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May 15, 2023

The Sixers have re-created the apathy they spent 10 years trying to avoid

The last 10 years of Sixers basketball were supposed to be about erasing fan anger and disinterest. They may be back to the now.

Like a steady drumbeat, the same response echoed each time the 2022-23 Sixers picked up a signature win, an individual honor, or showed a level of toughness that separated the team from previous editions. Sure, that was nice, that was a good win, and that was a cool honor for Joel Embiid, but...

"Talk to me when they do something in the second round."

A version of that quote has appeared under every story about this team, in every barbershop conversation about the Sixers, in every sports radio debate and podcast conversation, every tweet, text, and post about this team. From October through mid-May, even the most diehard of Sixers fans struggled to summon real belief in this team. For a while, you could have said it was because they were lost in a fall calendar of Eagles and Phillies dominance. 

But the truth ended up being in that quoted sentence — there are a lot of people in Philadelphia and beyond who think these Sixers are studio gangsters. The glare of the playoffs has proven them correct. And 10 years after Sam Hinkie was brought in to strip this thing down to the nails, a decade after a plan was set in motion to pull the Sixers off the mediocrity treadmill, the Sixers find themselves on a slightly glitzier hamster wheel.

We can re-litigate the mistakes in team-building and organizational structure for years on end, and many people will in order to cope with this reality. There are dozens of what-ifs to hang onto if fantasy world is your thing. What if Bryan Colangelo isn't ushered into a job, wreaking havoc in the lead chair? What if the Sixers had drafted someone other than Markelle Fultz? What if the Sixers had simply kept Mikal Bridges? What if the Sixers had humored the Spurs' demand of Ben Simmons in 2018 trade talks for Kawhi Leonard? What if they chose Jimmy Butler over Simmons? It's a choose-your-own-adventure novel filled with options to make you believe this project could have been salvaged with just one correct move among many big swings taken by several lead executives. But none of the daydreams overwrite history or change the stakes of the present moment.

Here is the reality in 2023 — the Sixers have one of the best basketball players on planet Earth, and cannot be confident that said player will be prepared to lead them at the time they need him most. And Doc Rivers summed up this problem while showing sympathy for Joel Embiid, almost pleading to the universe to give the big man one fully healthy playoff push to prove his worth.

"The kid deserves a break, he really does," Rivers said following the Game 7 loss to Boston. "He deserves one shot to just be 100 percent throughout. I don't know if we would have won the series, but I would just love to have him one time where we don't have issues. I haven't had that opportunity and Joel hasn't had that opportunity, and it sucks for everybody."

Feeling sympathy for Embiid (or even the desire to see him entertain on the biggest stage) does not change the relentless creep of playoff doom. It has come in many flavors, from broken faces to knee ligament issues to hand problems, each playing a part in his ineffectiveness beyond Round 1. This is a results-based business — understanding the why doesn't mean we can simply wave away the what. What shows in the history books up to this point is a franchise leader who hasn't gotten it done, as supporting stars and role players have changed and even as his personal mastery of the game has improved. You do not want to be the star player who people feel bad for.

Most players at this level who have been humbled on the grandest stages had achieved much more than Embiid has at age 29. By the time Dirk Nowitzki's Mavericks had their spirit broken by the We Believe Warriors in 2007, the German forward had already led the Mavs to multiple Conference Finals appearances and a Finals runner-up despite playing in an insanely tough Western Conference. Giannis is about 3.5 months younger than Embiid and has a championship under his belt. Most of the greats have at least had a flash of greatness in the deeper rounds of the playoffs by the time they hit their late 20s.

The concern at this point would be that Embiid is on the trajectory of a player like David Robinson, a stat-stuffing, uber-talented Hall of Fame big whose peak is best remembered for being ripped in half by Hakeem Olajuwon, the Rockets great who took Robinson's MVP trophy and essentially beat him over the head with it in a 1995 playoff matchup. Robinson was the same age during that series as Embiid is today, and was at least able to get his team to the Conference Finals before suffering the humiliation that defined his career until Tim Duncan walked through the door and helped him to become a champion.

This is not to belittle Embiid's talent or achievements (or Robinson's!) up to this point, nor is it a case for tearing this thing down, as he has accomplished far more as a basketball player than I ever will covering him. If they moved him tomorrow, the franchise would lose all relevance they have for the foreseeable future. But there is a foundational, franchise-defining difference between being a Robinson-level star and an inner-circle legend. The hope over the last few years, and certainly when the Sixers began their rebuilding process, was that Embiid or one of the other high lottery picks would blossom into a player capable of dragging the team through any context. Instead, you're left to wonder what context and what team would actually work to empower this star when it matters.

Sunday evening, Embiid and co-star James Harden mostly said the right things about their partnership, their future potential, and what they could accomplish with more time and work together.

"We got an unfinished job. We haven't won anything," Embiid said of their future together. "I think we got the chance to win. Obviously, going to seven games and having the chance to close it out at home, which we didn't do, I still believe we got the chance to win. We got what it takes to win. Obviously, I don't know what's going on and I know he has the player option, so they can extend him, but that's on those guys to figure it out. I'm gonna stay out of it."

When they traded for him, the Sixers were certainly hoping that getting Harden back for a disgruntled Ben Simmons would be that guy who could lift up Embiid and the team as needed. For two games of the Celtics series, Harden delivered exactly that. Across the other five, he was as lost as any player on the floor, a victim of schemes and circumstances but also his own mind and limitations. It would seem that Embiid needs the sort of swaggering, back-against-the-wall teammate that he once had in Butler, someone with the fire to push him but also the talent to turn that fire into results when it matters. Health permitting, Embiid and Harden will probably win a lot more games together. But anyone asking what the point of it is after repeated individual meltdowns together and separately have a right to their rage and disappointment in the aftermath of Game 7.

For as bright as this project looked in the recent past, the Sixers have to figure out not just how to push this team to the next level but how to make fans believe they're even capable of doing so. They have no mechanism to replace Harden's production if they lose him this summer. They have Tobias Harris' gigantic expiring contract to flip over the next year, though they can hardly afford to attach extra value/assets to an outgoing Harris if they want to improve the team. Tyrese Maxey is on the verge of a huge extension, eating into whatever future cap space they might have and putting the spotlight on his flaws as a player. And expensive teams are about to get the hammer dropped on them by the new NBA collective bargaining agreement, potentially limiting the franchise even more if they try to run it back. 

It's perhaps the clearest case for making a change at the head coaching position beyond hoping for a boost in tactical prowess. Without changing one of the main leaders of the team, how do you sell hope to a fanbase that has watched this movie play out the same way so many times in a row? 

Perhaps the answer is that you don't or can't. And that's the saddest part about Philadelphia's weak, uninspiring performance to end the 2023 season. This period of roller-coaster basketball has stomped out the optimists, creating another generation of tortured Sixers fans who view them as perpetually stuck behind the real contenders. Getting here was hard enough, and getting out could be much harder.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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