When the NBA season shut down in March, Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown figured he'd use his newfound free time to dive beneath his team's hood. To that point, the Sixers had been the league's most confounding group. On some nights—especially at home, where they had won 29 of their 31 games—they'd looked like a sure-thing Finals bet. Other times—especially on the road, where they had dropped 24 of 34—they'd looked inept.
Brown and his staff spent April, May and June reviewing every aspect of the team's performance. The first month, Brown says, was spent assessing the offense. Then they moved on to what Brown, who compartmentalizes his staff like an NFL head coach, calls "special teams" (plays after timeouts, two-for-one situations, coaches challenges, etc.). Then came defense. On Wednesdays, Brown would hold a multi-hour Zoom call with his bench coaches, and on Thursdays, he'd speak with his player-development specialists. Members of the analytics department and performance staff often joined.
Through all of the review, one game stood out as being exemplary of everything Brown believed the team to be capable of. Back on Feb. 11, amid yet another seesaw stretch (four straight losses to the Hawks, Celtics, Heat and Bucks, followed by a pair of wins over the Grizzlies and Bulls), Brown tweaked his starting lineup for a home matchup against the Clippers, one of the league's title favorites. Al Horford, a five-time All-Star big man who the Sixers had signed just months earlier to a nine-figure deal, was swapped out of the starting lineup in favor of Furkan Korkmaz, a little-known reserve wing. That night, on the back of stellar performance from Ben Simmons (26-point triple-double) and Joel Embiid (26 points, 13 free-throw attempts), the Sixers held on for a 110-103 win.
Injuries—first to Embiid, then to Simmons—prevented Brown from sticking with the change. But as he prepared for the league to restart, and as he received updates that both of his stars were in good health, he couldn't help but return to that victory over the Clippers. Korkmaz himself hadn't made much of a difference in the game, misfiring on all four of his three-point attempts and finishing with no points, but the mere presence of a gunner (Korkmaz has drilled nearly 40 percent of his three-pointers on the season) in the starting lineup had been a revelation, loosening the group's congested offensive attack. And sliding Horford, who had struggled finding his groove alongside Embiid, onto the bench gifted Brown the freedom to manipulate his lineups in ways that could better account for Embiid and Simmons' clashing skills.
"I thought that Ben and Joel coexisting in that game stood out," Brown says.
And that was the context behind what may have seemed to many a surprising development when, on July 13, four days after the Sixers landed in Orlando, the team revealed that Simmons was practicing at power forward ("exclusively," Brown said) and that Shake Milton was running the point—meaning Horford would be coming off the bench, replaced in the starting lineup by a 23-year-old former G League star who averaged 19.4 points (and hit 14 of 27 threes) in five games in March.
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For his part, Simmons has responded to the position change as anyone familiar with him might expect. "If you put me on the floor, I'll make anything happen," he says. "Whether it's plays, buckets, stops. I'll guard anybody, 1 through 5. I run the floor, I can get to the rim, I can score the ball, and I make plays happen.
"So, wherever you put me—1, 2, 3, 4, 5—it's gonna happen. I don't really look at it as, like, a title or position. That's mainly for you guys to put down in your articles."
Which may be the case, but there's also no getting around the fact that during their first week back on the court, the Sixers moved a $100 million man to the bench and then announced that their superstar young point guard—who in the past has gone out of his way to proclaim himself to be exactly that—was changing positions.
"The mission," Brown says, "has been, and will be, to hunt for a championship."
The Sixers will enter the bubble as one of just a handful of teams with a legitimate chance to do so. The difference between them and the others is that their fate, this year and in the future, depends not on their ability to maintain a previous identity but rather to finally discover one.
Nothing with the Sixers occurs within a vacuum.
Much of what happens inside and around the organization can still be traced back to Josh Harris' decision to purchase the team in 2011, and to then hire Sam Hinkie two years later, and to greenlight The Process, and then reverse course. But if you want to take a micro view of how this group has ended up here—a team loaded with talent and that entered the season as a championship contender but now begins the restart with the sixth-best record in the East and feeling the need to drastically alter its starting lineup—it's best to go back to last June, when the organization faced a pivotal choice, one that can be boiled down to the following:
Jimmy Butler or Al Horford?
Both players were free agents after the 2018-19 season. The case for Butler, who had played up to his All-Star billing after being acquired by the Sixers early in '18-19, was simple: He had carried the team's offense in the playoffs, where they had come within just a few literal bounces of knocking off the eventual-champion Toronto Raptors. Keeping Butler would also allow the Sixers to re-sign JJ Redick, whose gravity as a shooter was irreplaceable and who had formed a dynamic two-way game with Embiid but who the Sixers would not have the funds to pay if they replaced Butler with another near-max player. (For the cap nerds: Unless Redick was willing to take a major pay cut, the Sixers would have had to maintain his cap hold, then re-sign Butler and Tobias Harris so they could get over the cap, and then use the Early Bird rights which they owned on Redick, which would have allowed them to go over the cap and re-sign him to a starting salary worth 175 percent of what he earned the previous year—about $21.4 million.)
It all sounded great. But re-signing Butler would also trigger all sorts of problems. There was his relationship with Brown, for one. The two had clashed early and often. Brown felt Butler's defense was lacking, in both effort and ability. Butler sometimes ignored play designs and often passed on shooting opportunities that arose off ball movement. That Brown is non-confrontational and Butler relishes confrontation only further strained their relationship.
But there was more to it. There was the question of how Butler's presence on a multiyear deal would affect Simmons, who Brown had moved off the ball in the playoffs so that Butler could run the show. These questions, combined with Horford's past success defending Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the Sixers' belief that Embiid would miss more than 20 games this season, and the numbers showing the Sixers had cratered in the playoffs whenever Embiid stepped off the floor, tipped the scales in Horford's favor. That going with Horford meant they could then upgrade defensively by signing and then trading Butler to the Miami Heat for Josh Richardson and giving him Redick's minutes was an added boon.
In July, the Sixers pulled the trigger—re-signing Butler and swapping him for Richardson to clear the cap room to sign Horford. They also re-signed Harris, who had averaged 18.2 points in 27 games for them after coming over in a trade deadline deal, to a near-max contract.
"In addition to having Joel and Ben, two of the brightest stars in the NBA, we're moving forward with an elite starting five, an elite core," Josh Harris said at a July press conference announcing the moves. There was little room to argue. The Sixers had a top-10 player in Embiid, a top-20 player in Simmons, a borderline All-Star in Tobias Harris and a former All-Star in Horford. The shortest member of the group was the 6'5" Richardson.
Brown was ecstatic. "I love my team," he told people at the time.
It didn't take long for the fissures to reveal themselves. At the root of the issues was the clunky fit between Horford, Embiid and Simmons. Horford developed into a solid deep threat while in Boston but has struggled this season (33.7 percent) and was far from the sort of shooter who opponents chased or feared. His presence along the perimeter carried no gravity, a problem for a unit built around a point guard who refuses to shoot and a center who's best when he's told not to.
There were occasional possessions where the offense would look like something you'd see on NBA Classics, with Horford, Simmons and Embiid rotating into the post and calling for the ball. Entering the shutdown, lineups with the three had scored just 99.3 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass, one of the worst marks by any three-man grouping in the league.
"Our offense wasn't there," Embiid says. Asked about his struggles playing with Horford, he adds: "With that pairing, you need to have shooters around. You need to have people or guys wanting to take that shot, especially when you've got two inside presences just like me and Al. He can post up, I can post up, and then around [us], you gotta be able to have guys that are willing to shoot and that are going to shoot the ball."
From there, other problems arose. Injuries plagued the starting group; they appeared together in just 19 of the team's 65 games. Richardson felt underutilized and grew frustrated by his role, according to league sources. Embiid spent press conferences lamenting how little fun he was having on the court. It was known around the team that Brown's job was on the line.
Brown also irked Simmons when, following a win over the Cavaliers, one in which Simmons had made just his second three-pointer of the season, he told reporters: "You can pass this along to his agent, his family, his friends and him: I want one three-point shot a game, minimum."
Simmons responded by not launching a single three-pointer (excluding end-of-clock heaves) over his next 25 games.
"I mean, it's not really based on that. I just play to play," Simmons told Bleacher Report in February when asked about Brown's comments. "I'm not really focused on what shot—I'm not just gonna go out just because someone's saying, 'Shoot the ball,' and shoot it, you know? I just play."
Sure, the Sixers dominated at home, and their defense (sixth-best rating in the league) was strong, and every now and then—like in their Christmas Day blowout victory over the Bucks—they'd flash glimpses of greatness.
But as the calendar turned to March, it became harder and harder to envision any way for them to fulfill those lofty preseason expectations. A strained shoulder was limiting Embiid. A back injury had sidelined Simmons; he tried playing through it one night against the Bucks only to exit the game and spend the evening vomiting from the pain.
The season was slipping away. Then the pandemic arrived, and just like that, the group was granted a chance at a break and a fresh start.
Sixth seeds don't usually sound optimistic. But if there's one thing the Sixers have proved in recent years, it's that with them, the usual assumptions don't apply.
"I think that this team was built for the playoffs," Brown says. The front office agrees—and even felt that way before the four-month layoff. The defense has the talent and size to lock down even the most potent of offenses. "I feel like we are the best defensive team in the league," Embiid says. "We got the pieces that we need." Removing Horford from the starting lineup, thus allowing Brown more leeway to stagger him and Embiid, should only help.
More importantly, though, the Sixers will in all likelihood enter the playoffs with a healthy and in-shape Embiid, something they haven't had in each of the previous two postseasons. Embiid, according to league sources, spent much of the shutdown working out with trainer Drew Hanlen in the home gym of minority owner Michael Rubin. All accounts are that he's returned to the team in prime condition.
"There is zero doubt that he would have had to put in a lot of time to arrive into Orlando in the shape that he has," Brown says.
Could that be the remedy for his recent playoff struggles? Simmons' second-round failures typically get most of the press, but Embiid has also yet to show he can play at an All-Star level when matched up against the league's top defenses. He shot just 44.1 percent from the field in the playoffs two years ago against the Celtics and just 37 percent last year against the Raptors. Both teams boasted centers Embiid couldn't overpower (Aron Baynes and Marc Gasol) and had no qualms daring Embiid to punish their double-teams via the pass, a skill he's yet to hone.
The Sixers hope, and believe, the combination of health and experience can serve as the remedy—for Simmons and Embiid, and the rest of the group. The lineup shakeup is intriguing, and Brown seems intent on deploying Simmons in creative ways.
He's mentioned using him as a roll man, something the Sixers did with more frequency as the season progressed and an area where Simmons has flashed promise. Says Brown: "His ability to roll out of that like a Blake Griffin and be the catch and dunk, catch and pass, make plays as a roller. There's an area that we can tap into."
Brown has also talked about pairing up Simmons and Embiid for pick-and-rolls around the low block and positioning Simmons around the elbows to orchestrate the offense via dribble hand-offs and other motions, actions that are already major components of the Sixers' playbook.
Add in Milton's slick shooting—he drilled 46.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot triples this season, one of the league's top marks, and as The Athletic's Derek Bodner pointed out, a figure in line with the numbers he's put up since college—and you can see the outlines of a championship-worthy offense.
But it's also worth noting Brown already said he plans on giving Simmons plenty of minutes at the point alongside Horford when Embiid is off the floor, and removing some of Simmons' half-court responsibility is not the sort of move that will upend their playbook. Which is to say that in the end, the Sixers' fate will still depend on the same thing it always has: the ability to find an identity that maximizes their two best players.
"You've gotta try different things out, see if they work," Simmons says. "We're not at a stage where we can be comfortable yet."
Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow Yaron on Twitter: @YaronWeitzman.