LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Following a matinee win over the Washington Wizards on Aug. 5, the Philadelphia 76ers gathered at Narcoossee's, a seafood restaurant on the grounds of the Grand Floridian inside the NBA's bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort.
Cinderella Castle shined bright in the background, but the 76ers seemed as far from Happily Ever After as they'd been all season.
Head coach Brett Brown, point guard-turned-power forward Ben Simmons and Scott Epsley, the team's medical director, were deep into a private, quiet conversation in an already somber room full of tables covered in blue tablecloths that matched Philadelphia's jerseys. Simmons had injured his left knee in the third quarter of that day's game. Every option, from season-ending surgery to treatment that would potentially allow Simmons to play in the playoffs, was discussed.
"There is clearly disappointment," Brown would say the next day. The following week, Simmons would undergo surgery to remove a loose body from his left knee, ending his season.
From Simmons to Joel Embiid to Nerlens Noel to Markelle Fultz to Zhaire Smith, Brown has spoken to reporters about injuries so much that, eventually, he declined to speak about them at all.
"I feel numb to it," Brown added. "I feel conditioned that we've gone through this type of thing before."
Seven years ago, Brown and former general manager Sam Hinkie set out on a full teardown and rebuild of an organization that has since come to be known as "The Process." It delivered the franchise two elite talents in Simmons and Embiid.
It also resulted in 344 regular-season losses, multiple lottery picks who failed to meaningfully contribute to the team and just two first-round playoff-series victories.
And now, less than three weeks after their dinner overlooking the Seven Seas Lagoon, the 76ers have been swept out of the playoffs by the rival Boston Celtics. It marks the end of a disappointing 2019-20 campaign that started with hopes to challenge the Milwaukee Bucks for the reign of a Kawhi Leonard-less East. Questions will grow only louder as to whether the cornerstones of Embiid and Simmons complement each other, whether Brown is the right coach to oversee a title ascension, and whether general manager Elton Brand can disentangle underwhelming free-agent moves.
With Brown being fired a day after the 76ers' season came to an end, it's all-but-certain that that early-August team dinner will have been the last time all the key figures in this trying season were together.
TO UNDERSTAND JUST how all-in the 76ers went on their roster this season requires starting with a move Brand made last season.
In the early-morning hours of Feb. 6, 2019, one day before the trade deadline, Philadelphia sent a trio of players, including promising rookie Landry Shamet, two future first-round picks and two future second-round picks to the LA Clippers for a package built around forward Tobias Harris. It was a clearing out of the chest of assets Brand and his predecessors, Hinkie and Bryan Colangelo, had built up over the years. It was a win-now move. And it nearly worked.
If Leonard's shot at the end of Game 7 of the second round bounces a fifth time and falls aside, maybe the 76ers go on to win in overtime, and maybe it's they -- and not Leonard's Toronto Raptors -- who go on to dethrone the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. Maybe if that happens, the 76ers take a different approach this past summer, keeping together a championship team instead of breaking up one that has fallen short of the Finals, like every 76ers team since the Allen Iverson-led 2001 squad.
But Leonard's shot went in, and two months later, Jimmy Butler was out. While neither side has ever definitively said whether the team offered Butler a full five-year max to remain in Philadelphia, the result was the same: The 76ers doubled down on their bet on Harris by agreeing to a five-year, $180 million deal with him minutes after free agency began on June 30.
Shortly thereafter, the team made two more monumental choices -- agreeing to send Butler to the Miami Heat in a sign-and-trade deal for Josh Richardson, and agreeing to give Al Horford a four-year, $109 million deal to join a supersized frontcourt with Embiid.
"Look, I think this group, if it jells -- and it will jell -- is capable of bringing a championship to Philly," 76ers owner Josh Harris said two weeks later. "That's what we've been trying to do."
The 76ers suddenly had a roster more suited to 1999 than 2019, and went into the season believing their size and physicality would give them the league's best defense. Instead, they finished the regular season with the league's eighth-best defensive rating -- closer to the 18th-ranked Dallas Mavericks than the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks. And they gambled on Simmons and Tobias Harris to develop into the closers who Butler had been in his 67 games with the team.
"We are making those bets on those perimeter players," Brand told ESPN on July 12, 2019, the day the 76ers introduced their free-agent acquisitions. "I envision them stepping up, for sure, and rising to the occasion when it is crunch time, for sure."
That vision has not been fulfilled. The 6-foot-10 Simmons remains a gifted talent. He can defend all five positions on the court and is a terrific passer. But his ongoing reluctance to shoot jumpers, and his struggles at the free throw line, make it difficult to run the offense through him in the closing moments of games.
Harris, meanwhile, is the same player he's always been. Brand and the 76ers paid a huge price -- both in the assets they gave up in the trade for Harris and the subsequent contract they handed him -- believing he could be the third star alongside Simmons and Embiid. That hasn't happened.
Instead, with Simmons sidelined during these playoffs, Harris struggled, shooting 38.3% from the field and 2-for-15 from 3-point range, and he was thoroughly outplayed by Boston's wing players, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
Richardson, too, has fallen short of expectations. Battling nagging hamstring injuries all season, Richardson saw his scoring average dip from 16.6 points per game in his breakout season in Miami to 13.7 in Philadelphia. On both ends of the court, he disappointed rival scouts and executives who, like the 76ers, expected him to be a better fit alongside Simmons.
Horford, meanwhile, has never looked comfortable playing at power forward next to Embiid. After spending years in high pick-and-roll offenses, often with the ball in his hands, he's mostly been left to stand on the wing as a spacer for Simmons and Embiid.
Against his old team, Horford's awkward fit was further exposed. He moved in and out of the starting lineup, sometimes giving way to second-round draft pick Shake Milton. His lack of foot speed had Brown running circles around him. Over the course of four games, he scored 28 points and didn't make a single 3-pointer.
Amid all the tumult, the Sixers fought until the end. It took a 10-point run from the Celtics in the final two minutes to close out Game 3. Then, down 3-0 in the series, the Sixers played hard in Game 4. But their season officially turned when Harris had his legs swept from under him late in the third quarter, sending him crashing to the ground.
Boston led by three when he exited the game with 2:40 remaining in the third quarter. By the time Brown called a timeout with 9:55 remaining in the fourth, after a Tatum 3-pointer, Boston had gone on a 16-2 run and taken a 96-79 lead.
Harris unexpectedly checked back into the game a few minutes later, but the damage was already done. Although Philadelphia eventually got back to within four in the final seconds, the outcome was never really in doubt.
Embiid, who entered the series expected to be the possible difference-maker in Philadelphia's favor, finished a career-worst minus-53 across the four games, according to ESPN Stats & Information. It was only the second time in his career he had finished as a negative in four straight games.
He was one of the last players to leave the court, exchanging greetings with just about every member of the Celtics. After both teams had exited, the only sound heard inside The Field House was Boyz II Men's "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday."
BEFORE COVID-19 PUT the season on hold, the 76ers were the NBA's best team -- when playing in Philadelphia. The 76ers went 29-2 at home, racking up blowout wins against elite teams like the Bucks, Celtics, Raptors and Los Angeles Lakers. But in a perfect encapsulation of their maddening inconsistency, they had a worse road record than the New York Knicks. Before the restart, the 76ers hadn't beaten a team with a winning record away from home since Dec. 12.
Some of the blame for that unpredictability falls on Brown's shoulders. But it also ties into the 76ers' bet that Simmons and Embiid can fit together well enough to be the elite pillars of a contending team.
Few argue that they aren't talented enough individually to fit into that prism, but Simmons' resistance to regularly shoot from the perimeter constricts any interior space Embiid has to operate within. On the other hand, Embiid's perpetual lack of conditioning prevents him from being able to play at a faster pace, which more naturally suits Simmons' game. Throughout Boston's four-game sweep of the 76ers, Embiid played far better in the first half than the second. When Philadelphia had a chance to win Game 3, he made two costly mistakes in the final two minutes that helped turn the game in Boston's favor.
How the 76ers performed against the Celtics without Simmons should quiet the idea of splitting the duo. The NBA, after all, is a talent-driven league, and both have plenty of talent.
And there is a large sample of both Embiid and Simmons playing well together. During the 2017-18 season, the tandem was plus-15.5 per 100 possessions on the court together -- fifth among duos who played 1,000 minutes together. In 2018-19, they were a more-than-respectable plus-7.9 points per 100 possessions.
This season, that number dropped all the way to plus-0.6 points per 100 possessions. In the 840 minutes the two All-Stars shared the court, the 76ers outscored their opponents by a total of 16 points.
Is the Embiid-Simmons era over?
THE BIG BETS by Brand and the front office have not paid off. The 76ers are headed home early, and the flexibility once touted by the organization as it churned through 66 players who played at least one game over four consecutive losing seasons at the start of the rebuild -- with only Embiid remaining with the franchise the entire time -- is now gone.
Brown outlasted the general manager who hired him, Hinkie, and the GM who replaced him, Colangelo, but his seven-year tenure as Philadelphia's head coach came to an end a day after the 76ers were swept out of the postseason.
Some around the league wonder whether the changes will go beyond the coaching staff, leaving the 76ers looking for a new GM for the third time in a little more than four years.
It will be hard to make any sweeping roster changes, though. Horford has two years and $54.5 million fully guaranteed, with a partial guarantee for the 2022-23 season, when he'll be 37 years old. Trying to move Harris could prove even more difficult, with four years and nearly $150 million left on his contract. Richardson has one year left on his deal before he can become a free agent in 2021 -- when the 76ers already have $125 million committed to Simmons, Embiid, Harris and Horford.
Just over a year and a half ago, this team found itself flush with flexibility to build around its two young stars.
The owner declared this group capable of winning a championship. The coach said Embiid and Simmons would win together. But even with a healthy Simmons next season, it's hard to envision this group as currently assembled reaching that ceiling.
The Process was enacted to have as many opportunities as possible to land championship-level talent. Seven years later, Philadelphia lacks assets or flexibility, and has locked in to an expensive roster that seems unable to compete for championships.
That era is now over. All that's left for this offseason is for the 76ers to take a hard look at the result.
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