Saving the Sixers: Five plans to get back on track

Sixers' Logo. Photo / Flickr

Five Plans for the Sixers. 

Time’s arrow neither stands still nor reverses, it merely marches forward. I am completely disinterested in dissecting or re-litigating the recent Sixers tragedy since plenty of people have done that. And while we may have blown our best shot to win a championship in the Process era, we have not blown our last. In my opinion, there are five notable, realistic paths the team can go down to stay in contention. Or relevance, at the very least. Some of these are concerned with the big picture but others deal with more specific moves. They’re in no particular order but I did save the most interesting (and controversial) one for last. 

1. Do nothing. 

Now, on its face, this is an unexciting idea – to the point where it would seem questionable to include it in an article – but I think there’s some intrigue to the prospect of standing pat. 

I feel the same way about this Sixers team as I did about the Kevin Durant situation in Brooklyn: the best thing for everyone involved would be to run it back with a new coach. We spent the last offseason becoming a significantly deeper team and all of the players we acquired did their jobs. We lost in the second round this year because our two stars didn’t show up consistently, they are the only ones who you can reasonably blame. Our roster was not lacking in talent or versatility either, we were an elite team on both sides of the ball and we don’t have many significant weaknesses that other teams can exploit. 

So do we really need to upgrade the De’Anthony Melton position? Does Tobias Harris really need to be a casualty of war? Do we have to panic and commit to even more roster churn? I don’t think so. I didn’t love firing Head Coach Doc Rivers, as I felt he was also blameless but replacing him with Nick Nurse could very well be the last piece of the puzzle. 

2. Trade Joel Embiid. 

This isn’t going to happen – nor should it – but to be honest, after his performance in game seven of the Boston series (one rebound at halftime!) I don’t think it should be off the table. He is at the peak of his value and he has proven that in his current form, he can not be the best player on a championship team. 

There are a number of interesting packages you could get in return for Embiid. Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro (Miami) is an obvious one. Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker (Phoenix) would be a (far less realistic) pantomime of that. Basically, you would need a top-10 center and an elite young guard to get it done. If I were running the show, I would want to keep that shape but aim a little bit higher and extend our vision by quite a bit. 

It would be more complicated than this, but the headline would be trading Joel Embiid to the Thunder for Chet Holmgren, Josh Giddey, and a bunch of picks. One of these players is an extremely high-upside center prospect and the other is a solid young rotation guard, both of whom can develop alongside Tyrese Maxey, Paul Reed, and whoever else we would acquire if we decided to blow it up. This would accelerate the rebuild timeline and if Holmgren is who we think he is, we would be a legit playoff team in a few seasons. 

3. Trade Tyrese Maxey for a Real Star. 

And by “real,” I mean “established.” This is another one that I don’t think should happen but again, nothing is off the table. The reason has less to do with basketball and more to do with the fact that the very idea of it carries so much bad juju. He’s my favorite player and I don’t imagine I’m alone in that. He’s a young, athletic guard who isn’t even close to his final form. He’s one of the best draft steals in recent memory and just such a fun guy to watch and root for. A pair of pink shorts and a Maxey jersey is my go-to summer outfit and I’d shed actual tears if he left. But if you’re trying to win a championship in the next two years and you believe you can make a meaningful improvement on his position, do you not have a conversation?

Should we go the “third-star” route? The obvious retort is that Maxey is already the third star but if we’re being objective, he’s not quite there yet. He was a shockingly good defender this past postseason but generally, he’s still a liability on that end. He can score in a variety of ways (“has a deep bag,” so to speak) but can’t pass or create for others on an elite level. 

Alternatively, if you believe that the Harden-Embiid duo is enough to win, do you even want a third star? Do you ship him for a more experienced role-player? 

Again, I don’t want to trade him. But if players like Paul George, Jaylen Brown, or OG Anunoby suddenly become available? Well…let’s think about it, that is all I’m saying.

4. Give James Harden a Max Contract. 

Up to this point, I’ve deliberately presented scenarios that are Harden-agnostic but he’s the elephant in the room. And full disclosure, I put this one towards the end because thinking about this man makes me angry.  

From day one, I’ve sincerely believed that all of the rumors related to him going back to Houston are a ploy to get as much money as possible from Philly. I don’t want to get sidetracked, so quick analysis: a reunion doesn’t make sense for either party and no other team is going to give him what he’s looking for, which is, basically to treat him like he’s still the guy he used to be. He wants a team to give him eighty billion dollars, keep the ball in his hands for forty-nine minutes a game and let him go to strip clubs instead of practice. 

Slight exaggerations aside, a large part of me wants to say “screw it” and give him what he wants (something close to four years, $200 million according to reports.)

I can take him or leave him at this point. He saved us from the Ben Simmons debacle, led the league in assists this past season, and had the two best games of his career in a Sixers uniform. But he has also had embarrassing, season-ending flameouts in two straight postseasons. He has quit on us. Multiple times. These things cancel each other out in my mind and leave me with a shocking neutrality on Harden himself. We’ve tried everything else, why not give Harden the keys for a year? We’ve already bet so much on this guy, why not let it ride? 

5. Sign Russell Westbrook. 

Before you click away, just hear me out for a minute.

Russ was not the problem for the Lakers. He was very clearly being scapegoated. While there was a notable dip in his production, he still scored in the high teens and averaged about seven assists and six rebounds in his two seasons in LA. He was noticeably better on the Clippers during the last quarter of the season and single-handedly kept their hopes alive during the Suns series – he was let down by his teammates instead of the other way around. He can still run a competent NBA offense at a reasonable level and he isn’t a turnstile on defense either. In a vacuum, he is still a fine player. Top fifty or sixty, maybe. We could get him for relatively cheap, I’d imagine something close to 2 years, $20 million. He could play alongside Harden if he stays or be our backup point guard. He was surprisingly good as a sixth man on the Lakers in the few weeks he filled that role. He’d be a decent pick-and-roll partner for Embiid and I can’t even imagine the kind of interesting strategies Nick Nurse could devise with Russ in his toolbelt.

Even if you disregard his play, it would still be a good move, because Russell Westbrook is a winner. He’s an alpha, he plays hard every night and when he does his thing well, it makes his teammates better. He’s a seasoned veteran with a (reportedly) great locker-room presence. He has a chip on his shoulder, everything to prove and I would be delighted to have him as a Sixer. 

Doc Rivers recently said that this franchise still has scars from the Process and while I don’t think that’s necessarily correct, it does speak to a certain reality. This franchise has been a revolving door of losers. Ben was a loser, Doc was a loser, Harden’s a loser and Embiid’s a loser at this point. Hell, I even think Jimmy Butler is a loser for leaving a real contender for no reason (wait, no sorry, there was a reason: to be the leader of a fake one.) 

But we are slowly balancing the ratio with people like Maxey, P.J. Tucker and Nurse. Westbrook would be the final piece of that. 

I don’t like getting hung up on ephemera, words like “vibes” and “hustle” are poisonous to any serious analysis. But I do think that if we want any hope of winning anything meaningful, our first priority should be changing the culture.

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