National Basketball Association
Title or bust? These Sixers have no excuses
National Basketball Association

Title or bust? These Sixers have no excuses

Updated Jan. 26, 2023 11:31 a.m. ET

By Yaron Weitzman
FOX Sports NBA Writer

There’s a joke that Daryl Morey, the president of basketball operations for the Philadelphia 76ers, and Elton Brand, the Sixers’ current general manager, share around the team’s headquarters in Camden, N.J. 

The joke was actually started by Brand, an easy-going, self-effacing NBA lifer who as a player spent parts of five seasons with the Sixers and the past six working for the team in various front office roles, after he took over as GM in September 2018. It’s based on the idea that no organization in the NBA, and perhaps in all of sports, has endured more drama (and most of all nonsensical drama) over the past decade or so than the Sixers. You know the history. The Process, the record losing streaks, tabloid headlines, manifestos, mysterious injuries, the yips, burner accounts, even more yips, mega-trades, mega-trade demands and on and on and on.

Brand has basically been there for all of it. Which brings us to the joke. Any time something bizarre or absurd occurs, Morey, whose office is right next to Brand’s, will say, "Oh my God, can you believe this is happening?" Brand will respond, "Around here we just call that a regular Tuesday."


But here’s the thing: "Lately, we haven’t used that phrase as much," Morey said in a recent interview with the podcast "Rights to Ricky Sanchez."

That’s right — in a break from Sixers tradition, this offseason has been drama-free. There have been no coaching changes, no trade demands, no serious injuries, no unforeseen obstacles, no fires to put out.  

You have to go back a long way to find the last time the Sixers entered a season with things looking this stable and bright. For one, they brought back all their key contributors from last year’s 51-win squad. Joel Embiid is entering the season fully healthy. So, too, is James Harden. Morey and Brand were able to bolster their roster with a number of savvy moves along the margins. And the coaching staff is once again raving about the work ethic and All-Star potential of 21-year-old Tyrese Maxey.

"I love our group," Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said in September during the team’s media day news conferences. Morey — who bases all his roster decisions on how they impact his team’s title odds using in-house metrics — said during the podcast interview: "This is the best [title] shot we’ve had since I’ve been here."

The Sixers recognize their good fortune — though even behind closed doors, people close to the team say, the team’s management remains fearful that the mere mention of their current peaceful state could antagonize the basketball gods — and the opportunity that has been laid before them.

For Josh Harris and David Blitzer, the Sixers’ managing partners since 2011, it’s a chance to advance past the second round of the playoffs for the first time in their tenure, a failure that surely irks them. For Morey and Harden, two men who have accomplished nearly everything in their respective positions other than winning a title, it’s a chance to remove the lone stains from their otherwise glistening legacies. For Rivers, it’s a chance to prove that his one ring — won all the way back in 2008 — wasn’t a fluke, and that his multiple blown 3-1 series leads were. It's also a chance to cement his status among the game’s greatest coaches. And for Embiid, it’s a chance to capture a ring before it's too late.

This year, there are no excuses. Two of the Sixers’ primary Eastern Conference rivals — the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets — have spent the past few months enduring their own drama-filled "Tuesdays." The rationalizations from previous seasons, valid as they may have been — Ben Simmons’ disappearance against the Atlanta Hawks in 2021, the Harden trade the next season, which gutted the Sixers’ depth and forced them and Harden to learn each other’s tendencies on the fly — no longer apply. In two seasons under Morey and Rivers, the Sixers have become a regular-season juggernaut, winning 65% of their games. Everyone in the organization recognizes that’s no longer enough. 

They have the stars, the stability and the system. No one with the Sixers will say "title or bust." But they don’t have to. 

*** *** ***

In the wake of last year’s second-round loss to the Miami Heat, it was Harden’s passive late-game performance that received most of the attention. But if you want to best understand the approach this offseason from all the Sixers’ key figures, it’s best to look past those headlines.

For Morey, there was one moment that stuck out most. It came near the end of Game 6. The contest was mostly out of hand — the Sixers trailed by 17 — but there was still enough time remaining for them to mount one last run. If they so desired. 

With a little over five minutes remaining and the shot clock running down, Jimmy Butler dribbled his way into the heart of the Sixers defense and lofted up a floater. The ball clanked off the left side of the rim and caromed out to the corner, past Tobias Harris, Harden and Embiid and a few feet away from Maxey. And yet Butler knifed his way through all of them and grabbed the ball. Boos rained down from the stands. Butler then stared at Harden, lifted and drilled a 3. Jogging back down to the other end of the court, a smile broke out across his face. 

"Wow," he shouted, as he shook his head side to side, eyes opened wide, mimicking disbelief.

Watching this unfold on a flat-screen TV from his seat in a courtside-adjacent Wells Fargo Center lounge, Morey was furious. And the play, he believed, was emblematic of a number of problems that had plagued the Sixers all season. 

After the loss, a number of Sixers players chalked up the defeat to the team’s lack of various intangibles. "We drop our heads too much; our body language at times is crappy," Tobias Harris said. Embiid, meanwhile, lamented the Sixers’ lack of tough-minded players, singling out Heat forward P.J. Tucker as an example. 

"He plays with so much energy, believes that he can get from point A to point B, and he believes that no one can beat him," Embiid said. "Since I’ve been here, I’d be lying if I said that we’ve had those types of guys."

Morey agreed, more than Embiid knew. But Morey — along with his front office and Rivers — believed the issues went deeper than nebulous intangibles. Or rather, that there was indeed a way to quantify these attributes that the Sixers were clearly lacking.

For example, the Sixers had struggled on the glass all season. Not only had they finished the previous regular season 19th in defensive rebounding rate, but no team had grabbed fewer offensive boards, a crime for a team starting a player of Embiid’s size, strength and skill in the middle. The Sixers were both giving away possessions and leaving extra possessions on the table. It was as if they were gifting opponents a handicap.

Part of this was a result of, to quote Morey from media day, "The lack of guys who could play both sides of the ball. That’s a priority in the playoffs." Put simply: The Sixers needed more players who could shoot, pass and, given how isolation-heavy postseason offenses have become, guard multiple positions one-on-one. To that last point, in the playoffs the Sixers allowed opponents to score at a league-average rate, far too leaky for a would-be championship contender. 

Digging deeper, Rivers shared how he believed communication — or a lack thereof — was the root of these failures. 

"Our communication last year was awful," Tobias Harris said in a recent phone interview. "There was no talking. We need to be much better at informing the whole team what we’re doing, what the help is, what our matchups are. We just weren’t good with that last year."

Basically, the Sixers spent the postseason having to choose between lineups that could either provide the proper spacing around Harden and Embiid or lineups that could slow down opponents. They had no role players who could do both. 

But these, the Sixers felt, were problems they could address. And Morey had two players in mind. One was Memphis Grizzlies reserve De’Anthony Melton, a 24-year-old with a 6-foot-8 wingspan who can guard multiple positions, hit 39% of his 3s over the past two seasons and grabbed 4.5 rebounds per game last season. The Sixers traded for him on draft night.

As for the other player, well, it was P.J. Tucker.

Embiid was thrilled, though the move had nothing to do with his public lobbying. Nobody was more familiar with Tucker and his strengths than Morey and Harden. Morey had signed Tucker to play alongside Harden with the Houston Rockets in 2017 and the two had thrived together. Tucker is essentially the embodiment of everything the Sixers have been missing — a burly big who could guard multiple positions, protect the glass on defense, crash it on offense and shoot from deep. 

He is also a player who won a ring two seasons ago with the Milwaukee Bucks and is known as one of the league’s more vociferous leaders, on and off the court. Sure, he is 37, but the Sixers weren’t concerned. The way they looked at it, he’d already outperformed all models, and betting against Tucker is usually a mistake. He’d certainly looked fine in the playoffs against them. There was even a play where he juked Embiid off the dribble, something some Sixers staffers joked they’d never seen him do before.

The Sixers agreed to terms with Tucker on a three-year, $33 million deal as soon as the two sides were allowed to negotiate.

"We wanted to get two-way players and toughness comes into that," Morey said. "Being able to fight and get a key rebound, just when things are down, having that mental fortitude to pull everyone together."

*** *** *** 

Morey wasn’t the only one studying the Heat series.

The night of the Game 6 loss, Embiid spoke with his longtime personal trainer, Drew Hanlen. He likes to check in with his clients in the immediate aftermath of a season-ending defeat to "capture the emotional side."

In their chat, Hanlen recalled in a phone interview, Embiid was "disappointed and frustrated." 

The two set up shop in Los Angeles around the beginning of July. First, they pored over film from the playoffs — specifically, the Heat series. Embiid had been dealing with a torn ligament in his right thumb, an injury to his left index finger, an orbital fracture and the lingering effects of a concussion, but — as comical as it is adding a qualifier to that list of maladies — he was still disappointed with his performance.

In four games, he had shot just 42.6% from the field and averaged only 19.8 points. The 15 shots he hoisted per game were four fewer than his regular-season mark. Even more notable: His usage rate plummeted from 37.5% to 26.7%. He’d allowed the Heat, through a series of aggressive fronts and denials combined with aggressive on-ball pressure, to take him out of the series.

"The big thing we saw is how hard it was for them to get him the ball," Hanlen said. "We knew the roster had added better passers and shooters — which would open up the floor — but we wanted to do everything we could to prepare him so that he can still dominate in a playoff game where post touches could be hard to get."

That meant focusing on attacking from the perimeter, shooting off the dribble, striking off the bounce from outside the 3-point line, taking the ball all the way to the hoop, finishing around the rim. Embiid had already added a pull-up-off-a-hesitation-dribble the previous year, as well as a deadly, Dirk Nowitzki-like mid-range game. And he has no intention of abandoning his bullying post play. "He knows that’s what his bread and butter is," Hanlen said. The pair just wanted to give Embiid even more options. 

"Our biggest thing is always figuring out ways for him to get as many easy baskets as he can come playoff time," Hanlen said.  

That also meant growing more comfortable with Harden, and more specifically his idiosyncratic skills and game. Harden also had struggled against the Heat, especially in Game 6, when he attempted just two shots in the second half, a performance that left him looking in the mirror. He’s been coy about what he learned, saying recently, "It was a combination of things, but I feel like those things are ironed out." He and people close to him swear the root of the issues was a balky hamstring that had sapped him of his explosiveness and burst, while also making it harder for him to maintain his conditioning.

Those problems, Harden insists, are now a thing of the past. 

"I’m in a really good space right now," Harden said at the team’s media day. "I feel like I’m back to where I needed to be and where I’m supposed to be."

All of which allowed him and Embiid to focus on their budding partnership. Their two-man game had come easy. "Our pick and roll was almost unstoppable [last year]," Embiid said on media day. But at times they struggled to navigate the push-pull that comes when a pair of ball-dominant superstars are joined at the hip.

To fix that, they spent more time hanging out off the court. There was the Fourth of July weekend party at the Hamptons home of Fanatics CEO Michael Rubin, a former Sixers limited owner, as well as a party on Major League Baseball’s All-Star weekend and an unofficial team training camp in L.A.

"Just having conversations with Jo and Doc and making sure we’re all on the same page," Harden said. "I think me learning them and then, vice versa, them learning me and who I am and what I’m about this summer was really good for that."

The two, sources close to them say, have developed a strong bond. It was evident on media day when Harden poked at Embiid’s introverted nature, saying, when asked about having a summer to bond with Embiid, "We didn’t spend as much time as I would have wanted to just because Joel likes being by himself." Other than maybe Jimmy Butler, it’s hard to imagine another Sixers player throughout Embiid’s tenure with the team even attempting such a joke.

*** *** *** 

Tobias Harris can still feel the disappointment that permeated the locker room after the Heat loss.

"It was extremely quiet," he recalled in a recent phone interview. "There was a lot to process." 

A few members of the team addressed the group. Harris declined to share what was said, but given how he and his teammates used their postgame news conferences to call out the team’s mental toughness, we can probably guess. 

Things feel different now. Sure, it’s easy for everyone to be on the same page before the real games even start but even so, the vibes around the Sixers could not be better. One can see the signs everywhere of a team fully invested in what Rivers has described to them as a "‘We’ season, not a ‘me’ season."

It’s evident in the hours Embiid and Harden have spent putting up shots after practices. Or in the ways Tucker’s presence can already be felt. He has shared insight with teammates about how the Bucks were able to break through and win a title. Before games, he and Embiid can be found in the locker room swapping jokes and stories. Everyone around the Sixers is already raving about Tucker’s voice. After the team’s first training camp practice, Rivers told reporters that, "He was so loud at one point, that on both ends, you could hear him down on the other end, but you couldn’t hear the guys on the end where I was standing."

The Sixers have also vowed to rededicate themselves on defense. "I really want to be the best defensive team in the league," Embiid said, while acknowledging that his effort on that end last year was often lacking. "I gotta get back to not waiting till the fourth to be that guy and doing it all game," he said.

All this doesn’t mean there aren’t issues to sort through. On defense, the Sixers are going to have to figure out how to cover for a backcourt featuring Harden — a player not exactly known for his defensive effort — and the undersized Maxey. And on offense, they’re going to have to figure out how to best balance their lineups and the different strengths of Harden and Embiid, and reverse last season’s trend of the team struggling when those two stars didn’t share the floor. 

But all that’s what the regular season is for. No "Tuesdays" means the Sixers can spend the lead-up to the playoffs sifting through all of this, that they can devote all their energy to on-court endeavors.  

That’s something we haven’t been able to say about this team very often over the past decade-plus. And if things don’t go well this year, we might have to wait just as long to say it again. 

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of "Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports." Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.


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