Going into the 2017-18 NBA season, the once-great Philadelphia 76ers were finally beginning to work their way out of a forgettable stretch of monotony. The rebuilding period had concluded for Philadelphia, and they were now embarking on a quest to create a dynasty. Philadelphia boasted a war chest of assets that indicated they had a more promising future than any other team in the league. So what has gone wrong?
The roster featured center Joel Embiid, a projected superstar whose game resembled Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon’s, two number-one overall picks in point guards Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz, and a slew of developing young role players and veterans alike whose small salaries barely made a dent in the salary cap. The team was well-prepared for the future, as they stockpiled several more lottery picks for the coming years, and Head Coach Brett Brown was well-regarded. The basketball world was beginning to get the message: The Philadelphia 76ers were approaching greatness.
In that 2017-18 season, Philadelphia went 52-30 and won their first playoff series since the 2011-12 season. Shooting guard JJ Redick proved to be a worthy veteran signing, Simmons was named Rookie of the Year and Embiid earned his first All-Star appearance. Prospects for the team were finally looking up, but cracks were starting to form in the organization’s foundational pieces.
Fultz missed the majority of the season due to injury and was unable to shoot. Simmons, on the other hand, refused to shoot, despite being pressured by the city’s rabid fan base and his own head coach. Though it seemed the team was built for success, shooting woes and injury struggles threatened to jeopardize its potential. For the next season, Philadelphia made changes.
Management, motivated either by impatience or a fear of this team’s championship window never fully opening, did away with the principles that had put Philadelphia in this position. The mantra “Trust the Process,” which motivated the team through such a lengthy rebuild, was tossed aside in favor of shortsighted moves to boost the team’s chance of winning immediately.
Philadelphia traded 3-and-D wing Robert Covington and former first-round pick power forward Dario Saric for All-Star small forward Jimmy Butler. Philadelphia, now hemorrhaging assets in trades, also dealt promising rookie shooting guard Landry Shamet and two first-round picks for Tobias Harris, another forward who could presumably space the floor. Fultz was dealt for role player Jonathon Simmons, who hardly logged any minutes for Philadelphia. With this new group, Philadelphia came within one bounce of going into overtime of game seven of the Eastern Conference semifinals, but they fell short to the Toronto Raptors.
Perhaps the organization would’ve been successful in trying to make another run. A full season for Simmons, Redick, Butler, Harris and Embiid’s styles to mesh might have resulted in a better outcome. But Redick moved to greener pastures in New Orleans after Philadelphia didn’t try to re-sign him, Butler would not re-sign and was traded to the Miami Heat, Simmons still refused to shoot and Philadelphia signed Harris, who had a disappointing playoffs, to a maximum five-year, $180 million contract. The team also signed 33-year-old power forward Al Horford to a four-year, $109 million contract.
Unsurprisingly, Philadelphia performed poorly in the NBA’s bubble for the 2019-20 season. They were swept by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. Consequently, Brett Brown was fired, and veteran Head Coach Doc Rivers replaced him.
The question now seems to be about whether or not Rivers, a former NBA champion coming off a mediocre stretch with the Los Angeles Clippers, can elevate the 76ers to a championship-level team. We should really consider, however, how much control Rivers will have over the outcome.
When an organization with incredible promise bungles opportunities at every turn, how much positive influence can the head coach have? If a team with numerous lottery picks, up-and-coming stars and space for max contracts has now dealt those picks, failed to properly manage its players and is approaching the luxury tax, then the head coach is playing a relatively minimal role in the organization. More than anything, Philadelphia needs an organizational and structural rebuild.
Though Rivers’ signing is a non-answer, it will likely have little impact on Philadelphia’s success compared to the role of management. He may move the needle slightly and drive the 76ers to an Eastern Conference Finals appearance. He may prevent it from being an average playoff team and cause it to fall to the fringe of postseason contention. But, ultimately, Rivers’ hire can’t spark a drastic change. For Philadelphia upper management needs to be completely revamped, or they will be stuck in the mediocrity they so desperately sought to avoid.
Saar Shah is a freshman in the McDonough School of Business. The Fifth Quarter appears online every other week.