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July 08, 2021

Season in review: Assessing Daryl Morey's first year in charge of the Sixers

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Daryl_Morey_1_Hornets_Sixers_Frese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey.

Many of you have been unwilling or unable to think about basketball since the Sixers bellyflopped out of the playoffs in late June. I can't say I blame you, but it is past time for us to take a look back on a season that, by and large, featured plenty of positive developments for the franchise.

So before we dive headfirst into the offseason and where they go from here, we'll be taking a look back on how this season reflects on the major players involved, starting with one Daryl Morey.

What Morey got right

The 2019-20 Sixers were a bizarre, ill-fitting group that very obviously needed to be ripped apart and reassembled. Morey wasted absolutely no time doing so, sending out the two most immediately movable guys on draft night for players who helped Philadelphia return to starting-lineup dominance.

With the benefit of hindsight, parting with an extra pick to turn Josh Richardson into Seth Curry looks like a stroke of genius. Curry was almost certainly Philadelphia's second-best player in their second-round loss against Atlanta, defensive issues and all, and he offered supercharged spacing whenever he was on the floor. At times last season, Curry and Joel Embiid flashed the sort of chemistry that allowed Embiid and JJ Redick to carry the offense during stretches of their time together, and with Curry under contract for another two years, the Sixers will reap the benefits of increased time together. 

Trading Al Horford fell under, "Great trade, who did they get?" territory for a lot of fans, and there's a chance they get burned on lightly-protected pick years down the line. However, Danny Green slid easily into a starter's role for this year's Sixers, turning in another excellent shooting season and helping to provide the stability Joel Embiid needed around him in the post.

Detractors have pointed to Morey as a cold, calculating executive willing to sacrifice cohesion for shots at bigger talent. That version of Morey may emerge in the years to come, but building proper chemistry around their stars was a driving force behind his initial moves, and it paid off almost immediately. Around the margins, Morey's bets on veteran help also ended up paying off — Dwight Howard turned into a pumpkin in the playoffs, but he had as good a season as anyone could have hoped for out of a backup big man in his mid-30s, adding energy on the floor and from the bench on a team that seemed to enjoy playing with one another.

Drafting Tyrese Maxey, who many viewed as a lottery talent heading into the draft, may not have required genius-level intellect and scouting from Morey. But he was ultimately the guy to pull the trigger on a guard who flashed in a big way during his rookie season, so much so that he was trusted with important playoff touches and reps in do-or-die moments for Philadelphia. Isaiah Joe looks the part of a reliable bench shooter if they can round him into form as a defender, and Paul Reed may turn out to be a major steal late in the second round, winning G-League MVP during the developmental league's brief bubble tournament.

In short, Morey's first year on the job was defined by getting the obvious stuff right and following through on ideas ("surround Embiid and Simmons with shooters") that had been popular for years. Given where the Sixers were before he got here, it should not be taken for granted that Morey made the team better by simply following through on conventional wisdom. 

What Morey missed on

How you feel about Morey's first year largely rests on whether you hold him accountable for the Sixers not executing a deal for another star, the sort of player who might have alleviated their concerns in the playoffs. It was not for lack of trying — the Sixers were in conversations for difference makers throughout the season, but they ultimately fell short of obtaining one.

For a variety of reasons — old grudges and different preferences primarily — not executing a deal for James Harden feels a bit out of Morey's control. The Rockets were interested in a picks package over one that would have centered a deal around Ben Simmons, and it wasn't for lack of trying that a deal fell short. In fact, you could argue that Morey's willingness to trade Simmons before it had become widely popular with the fanbase is a mark in his favor, a sign that he was aware of how things could (and did) go south in the months to come.

Philadelphia's deadline activity, on the other hand, is another matter entirely. Not coming up with Kyle Lowry is defensible enough on its own, given the unreasonable demands reported from markets around the league and the long-term downside the Sixers might have had to absorb if they executed that deal. Lowry is going to get a big chunk of money this summer, and while his presence on the roster may have allowed Philadelphia to explore a different sort of return in Simmons trade packages, there was no certainty they'd be able to keep him if his heart was somewhere other than South Philadelphia.

Where Morey deserves the most criticism is in the failure to upgrade (or at least diversify) the bench. George Hill looked like a savvy pickup at the time and might still come good if they pick up his option for next season, but he was a man without a plan after a late-season return from injury, ineffective and at times actively harmful on offense during their playoff run. Doc Rivers deserves plenty of blame for his refusal to try Dwight Howard alternatives down the stretch. But Morey was unable to come up with a stretch big to fill out the rotation and give them options to play next to Ben Simmons in bench units, ultimately leading to the same toxic combinations that failed them all year getting burn in the playoffs.

A look at the two contenders left standing reveals moves on the margin that were there to help without compromising Philadelphia's future. PJ Tucker made his way to Milwaukee for a net loss of zero first-round picks. The Suns got Torrey Craig from those same Bucks for nothing more than cash considerations, scooping up a rotation player for effectively nothing. For a team that Rivers complained was short on size (and really, defensive options) in Round 2, those sort of moves could have made a difference, even if a small one, as the Sixers lost a seven-game squeaker to Atlanta.

Ultimately, I think Morey's sins (insofar as he has any) are plenty forgivable for a guy in his first year on the job. Using this year as an assessment period is something Morey and Rivers both claimed they wanted to do heading in, and being able to push this team to the No. 1 seed without sacrificing much future equity is ultimately a huge positive.

Where to go from here

The biggest question in front of Morey is the same one being debated in every corner of NBA internet — will he trade Ben Simmons, and what can he get in return for him if so? Every major decision the Sixers have to make is currently secondary to the Simmons dilemma. It's hard to fill in the blanks and make corresponding moves when one of the team's core pieces might be gone.  

Given Morey's willingness to put Simmons in trade packages last season, in addition to the team's season-long pursuit of a guard to round out the roster, Simmons' eventual exit feels somewhat inevitable. But as many have pointed out (including this writer), that doesn't necessarily mean he'll be on the move this offseason. It could be a move that happens in-season, after Simmons has some time to rehabilitate his value with, at the very least, more normal basketball being played in 2021-22.

Everything will flow from the Simmons domino dropping, even in the unlikely event Morey decides that he'll ride the Embiid/Simmons combo until the wheels fall off. Philadelphia isn't wielding an arsenal of picks anymore, owning just No. 28 and 50 in this year's draft, but they have promising young players who are either good upside bets to keep around or potential trade chips should the Sixers choose to pursue a difference maker without dealing a star. Morey has options and an MVP-level player on hand, and those are the two most important things any NBA executive can have.

This is yet another pivotal offseason for a franchise that seems to have had more of those than any team in the league over the last half-decade. They are closer to a title now by virtue of their best player making the leap to the league's truly elite tier, and now it is up to people like Morey to provide the assistance Joel Embiid deserves to chase a title.

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