That was the only thing that stopped the Philadelphia 76ers from potentially making a deep playoff run this past season. Even in a season full of ups and downs, the 76ers were still only one improbable jump shot away from a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. In a series where their superstar battled a debilitating illness, they were still able to push the eventual NBA champions until the very last second of seven competitive games. Now, they are ready to take over the Eastern Conference and the NBA.
It’s easy to forget that at the start of the year the 76ers looked completely different from their eventual postseason roster. Three of the team’s starters on opening night were traded away during the season, and two of their postseason starters were acquired as their replacements. Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris started their seasons in the Western Conference, but were traded to the 76ers in November and February respectively.
Understandably, both Harris and Butler struggled to find their footing early on with their new team, as they were forced to adjust to their new environment in the middle of a fast-paced season. Both Butler and Harris were used to being top dogs on their previous teams, and they initially struggled to adjust their play to accommodate young Philadelphia stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. The team eventually began to gel, but the four high profile players continued to struggle to find the right balance throughout the regular season and into the playoffs.
Yet, even with the team’s less than perfect preparation, the team was still able to make an impressive playoff run. After a disappointing game 1 loss to the energetic Brooklyn Nets, the 76ers showed impressive resolve and rebounding to take the next four games convincingly and advance to the second round.
Up against the eventual NBA champion Raptors in the second round, the 76ers showed they could hold their own, even in less than ideal conditions. Throughout the series, Embiid suffered from an intense bout of gastroenteritis, needing an IV before multiple games just to get on the floor. In addition, Harris struggled mightily, averaging only 14 points per game while only shooting above 50% from the field once throughout the entire series. However, Harris has proven he is a more than capable NBA starter, and his lackluster start in Philadelphia should be attributed to the difficulty of having to join a franchise halfway through the season.
In the first half of the season with the Clippers, Harris averaged over 20 points per game, but he found it difficult to become a secondary option in his first few months in Philadelphia. In the last six seasons, Harris has averaged over 16 points per game, including averaging almost 21 points per contest in the first half of last season with the Clippers. In addition, Harris has also developed a solid long range shot in order to adapt to the current NBA, averaging a career high 43% from behind the 3-point arc during the first half of last season. While his play on the court will be a huge asset for the 76ers, Harris will also provide balance off the court. Harris’s laid-back personality will help to provide stability in a locker room that is full of big personalities such as Butler, Simmons, and Embiid.
After joining the team in November, Jimmy Butler became more comfortable with each game he played in Philadelphia. By the time the playoffs rolled around, Butler had become a key cog in the 76er offense, averaging 22 points per game in the series against Toronto. Now, the veteran shooting guard is ready to prove himself as a bonafide NBA superstar. The four time NBA All-Star has proven his ability as a scorer, averaging at least 20 points per game five times in the last six seasons, but has been criticized for his lack of postseason success, as he has never reached the Conference Finals. However, with his current team, he has the opportunity to change that.
It’s hard to see how any team would be able to handle a fully integrated starting lineup consisting of Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and sharpshooter JJ Redick. Considering the Sixers was able to take the eventual NBA champions to the final seconds of their series with Harris and Butler not fully acquainted with the team’s system, and Embiid struggling with a serious illness throughout the series, it’s easy to see how the Sixers could dominate the league next year.
This is especially true if you consider the chaotic offseason the NBA could have in the upcoming months. With the potential departures of superstars Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving from some of the best teams in the league, along with Klay Thompson’s devastating ACL injury, many of the top teams are going to look very different next year. While many superstars flock to join average teams in big city markets, like the Clippers and the Nets, Butler and Harris are already in prime position as members of an established, competitive team.
Specifically, Brooklyn seems to be the major team contending for the services of Butler and Harris. While there may be some allure for playing in the nation’s most populous city under the bright lights, the basketball situation looks less than promising. Kyrie Irving looks likely to potentially team up with one of them in the Big Apple, but he has yet to show that he can be the lead figure on a successful basketball team. Why should Butler and Harris waste their prime career years trying some experiment with Kyrie when they are currently on a proven, championship caliber roster?
Unfortunately, it won’t be easy for the 76ers to roll it back and keep everyone from this year’s squad, but it is possible. By bringing back Harris and Butler on max deals this offseason, the team will already be close to the projected luxury-cap threshold. If they want to retain JJ Redick alongside Harris and Butler, the team will likely need to convince the three point specialist to take a below market deal or the team will begin to rack up a luxury tax bill.
Luckily, the 76ers primary owner, Josh Harris, has stated that he is willing to pay the luxury tax if he believes it will make the team a legitimate NBA title contender, and it’s hard to argue that a team that played as well as they did this year, especially considering their less than optimal conditions, doesn’t have the firepower to contend for a championship.
With so much chaos this offseason, next year’s title looks to be a wide open competition, as players around the league scramble to find a team with a legitimate title chance. However, if the 76ers are able to resign Butler, Harris, and Redick, running back the core of this year’s team, they will immediately become one of the established frontrunners while everyone else works to catch up to them.