Sixers owner: Early exit would be 'problematic'

ByJackie MacMullan ESPN logo
Saturday, March 2, 2019

BOSTON -- Josh Harris may be the owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, but that doesn't preclude him from checking the standings every morning like every other NBA fan. He's well aware that if the season ended today, his Sixers and the Boston Celtics would play each other in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Harris also can do the math: His club is 2-9 against Boston over the past three regular seasons, and the Sixers were eliminated by the Celtics in the second round of the playoffs last year.

So how would Harris assess the season if Philadelphia fell to Boston in the opening round in April?

"It would be problematic," Harris answered. "Very problematic. It would not be what we're playing for.

"We'd be unhappy. I'd be unhappy. The city would be unhappy. We're going to work hard to make sure that doesn't happen. We have enough talent on our roster that if we play the way we're capable of playing, we can beat any team in the East."

Harris, who participated in a panel entitled "Creating a Sports Legacy" at the MIT/Sloan Analytics Conference in Boston on Friday, encouraged his front office to be proactive in fortifying its roster ahead of last month's trade deadline. Philly picked up two key pieces for its stretch run in Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, both of whom will be free agents this summer.

The Sixers could find themselves in luxury tax purgatory if both players command the max salary, which would pay each of them north of $32 million a season, but Harris says he's committed to finding a way to re-sign them.

"We gave up a lot to get Tobias and Jimmy on our team," Harris told ESPN. "We think they're exceptional talents. We're going to try to keep them. We know we are going to have to pay these guys in an appropriate way.

"We get it. It's expensive."

The Sixers now boast one of the most potent starting 5s in the NBA: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Butler, Harris and perimeter veteran JJ Redick. It is a dramatic change from Harris' early years with the team when it was mired in a rebuilding project famously dubbed "The Process." Philly endured the wrath of basketball purists who condemned its strategy of blatantly tanking to secure coveted lottery picks. The NBA has since revised the way it conducts its lottery to dissuade teams from engaging in their own "Process."

While Harris has enjoyed the excitement of his current contending basketball team, he has not forgotten the 10-win season in 2015-16 that drew the ire of the NBA -- and the league office.

"I'm a competitive person, and Philly is a competitive city," Harris said. "They like winners. When we decided to rebuild, we tried to communicate that to the city, but when you are living through it, it's incredibly hard.

"And the reality is, it probably went a little deeper than I expected. These things aren't perfectly predictable. It was incredibly hard. But what got me through it -- and the city was very supportive in this -- was continuing to focus on creating greatness around the Sixers.

"Now the pressure is on to deliver."

Embiid, the charismatic big man who delights in trolling his fellow NBA peers, has made no secret of the fact that he often confers with Sixers ownership on the direction of the team. Player empowerment continues to be a topic, and Harris said he welcomes the dialogue.

"Joel respects our job," Harris said. "He's our most important player. He's clearly our future -- they're all an important part of the future -- but Joel is exceptional. We generally talk to him about how we are oriented, and what type of players we might be bringing in. We get his advice. In terms of specific conversations, we give him a heads-up. At times, it's not always appropriate because of the other parties involved. You don't want to compromise who we are talking to or put [Embiid] in an awkward position. "But we're certainly thinking all the time about how to complement his skill set, which is 3 and D wings, people who spread the court. He's a dominant presence defensively and he's dominant in the paint. We need to take the pressure off him so people don't collapse on him."

Harris acknowledged the top of the Eastern Conference is potent, and that most recognize the defending champion Golden State Warriors as the favorites to win again.

"I think we have enough talent to go very deep in the playoffs," Harris said when asked if he felt the Sixers were championship contenders this season. "I think we have enough talent to win [it all]. We want to make sure at a minimum to advance deeper in the playoffs than we did last year. We've brought a lot of talent here. They haven't been together that long, but we're hopeful we can position them for a deep run. It's exciting. I'm focused, but I'm also nervous."

The Sixers aren't the only team that has key personnel who will become free agents. The aforementioned Celtics are in flux with Kyrie Irving, their best player, who has sent mixed signals regarding his plans. An early exit in the postseason could also have major ramifications for Boston's future.

Harris acknowledged that trading for players who could walk away without any team compensation is a nerve-wracking exercise.

"The reality is, people like Tobias and Jimmy, there just aren't that many of them," he said. "It's never perfect, but when make a trade for someone who is expiring, there's risk involved, we're hoping we can convince them this is a great place for them.

"Success for us is going to be about winning playoff series. Obviously, we'd like to have a good regular season, too, but we've added and subtracted to win in the playoffs. We won one playoff series last season. We've created more talent on the roster.

"We're holding ourselves accountable."

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