupid risk in the hope Simmons would help save their season and people's jobs. Now the decision is out of their hands. I suppose in these crazy times, that's a positive.

Hurt: Win-now moves more painful with no playoffs

Two seasons ago, the Sixers had every reason to believe they were starting to ramp up for a long period of contention, or at least moderate playoff success. They had Simmons and Joel Embiid, developing role players, lots of cap space, and assets to make moves if they saw fit. What they have left is Simmons and Embiid, some very expensive (and overpaid) role players, and not much else.

For whatever reason, the Sixers' brain trust decided last season was the time to start pushing their chips in, months after Simmons and Embiid had played in just their first playoff run together in 2018. Was it because they don't believe the big man's body will hold up over the long-term? Is it because they see how many young players have asked out when not given proper help? Or is it as simple as seeing chances to upgrade the team that they simply misread in the moment?

You can offer defenses of each individual move in some form or fashion, but pushing their chips in increased the stakes for Philly in the short-term. If the opportunity to compete for a title this season is taken away from them, the Sixers have harmed their long-term sustainability for absolutely no payoff.

No decision will loom larger than choosing to pay Al Horford a boatload of money to play alongside and serve as a backup plan to Joel Embiid. Horford will be 34 years old in June, and the signs of physical decline have been rampant already. When the Sixers committed that money to him in the first place, they did so with the understanding that they would (hopefully) be paying for high-level play up front while suffering through a decline on the back-end. They are now faced with a situation where the best version of this group is the disappointing team that didn't get to finish the season.

This would be, to put it lightly, a complete disaster. 

Help: Perspective for young cornerstones on the preciousness of chance to compete

Perhaps this is just wishful thinking, since the Sixers suffered the most devastating possible loss to end their 2018-19 season and still suffered through major bouts of lethargy during the 2019-20 campaign. But just like the rest of us, this situation brought on by COVID-19 will give Sixers players a healthy dose of perspective about how quickly things can crumble and an opportunity can vanish in front of their eyes.

When you hear former greats look back on their careers, the common thread between players who won championships and those who fell short is the shared understanding of how rare it is to contend. Even all-time winners like Michael Jordan had to experience sustained runs of failure before reaching the summit. The Sixers have players who have experienced long-term playoff disappointment, but the two guys leading the charge are still in the early stages of internalizing the pain that comes with watching your season end.

This would be an unconventional, unprecedented way for their season to end, no doubt. But if it is not a basketball lesson, at the very least it is a life lesson. Through no fault of their own, the goal the Sixers have been working toward has been pushed back indefinitely and may disappear altogether. It is another reminder that their lives and careers are not pre-destined to be great, and that all they can do is prepare their best to meet the moments when they come.

This is not to say that a takeaway from living through a pandemic should be putting more focus on Ben Simmons' jumper or Joel Embiid's conditioning. But as it should be for all of us, it's a good wake-up call to value things we take for granted. We are not getting this time back. 

Hurt: No evidence (good or bad) of roster's playoff viability 

From the moment they began to sell the public on their vision last summer, Elton Brand and Co. went to great lengths to tell you that this was a team built with the playoffs in mind. 

“I think this team is designed for the playoffs,” Brett Brown said following their Christmas Day win over Milwaukee. “I believe that the road we have traveled so far has been erratic at times. Whether it’s the infrequency of our five players playing together, whether it’s navigating through some zone, at times some lost leads, and it’s like you’re under a microscope trying to move this team forward and trying to get it whole. I think that the landing spot is exciting.”

“Can we keep the boys in the boat, continue to develop, improve, execute, stay healthy, I can feel this...We just ended, in my world, our first third, we take it through the start of the year through Christmas and Christmas to the All-Star break, then All-Star break run home. So we will critically assess what we do in this middle third and try to move us forward, but to date, I like some of the things I’ve seen against the best teams.”

The stretch run isn't coming. The proof of concept will not be put to the test. And that's a problem for the Sixers even if you believe they would have failed on the playoff stage as they have during the regular season.

Whenever this NBA offseason actually starts — and that, I suppose, is as hard to figure out as anything else — the Sixers would ideally be heading into it with some clarity on the moves that need to be made. Perhaps they would learn Playoff Horford is still a real thing, or perhaps he would continue to look like Will Ferrell in Old School, running around a children's party with a tranquilizer dart in his neck.

In either case, the Sixers would have a clearer idea of whether they needed to abandon ship or not. At the moment, that is not the case. The same group who put together the roster, who refused to entertain talks for their major players at the deadline, who has been preaching the message of playoff focus, could easily sit in their offices and say to themselves that they didn't have enough evidence to change the status quo.

Even if the season was canceled and they decided to move on from Horford in the summer anyway, they would be doing so from a position of ultimate weakness, with the enduring memory of his time in Philly attached to a putrid regular season for the veteran big and the team. Josh Richardson's long-term viability is not really in question, but he would be closer to free agency without contributing to a playoff run, and it is much harder to pay him to stay with the expensive contracts Philly already has on the books.

Philadelphia's big-picture needs don't seem that hard to assess, but the Sixers have not exactly followed conventional wisdom building out around their stars to this point. A playoff assessment of this group matters a great deal. 

Hurt: No playoff reps for young role players Sixers need to step forward 

Odds are that the three-man group of Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz, and Shake Milton probably would have had a terrible time in the playoffs this season, hampered by their own inexperience and exploited by coaches who can prepare exclusively for one team and one roster. It would not have been an indictment on any of them if the lights were a little too bright for them.

Development of young talent is about to become even more crucial in Philadelphia, where suddenly they are out of cap room and premium assets to either move in trades or use on high-level young talents. Embiid and Simmons will be the driving force behind everything, good or bad, but the difference between being a second-round out and a potential contender are these players on the margins.

On the whole, this season was a success for the Sixers as it relates to bringing young players along. Korkmaz is finally a legitimate rotation player and is locked in for another year on a minimum contract. Thybulle's defensive prowess is as great as they could have hoped it would be. And Milton, whose early season was derailed by injury, emerged as a potential starter (and at least a useful role player) for this team before everything went up in smoke.

But the loss of playoff reps would be significant for all of them. If they are going to become contributors on a real-deal contender, it helps to get that early experience on the game's brightest, toughest stage, just like it helps for rookies to get their first experience playing against NBA speed and strength after dominating in college or overseas.

For now, that chance is still on the table. But the writing is on the wall that this problem isn't going away, which might push a valuable experience a year into the future.

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