Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
BOSTON — The easy takeaway would be that the future is bright, so why fret over one postseason exit? After all, the Philadelphia 76ers have Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, salary-cap space, draft picks and a prized, though flawed, point guard in Markelle Fultz. What else could you want if you were an NBA team?
All of that is true. The Sixers’ Process has most certainly entered phase 2. The days of building for the future are gone. As Embiid told reporters Wednesday night following his team’s season-ending 114-112 Game 5 loss in Boston: “Me and Ben, we have a lot of room to grow.”
Then Embiid referenced Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and how they won only 23 games in their first year together. That’s 29 fewer than Embiid and Simmons won this year, the first in which they shared the floor.
“We got a bright future,” Embiid added. “At the end of [the game, Simmons] came up to me, showed me his hands, and said, ‘There’s going to be a lot of rings on these,’ and I was like, ‘For sure.'”
The arc of that Thunder team is exactly the one the Sixers will now desperately try to avoid. They were young and exciting and uber-talented. But for a variety of reasons—some self-inflicted, some bad luck—Oklahoma City never did reach the NBA’s peak.
The league is funny and cruel that way, with timing and luck often dictating who winds up on top. The Sixers knew this. They knew, with Kyrie Irving sidelined by a knee injury and LeBron’s supporting cast as weak as ever, that the path to the Finals was clear.
“We feel like when everybody’s on, we’re unbeatable,” Embiid said. “We made a lot of mistakes.”
The Celtics spent five games targeting and exposing every one of the Sixers’ flaws, of which there suddenly appeared to be many.
Embiid struggles to guard centers out on the perimeter and in space. He grows tired quickly. Simmons’ inability to shoot jumpers limits him in the half court. He also picks up his dribble too frequently. The offense is overreliant on three-point shooting from good-but-not-great long-range shooters. It lacks ball-handlers and off-the-dribble creators and wings who can lock down opposing guards. The team’s front office and coaches felt the players allowed the Celtics to be the aggressors.
And there was the Sixers’ performance in crunch time, where they looked every bit as young as they are.
Three of the five games were within five points with under five minutes remaining, and the Celtics outscored the Sixers by an ugly 25.3 points per 100 possessions during that time, per NBA.com. The Sixers threw the ball away, kicked it out of bounds and surrendered transition layups.
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
They fulfilled every cliche about a young team embarking on its first postseason run. The question going forward is: What will they take from this experience?
“I guess to grow, you have to be uncomfortable,” JJ Redick told Bleacher Report. “I think historically, if you look at our league, I think there’s probably some truth to the idea of learning through failure before you have the ‘aha’ breakthrough.”
This is true even for the game’s greats. It took an NBA Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, one where his lack of a post-up game prevented him from scoring on the diminutive J.J. Barea, for LeBron James to recognize and fix that hole in his game.
“There were a lot of things I learned in this series that I didn’t against Miami,” Simmons said.
So, maybe the Sixers come back even stronger.
“These guys will be alright,” Sixers guard Jerryd Bayless told Bleacher Report.
They also have an interesting offseason ahead. They have plenty of cap room and are expected to be in play for LeBron and Paul George. They have the assets to chase Kawhi Leonard in a trade. They’re likely to have another lottery pick on the way.
But as Thunder fans have learned, the possibility of a bright future doesn’t come with a guarantee. While this may be just the start of the Sixers’ run, that doesn’t make the loss sting any less.