Intrigue and fascination are born from the unknown. Fascination arises when the brain approaches something that is, in a sense, overwhelming in concept. Intrigue and fascination are, perhaps, superficial terminologies used to say “this made me think hard”. Last offseason, the Philadelphia 76ers fascinated the NBA society with their zigging towards two traditional big men when others probably would’ve zagged towards Jimmy Butler, the controversial shot-creating wing whom the Sixers jettisoned to Miami instead of returning him to Philadelphia. I suppose, to the extent that it couldn’t be ignored, there was a party of people who were cynical of the decision(s) the Sixers made. They allowed JJ Redick to sign elsewhere (although, let the record show that Redick was offered a contract to return), in addition to allowing Butler to walk out the door.. The cynics questioned how Philly would find perimeter shooting and who Philly would rely on to be a closer in close games. The believers held that the defensive identity was too powerful for the offensive questions to be a true worry.
Fast forward to late August, 2020, and the Sixers have just been swept out of the first round of the playoffs by their rival Boston Celtics. Al Horford, whom the Sixers signed in place of Butler to a four-year, $97 million guaranteed deal, had an incredibly disheartening first season in blue. Tobias Harris, whom the Sixers re-signed on a five-year, $180 million deal, had a regressive season in his first full showing with the franchise. Multiple NBA agents have told me that Harris’ market value was less than the full maximum that other NBA franchises could’ve offered him–four years, $140 million. So, that left the 76ers with not one, but two albatross contracts, a disgruntled star (Joel Embiid), and another star who missed the playoffs with a knee injury (Ben Simmons).
The franchise’s ownership group knew that season ticket-holders were disgruntled with Brett Brown’s leadership of the on-court product, and that revenue was further compromised by the economic climate created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Firing Brown was a move that they had had in their plans since the 2017-18 season (they had their eyes on Jay Wright, although his interest was doubtful), and the complete regression of the team and utter frustration of the season warranted a departure. So, Brown was removed in the days following the 76ers’ elimination from the playoffs.
The surviving members of the franchise watched on, with their tails between their legs, over the next few months as ex-girlfriend Jimmy Butler proved to be better off without them, leading the Miami Heat to the NBA Finals. The franchise was without a coach, saddled with a pair of horrendous contracts, and confronted with the possibility of having to break up its star duo far earlier than necessary just to create some flexibility within the roster. A franchise that, just two-and-a-half years ago was so, so intriguing, was coding in the operating room with no doctor in sight.
Then, Doc Rivers and the Los Angeles Clippers divorced unexpectedly on Yom Kippur. The ownership group, characterized by private equity investors, locked onto its target and pulled the trigger. Within three days, Rivers was finalizing a deal to become the next head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. Rivers brings experience coaching a championship team and universal respect to a team that was essentially run by two 20-somethings and lacked credibility of any degree. Rivers’ shortcomings have a reputation, for sure, but he brings control to a chicken that had run miles with its head cut off. Suddenly, there’s a pulse.
Less than a month ago, Daryl Morey stepped down from his position as President of Basketball Operations for the Houston Rockets. Under Morey, the Rockets bought all the way into small ball, running and chucking three-point shots at every turn. Houston traded its only true, playable center as part of a multi-team deadline deal to acquire 3-and-D forward Robert Covington from the Minnesota Timberwolves. Houston was dispatched from the second round of the playoffs in five games, just about a year after acquiring former MVP Russell Westbrook in a blockbuster deal with the Thunder. While Westbrook had played some of the best basketball of his career leading up to the NBA’s in-season halt, a combination of injury and coronavirus infection hindered his play dramatically in the bubble. Now, Houston seems a bit rudderless, themselves, as they possess what is regarded around the NBA as one of the most undesirable contracts (Westbrook) and are, in a sense, hitting the refresh button with a new coach (Stephen Silas) and are in search of a President of Basketball Operations. As of this past Wednesday, Morey is expected to sign a five-year deal to become the 76ers’ President of Basketball Operations. Morey is known as a deal-maker around the NBA, with the acquisition of budding star James Harden as his masterpiece. Morey orchestrated the trades for Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook. Morey is known to chase superstars and fill in the remaining holes with value at the margins, something the Sixers have completely failed to do. He built the team that would’ve upset the star-studded Golden State Warriors in 2018 and would’ve been the favorites to win the title, had Paul not been injured. Morey never had a losing season during his 13-year tenure in Houston, and the Rockets won more than 50 games in seven of his thirteen seasons in power. In the days since (and between) the Rivers and Morey hirings, the Sixers have added Peter Dinwiddie (Pacers’ senior VP of basketball operations) and Prosper Karangwa (Magic’s director of scouting) to the front office and Dave Joerger (most recently, Kings), Dan Burke (Pacers), Sam Cassell (Clippers), and Brian Adams (Clippers) to the coaching staff. Suddenly, the 76ers are breathing again.
The Sixers have gone from a bottom-5 front office/coaching staff combination to a top-5 front office/coaching staff combination. But, it is not the talent of the personnel added or the collective intelligence that they bring together that is intriguing. It is the subplots that make the made-over Sixers so fascinating. Doc Rivers is charged with fixing his own reputed shortcomings and trying to get the most out of Embiid and Simmons. The Sixers just hired a consensus top-5 league executive in Daryl Morey, who, by the way, butted heads with Rivers when they were both working for the Celtics. But, don’t worry, now they’re good friends? Well, there is a sense that both played a role in the other’s joining the Sixers. So, the Sixers, who were overly reliant upon analytics to the point where they couldn’t function as a basketball team, now have two of the league’s strongest personalities engineering two opposing aspects of the game as they try to strike a balance between the eye test and analytics. If that wasn’t enough, Dan Burke previously went on record saying he didn’t like the Sixers and accusing Embiid of receiving gratuitous officiating. The anti-Sixer has become a Sixer. And, to top it all off, the deal-maker the Sixers just hired now has to find a way to get off of at least one of the game’s worst contracts to loosen an unbelievably stiff payroll–and his former point guard, who has a similarly significant contract, is available.
There is so much unknown about the current Sixers, from when they’ll be able to actually make roster changes as they gear up for a season that doesn’t have an official plan, to the storylines within the team. But, all of the new unknowns have revived a franchise that was thought to be dead, and have turned the Philadelphia 76ers into the NBA’s most interesting team.