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May 10, 2018

Sixers players stress desire to keep same team together following playoff exit

BOSTON — Asking professional athletes long-term questions in the wake of a crushing loss is a pretty surefire way to guarantee you get no answer at all. Most of the Sixers were primarily interested in getting away from the glare of the spotlight for a bit once their season ended, and impending free agent JJ Redick confessed the only thing he's able to think about right now is being a better family member to his loved ones.

"I feel like I haven't seen my kids in like two months, I'm looking forward to seeing them on a normal basis," said Redick. "We'll deal with the next couple months when we get closer to it. I've been like a part-time dad and a part-time husband for the last couple months, so I'm just looking forward to spending some time with my family."

Redick is the poster child for the uncertainty facing the Sixers in free agency this summer. A nailed-on starter and one of the most important players on the team, given what his spacing means for both of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, there's no guarantee he's suiting up for Philadelphia next season. The Sixers are going to go all out for a max free agent this summer, a strategy they've been hinting at since Redick and Amir Johnson signed their expensive deals last summer, and was further strengthened when they declined Jahlil Okafor's rookie option at the end of October.

And while Redick remains uncertain about his future, it seems that many of his teammates feel something special about this group heading into the summer, suggesting they'd be okay if the gang just reconvened in one piece for training camp this September.

The promise of what's to come

Not every player's opinion is treated equally when it comes to building your team. There's a reason people talk about LeBron James as if he has been the GM of all the teams he has played for — his dominant play and leverage over front offices has prompted even strong-willed executives to base their decisions off of his desires.

Nobody on the Sixers is on that level quite yet, but if anyone has a right to speak up and made themselves heard on personnel matters, it's Embiid. The franchise has already committed to paying him like a franchise anchor, and in a gutsy Game 5 performance against the Celtics, Embiid nearly dragged Philadelphia to victory all by himself. When a guy like that talks, you listen.

So this bit from his postgame presser, volunteered as part of an answer about the relative success of the season, should make a few ears perk up in the front office and around the league:

We have a great group of guys, and I hope they're all back next year. We understand each other, we play well with each other, me and Ben we have a lot of room to grow. I was thinking about it just looking at [Kevin Durant] and [Russell] Westbrook, what they did their first season together, I think they only won like 28 games or something like that. 

Looking at what we did, we got a bright future. At the end of the game, [Simmons] came up to me and showed me his hands and he was like, 'There's going to be a lot of rings on these.' And I was like, for sure. We've got a bright future, and we're going to be fine. But I'm excited to learn from this.

The major takeaway from most people was to hone in on the Durant/Westbrook comparison and the future aspirations, but the prior part about keeping the larger group together seems just as important. Philadelphia really hit their stride once they added the bench shooting depth provided by Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli down the stretch — and thanks to a friendly schedule, it must be noted — and there's a case to be made they win even more games if they just had this group of players together from the start of the year.

An offseason of work is only going to make Embiid and Simmons better and more prepared to lead this team, so many of the questions about how good they can be in 2018-19 will hinge on how fluid the situation around them becomes. 

However, there will be an injection of some chaos next year once Markelle Fultz is factored into the team's plans, because the team is going to give him every chance to succeed or fail in major minutes next season. It might necessitate a step back in the short-term to play him alongside both of Simmons and Embiid, which creates the argument for stability at every other spot on the floor and down the bench.

Money will be a decisive factor here. The Sixers certainly aren't going to hang on to the likes of Marco Belinelli if it costs them an opportunity at signing LeBron James. The chase for a big fish will take priority over everything else, even if the current players feel they are capable of much more.

The experience of this loss and going through a hostile environment like Boston's will shape this group for years to come, a fact Simmons was happy to share with reporters late Wednesday night.

"I think we were in a hole too deep that we put ourselves in," said Simmons after Game 5. "Coming into this building, the fans are amazing. Here, they’re loud, they talk a lot of shit to you, so on that basis it’s hard to play here. At the same time, I’m telling my teammates to give it everything they have. That’s all I can ask for, and I think I got that from everybody. We have to move forward, get better and look ahead now."

A feeling of something special in the locker room

The Sixers were fortunate enough to have basketball experience of all shapes and sizes on their roster this season, from Redick's war stories from a bunch of good playoff teams to Dario Saric's fairly extensive career as a young European. They've been around the block enough to distinguish between a team that is simply talented and one that genuinely feeds off each other.

If you watched how the Sixers played this year, you could certainly see they're much closer to the latter. Ball movement was the key to Philadelphia's success, spearheaded by excellent passers like Simmons and Saric. A culture of unselfishness was established from the get-go.

It continued all the way through Game 5's final minutes, even with the season on the line. After a dominant third quarter, Embiid didn't just bunker down and ignore his teammates in the fourth quarter of their final game, finding Philadelphia's open players on the perimeter when Boston left gaps for him to hit with passes.

The recipient of that pass went overboard praising his guys after the game, noting that it was an honor to have the opportunity to play alongside 

"This is maybe one of the best group of people I ever played [with] in my basketball career," said Saric. "Good group of people, tough, they want to win, you know? Basketball, some players will come here, some players [leave]. I don't know what will happen next year, that's a question for the front office. But I can say I really enjoyed to play with these kinds of guys ... I really enjoy everybody in their own ways and parts of life, and it was great pleasure to be part of this group."

Unlike some other teams and players around the league who have delusions of grandeur after falling in a series, the Sixers came off as a grounded group, fully aware that Boston earned the result they got. To a man, every Sixers player stressed the need for improvement and development as a group to get to where they want to go. Compare that to a team like Washington, who had players saying they were the "better team" after Toronto bounced them from the playoffs, and there appears to be more room for optimism about how they'll bounce back and learn from the loss.

From their franchise anchor battling through fatigue to backup point guard T.J. McConnell emerging as an unlikely hero in the series, the Sixers were resilient against Boston, despite coming up short. They believe that feeling is translatable to results down the road, provided they all put in the work to get there.

"[We showed] heart. The main thing is we never backed down, we have so much to give in this locker room," said Robert Covington. "We didn't back down and played a great series, unfortunately, we came up on the short end of it, but regardless there's nothing for us to be ashamed of. We can turn this thing around and we can be contenders for a long time in this conference."

The work left to do

Do the musings of a few players in the wake of a crushing loss mean much in the grand scheme of things? Maybe not. The fate of the franchise will ultimately be decided by the development of Simmons and Embiid, the team's ability to lure another star, and Fultz's trajectory as a basketball player in one direction or another.

But hearing the Sixers talk about one another following Game 5, it didn't feel like the usual canned quotes you get from guys who are trying to wrap their minds around a season coming to a close. These guys genuinely like and enjoy being around one another, which has helped them persevere through adversity whenever it showed up at their doorstep.

In what will go down as one of the most fitting ends to a press conference of the entire NBA season, the final question posed to Embiid at the podium Wednesday evening centered around a simple question: why were you so quick to embrace "The Process" as a nickname and part of your identity?

Embiid spelled it out quite clearly:

"Coach, we stayed with him, his system, look at what he did this year. We went from 28 to 52 wins. The Process is never going to end," said Embiid. "It's a process to get to the playoffs, we did it, it's a process to get to the Conference Finals, we didn't do it. So next year, that's definitely our goal, and then it's another one to get to the Finals and win it. And when you actually win [the Finals], you start the following year and do it over again. The Process is never going to end. 

"Looking at where we are, it paid off. We have a bright future, a great coaching staff, and I hope that everybody is going to be here for a long time."

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