Much of my life as a fan of the Philadelphia 76ers has been marked by a series of disappointments and frustrations, and above all else, waiting. As Kawhi Leonard’s ridiculous game-winning jumper rattled around the rim for what seemed like dozens of times before finally dropping through the net on Sunday night, it was difficult not to think: Is this what we were waiting for?
Poor Joel Embiid, who’s been alternately coughing and shitting his brains out for the entire playofffs, collapsed in tears after putting on a Herculean-like 45 minutes, during which the Sixers scored ten more points than the Raptors. In the three minutes Brett Brown rolled out Greg Monroe to give Embiid a much-needed breather, they were minus-12.
The Toronto series was the best and the worst of the Sixers. There was a moment during Game 3, when the Sixers blew the Raptors out by 19 points and Embiid dropped 33, where I briefly thought that this could be a championship team. The fact that the Sixers were able to take game 7 to a buzzer beater despite not being able to hit the broad side of a barn with a cannon in the first six minutes of the game, despite having multiple shot clock violations in the fourth quarter, is a testament to what this team could’ve done had it played consistently better. For the most part, however, both Toronto and Philly played so erratically that it was pretty much a given that whoever was coming out of this series is going to have a hell of a time with the Milwaukee Bucks.
As it stands now, no one has any earthly idea what the Sixers are going to look like next season. Jimmy Butler, who had an excellent series, and Tobias Harris, who had something less than that, are free agents in the summer, as are eight of their teammates including JJ Redick (the only good Duke graduate? One has to wonder), and are both likely to get max contracts or something close to it. It’s highly unlikely the Sixers will keep both, especially considering the pressing issue of needing more than two bench players (especially a backup center who can play defense), and the fact that they already have significant money tied up in Embiid and Ben Simmons.
The Sixers could maybe—maybe—get farther in the playoffs in the coming years by keeping a core of Embiid, Simmons, and Butler together. It’s hard to see them progressing from this point without Butler.
It’s not all doom and gloom, as the Sixers are still young as hell; Embiid is 25, and Simmons is just 22. But because of all of the uncertainty heading into the offseason, Sunday night may have truly been the peak of this era of the Philadelphia 76ers: a game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference semifinals to a team that had Kawhi Leonard and not much else going for it.
That would mean, of course, that the Process failed. And if there’s one thing that will haunt me more over the next couple of months than the image of Leonard’s shot bouncing around the rim while his laugh plays in my head over and over again, it’s the prospect of the last six years being a wash.