A little more than two years ago, the future for the Philadelphia 76ers appeared as bright as any team's in the NBA. They had two transcendent young stars, a clean cap sheet and, thanks to Sam Hinkie's Process-era wheeling and dealing, a war chest full of draft picks.
They finished the 2017-18 season with 52 wins, good for third in the Eastern Conference. They opened the postseason by knocking off the Miami Heat in five games before falling in five to the Boston Celtics in the second round.
"We have a bright future," Joel Embiid told reporters after the series. He added that while watching the Celtics celebrate their series win, Ben Simmons had walked over to him, held up a hand and said, "There’s gonna be a lot of [championship] rings on this before we're done."
On Sunday, the Celtics eliminated the Sixers once again. It only took four games this time, and the sweep came in the first round. Simmons did miss the entire series, but even so, the relative ease with which the Celtics discarded the Sixers was jarring, and the gap between the two franchises was apparent.
There was no talk about bright futures afterward or of the many titles to come. The mood was somber, as if everyone in and around the Sixers organization recognized that, somehow, over the span of just two seasons, the team's championship window might have already closed.
The skill sets of their transcendent stars clash, and neither of them has shown much growth. Both their names can now frequently be found on injury reports. The decision to hand nine-figure deals to Tobias Harris and Al Horford has robbed the team of its precious cap flexibility. The war chest left behind by Hinkie has been emptied.
Because of it all, the Sixers now find themselves at an inflection point. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Monday the team has fired head coach Brett Brown. People around the league wonder whether general manager Elton Brand and the rest of the key decision-makers in the front office—all holdovers from former President of Basketball Operations Bryan Colangelo's regime—could also be shown the door. Major roster changes are expected.
"We could never find a rhythm this year," Embiid told reporters Sunday night. "It is disappointing. There's a lot of regrets. I felt like the focus was not always there. And we got to do better; we just got to look at ourselves in the mirror and just do better."
The NBA has seen would-be dynasties crumble before, but all the losing over the early Process years makes this fall feel even more disheartening.
How did it happen? How did the Sixers go from being one of the league's brightest teams to its most disappointing over the course of two seasons?
There is no simple answer; this season's failure to register a single playoff win was the culmination of years of mistakes. That, however, doesn't mean there isn't plenty of blame to go around.
The easiest place to start is with Brown.
This was Brown's seventh season as Sixers head coach. Even the man who initially hired him didn't expect him to last this long. "He's the perfect coach to get us through these first few years," Hinkie told a colleague in the summer of 2013. It was Brown's background in player development and his uncanny ability to remain optimistic that drew Hinkie to him back then, though he might have underrated some of Brown's skills.
Most of Brown's players liked him. He handled the media well. His steady hand had helped navigate the Sixers through a handful of WTF-level ordeals such as Hinkie's resignation, Burnergate and Markelle Fultz's bout of the yips.
But there were two key areas where Brown struggled.
His inability to adapt schemes on the fly often frustrated players and higher-ups. This was on display against the Celtics, when he refused to tweak the team's pick-and-roll coverage in Game 2, allowing Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker to walk into open pull-up jumpers while Embiid and Horford remained stationed in the paint.
It's also fair to wonder why the Sixers—knowing that with Simmons out for the series their only chance was to ride Embiid in the post, and that the Celtics would likely respond with various traps—seemed unprepared for how to properly respond.
Perhaps more regrettable, though, had been how under his watch the Sixers had failed to create a culture of accountability. Brown was not the only one responsible. Hinkie failed in this regard too. It also didn't help that Brown had been forced to coach a batch of particularly difficult stars.
But former Sixers staffers and players have talked about this issue for years. Following Game 4, guard Josh Richardson, who, according to sources, was frustrated by his role all season, became one of the first to lob the criticism at Brown publicly.
"He's a good guy. He's a good man. He means well. I just think, going forward, he's gotta have some more accountability," Richardson said. "I don't think there was much accountability this season, and I think that was part of our problem."
He added: "There's gotta be some sort of, not consequence, but we gotta be able to talk to each other and listen, and not listen to say something back, but actually hear it. And it's a hard lesson to learn for some people, but in order for us to make this playoff run that I think we all want—I know we all want—it's gotta start."
There were numerous examples that could be pointed out. "Brett hates confrontation," a former Sixers colleague said. When he had confronted people, it was rarely to the players themselves.
"Why the f--k isn't he shooting?" he'd ask assistants after summer scrimmages during Simmons' first couple of seasons in the league.
"We're all going to get fired because Joel's out of shape!" he shouted once late last year at the team's medical staff after a stretch where Embiid had missed more than a dozen games.
This season, Brown tried using the media to nudge Simmons. "You can pass this along to his agent, his family, his friends and him: I want one three-point shot a game, minimum," he told reporters following a December game in which Simmons made just his second three-pointer of the season. Simmons, who was irked by the comment, responded to Brown's plea by not launching a single three-pointer (excluding end-of-clock heaves) over his next 25 games.
Brown's front office hadn't done him any favors.
There have been many mistakes, but the current regime's first major one came last winter. Sensing they had a chance to win a title, the Sixers sent the Los Angeles Clippers two first-round picks, two second-round picks and rookie sharpshooter Landry Shamet for a package centered around Tobias Harris, a soon-to-be free agent the Clippers had no intention of signing. Then, the Sixers elected in the summer not to re-sign Jimmy Butler or JJ Redick so that they could ink Horford to a megadeal instead.
There were a few reasons for letting Butler walk, according to sources.
The Sixers believed Embiid would miss at least 20 games, meaning they'd need a fill-in at center. They felt Horford could do an adequate job defending Giannis Antetokounmpo. They recognized that bringing Butler back could lead to problems with Brown, as the two had clashed often.
There was also 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.
Still, some in the organization recognized that allowing Butler to leave could backfire. In a meeting discussing the deal, sources say Alex Rucker, the Sixers' executive vice president, was asked by colleagues what the team's plan was for closing playoff games. Even Brown, who made his frustrations with Butler known throughout the season but in the end had handed him the keys of the team's offense, eventually made it clear he'd be OK with bringing him back, according to a source.
In the end, the front office elected to go with Horford and then sign Harris to a near-max deal. Both moves have proved disastrous. The numbers when Horford and Embiid share the floor are putrid. Harris has now struggled in consecutive postseasons, and some rival executives describe his contract as the worst in the league.
Where the Sixers go from here is unclear, but the first step might be picking a coach. Expect that search to be led by the team's primary owners, Josh Harris and David Blitzer, no matter who the GM is, and for big names like Ty Lue and Jason Kidd to be among those considered.
As for the front office, entering the bubble, there was no sense Brand or his group were in trouble. Did the poor showing against the Celtics change ownership's mind? Only those inside the building know who among the team's executives pushed for what decisions, whose voices were heard and whose concerns were ignored and what the back-and-forth was leading up to them.
The team will likely try to deal Horford, though rival executives say they'd likely need to attach an asset or two to do so. They'll likely search for shooters and ball-handlers who better complement Simmons and Embiid's clashing skills, something they recognize they should have done last summer.
"We came in and we talked about 'smash mouth' and 'bully ball.' We're built for the playoffs. We're big. Really all those kinds of phrases equaled, 'Man, we have a huge team,'" Brown said. "We have a big team. And the thing that I found the most challenging as the season played out, space became an enormous issue."
Some in the public will no doubt call for the team to flip either Simmons or Embiid for a package of players; given the Sixers' cap situation, finding other ways for upgrading the roster could prove difficult. Don't expect that to happen this offseason, though. In fact, the Sixers' future might now depend more on their two cornerstones than ever before. There's no way to acquire a third star. There's no savior on the way.
For these Sixers to reach the point they once assumed they would, they're going to need Embiid and Simmons to do the very things they never have. Embiid needs to show up in peak shape so that he can fight for post position on every possession and stay healthy for the year. Simmons needs to let the ball fly from the corners and cede ball-handling duties in the half court without growing frustrated, like he did with Butler. Both stars need to take it upon themselves to create the culture of accountability that the team currently lacks. It's easy to blame that all on a head coach, but in the NBA, it's a team's stars who set the tone.
There's still hope for the Sixers. In the NBA, any team boasting an MVP-level star and a second top-20 player can never be counted out. But future success can no longer be guaranteed. Years of mishaps have left the Sixers on the cusp of failure. They're not there yet, but they're close.
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. He is also the host of the Weitzman Can't Jump podcast. Follow Yaron on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman.