At least on the sidelines and in the front office, the Sixers will have a very different look whenever next season starts. Philly’s offseason makeover continued Wednesday as the team is reportedly very close to hiring former Rockets GM Daryl Morey as the president of basketball operations. Morey wasted no time in finding a new gig after his 13-year tenure with Houston, which ended earlier in October when he decided to step away. After a disappointing first-round sweep at the hands of the Celtics, the Sixers were all but guaranteed to make big changes this fall. Does Morey’s arrival signal even bigger changes on the floor?
All Sixers conversations are legally obligated to begin with the elephant in the room named “The Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid Partnership.” Naturally, the arrival of a new coach in Doc Rivers and a front-office mastermind in Morey has led to speculation about what their presence means for Simmons and Embiid. You can ask five people and get five very different answers. Maybe Morey will trade Embiid for James Harden! Maybe Doc will get Simmons to start taking threes! Maybe Morey now wants a team that only shoots two-pointers! While wholesale changes are exciting during the doldrums of an offseason (though life is anything but dull in 2020), Morey could be better served swapping out his garnishes as opposed to re-doing the whole menu... meaning, the Simmons-Embiid partnership can still work.
Despite all the drama, the disappointing playoff exits, the lack of threes, and the shoddy conditioning, there’s actually plenty of proof Simmons and Embiid play well off of each other. All the way back in 2018 (sweet, quaint, baby angel 2018) the Sixers had one of the best five-man lineups in the NBA. You’ve heard me and 100 other people recap what happened then and what happened next. Philly kept making trade after trade, putting together another solid group in 2019 (if slightly worse than the previous version), until ultimately settling on a team that made no sense in 2020 (also known as “The Al Horford.”) The problem was not Simmons and Embiid. The problem was everything happening around them.
Whether it was because of pressure from ownership or a love of racking up a massive cell phone bill, Elton Brand simply made too many trades. If the Sixers kept J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, and Dario Saric two years ago, Morey may never have entered the picture. The same could be said about Jimmy Butler. Obviously, all of those decisions are in the past. But there’s still a formula for success. Philly may never be in the position again to acquire a wing star like Butler, but a group of Embiid, Simmons, random elite shooter, and a couple capable defenders with passable range (a facsimile of the 2018 squad) has a track record of success. What if Philly tried to get back to that first before trading away (or somehow trying to trade for) a superstar?
Of course, that’s easier said than done. Moving the Horford contract could be tricky. But if Philly is willing to take on big money, or fork up a draft pick, breaking up the frontcourt logjam for a couple role players could be a great start. Josh Richardson could still have value on this team, or he could have value in a trade for someone more comfortable consistently defending smaller guards. The point here is that Morey’s arrival doesn’t have to necessitate a massive overhaul. For years the Sixers have gotten away from a model that complemented their stars. Morey simply has to find the right complements again.
Morey is very smart and probably doesn’t need me telling him all of this. But it’s worth mentioning his tenure in Houston was filled with overhauls. He cycled through several co-stars for Harden (Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook.) Coaches came and went. The team grew smaller and smaller while the isolation numbers swelled. Morey was consistently bold with the Rockets—and I loved that about him!—but a softer touch could pay bigger dividends in Philly.
The Sixers have already made big swings since leaving the bubble. They’ve brought in one of the most respected coaches in the league, and one of the most forward-thinking GMs ever to run their front office. This franchise is going to have a different feel next season no matter what. While it may be tempting to really throw a wrench into the whole operation after making moves at the top, Philly has already thrown too much at Simmons and Embiid over the last two years. Alterations need to be made. But instead of trying to hit another home run, finding a route back to the kind of team that made the Sixers an up-and-comer in the first place would be a great start.