By the time the Sixers went out, everybody was numb. They had already hit their lowest point after going down 3-0, cancelling practice and surrendering to depression, lethargy, the indignity of a sweep more palatable than the thought of spending another second with each other. Hardly anyone expected them to beat the Boston Celtics without an injured Ben Simmons, but after getting blown out in Game 2, it became apparent that they weren’t just going to lose the series; they were going to succumb spectacularly to the dysfunction that’s been eating them like a blight within a tree’s trunk. This first round playoff exit was the Sixers finally timbering over and bisecting the windshield of a nearby Camry, the Process’s mistranslated second stage terminating in resounding failure.
We all assumed this would happen a year ago and turned out to be wrong, but Brett Brown has belatedly been relieved of his head coaching gig. It seems that he was universally liked but not particularly respected. Jimmy Butler, who needed only a few months in Philadelphia to decide he wanted to play elsewhere, has told stories about dead silent film sessions in which “nothing got accomplished at all,” and Josh Richardson, coming off four seasons with the impeccably run Miami Heat, said in his post-Game 4 presser that the Sixers suffer from communication and accountability issues: “[when] guys are not doing their job on or off the court, there’s gotta be some kind of consequence—not consequence, but we’ve gotta be able to talk to each other and listen.”
The proper nouns always get dropped from these kinds of quotes, but we don’t need Josh Richardson to tell us there’s something wrong with the Sixers’ culture and that it has more than a little to do with their stars. Joel Embiid has never once been in what you would call terrific shape and comes off as a bit of a raw nerve. Ben Simmons is aloof to the point of passive-aggression and extremely obstinate about the way he wants to play. Neither guy seems downright malignant, and it’s true that every great player in the league needs to be managed in one way or another—they think very highly of themselves and are difficult to criticize, their competitive drive throttles out of control—but Simmons and Embiid both have a flakiness that can’t be mitigated. It is only counterproductive. They need to express themselves in film sessions so that their lesser teammates feel empowered to speak up. They need to set the standard in terms of how hard they work, because nobody else is going to be inspired by Shake Milton doing extra shooing after practice. It’s a corny thing, it’s call-in radio-ese, but they need to be better leaders—and going by what is now quite a few years of evidence, they need a coach who can show them how to do so.
Their awkward on-court fit has been discussed to death. Simmons doesn’t space for the floor for Embiid and Embiid narrows Simmons’s driving lanes. It speaks to how drastically three-point reliant NBA offenses have become in recent years that anything less than a four-out setup is considered a stone age-y mess, but the efficiency numbers don’t lie: a traditional center and a non-shooting playmaker are always going to have a tough time sharing the court. It speaks to how awesome Simmons and Embiid are defensively that their pairing works at all. Speaking for myself, each guy is so peculiarly talented and deficient, I want to see them thrive together. Sports should be a space in which the imagination is satisfied and on odd, wonderful occasions ecstatically outmatched. But I also spent a decade trying to dream up a scenario in which Monta Ellis could play a prominent role on a championship team. Sometimes you’re a romantic and at others you’re just being silly.
Trade rumors will abound, especially if Josh Harris and David Blitzer choose to install a new front office staff in the coming weeks. In truth, they’re already pretty plentiful. The Cavs—probably wrong—believe they’ve got the assets to swing a Ben Simmons deal. There’s been speculative talk of a Bradley Beal for Simmons swap. Brian Windhorst reported back in February that teams around the league are at least preparing for Embiid to hit the market in the near future. This isn’t solid stuff; it’s not like when Kyrie asked out of Cleveland a few summers ago and all that was left up for debate was where he would land. Rather, it’s the product of a franchise that clearly needs some changes, a sort of in turmoil designation that animates scantly founded or entirely made up chatter about what, specifically, is going to change. (And what plausibly can: Al Horford and Tobias Harris, due to their huge cap figures and underwhelming performances, are unlikely to be going anywhere.) Whatever the Sixers need to become going forward, what they are now certainly isn’t it.
It might be the case that Embiid and Simmons simply need a clean break. One can stay in Philadelphia and the other can seek success elsewhere and each of them will for the first time in years breathe freely. There were doubts last offseason about whether Simmons could be the franchise player on a good team, but though his jumper is still highly suspect, he’s improved enough in other areas that there are now a healthy number of organizations interested in giving him the keys and exploring what he can do with a squad built around his skills as opposed to trying to fit into lineups that can’t mask his shortcomings. Embiid, too, would benefit from a spread floor, guards who can get him the ball on the block and knock down open threes when the double teams arrive. There’s a point at which it becomes apparent that a partnership cannot be made to work, and the stress of trying becomes a detriment by itself, a weight that drags everybody down.
The Sixers are looking woefully heavy these days. It’ll be good for them to disband, take a vacation from each other. When they reconvene in the fall, If Simmons and Embiid have stayed put, we’ll hear some PR-flavored buzz about how they’ve recommitted to playing together. Players will be raving about the new coach’s approach. The atmosphere in Philadelphia will brighten, because there’s no point in being anything other than optimistic at the outset of a new season. And perhaps that optimism will be well-founded. Sports can and should surprise us. But the current moment’s bad vibes are aggressive and almost by themselves articulate a stong argument for an overhaul. There’s a fine line between persistence and stubbornness. Being able to tell one from the other, that’s where the money is. Nobody knows for sure what can be fixed in Philadelphia. Only the disrepair and discontent are undeniable.