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The Most Cursed Team in the NBA Playoffs

Slate logo Slate 5/4/2022 Jack Hamilton
Harden and Embiid. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images. © Provided by Slate Harden and Embiid. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images.

The good news for the Philadelphia 76ers is that Joel Embiid will play basketball again, and possibly soon. The superstar center is out for Wednesday night’s Game 2 against the Miami Heat with an orbital fracture and a concussion; he also has an injured thumb that will require surgery in the offseason. Reports are that Embiid may return as early as Game 3 or Game 4, but it’s unclear how effective he will be, and so far, the Sixers have looked overmatched against the Heat without him. If the Sixers lose tonight, they will be in a 2–0 hole and will need to win four out of five against a Heat team that is deeper, more experienced, and better coached than they are. And that would be the bad news.

The Sixers haven’t won an NBA title since 1983, and haven’t played in a Finals since 2001. As droughts go there are certainly worse, but Philly has one of the most rabid fanbases in the sport, passionate and knowledgeable and desperate for success. Usually in sports when a team gets described as a “proud franchise” it’s a polite way of indicating that they have a long and storied history as hapless try-hards, and for most of my life that has described the Sixers to a tee. But in recent years the team has veered into a far more bizarre direction, a byzantine, snake-bitten era of soap opera–worthy drama and unbelievable plot twists, all of which have conspired to produce a run of near-supernatural misery.

To understand the depths of this recent context we must begin with two very tiresome words: “The Process.” The Process was a shorthand for the front-office strategy of former Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie, who was hired in 2013 and left the team in memorable fashion in 2016. Hinkie believed (correctly) that the worst thing for an NBA team was to be trapped a year-in, year-out, middle-of-the-pack existence, and that in order to set itself on a championship course the Sixers needed to bottom out, accrue a bevy of very high draft picks for their suffering, and build a contender from the ground up. The Process soon became one of the more polarizing endeavors in 2010s pro sports. Hinkie’s fans lionized him and fiercely argued the merits of his approach even after his departure; his detractors argued that the Process represented the bleakest extremes of quant supremacy, team-building as bloodless asset management with no regard for what makes basketball actually enjoyable to watch.

Neither side was entirely right, but one flaw that does seem clear (especially in hindsight) is that draft picks are essentially abstractions, and overvaluing them runs the risk of missing the fact that human beings are messy and unpredictable. The Process era yielded one indisputable jewel in Joel Embiid, one of the best players of his generation whom the Sixers drafted third overall in 2014. But it also yielded a bunch of stuff that didn’t really work out, most notably Ben Simmons, who, despite not even being drafted by Hinkie, increasingly feels like the most pivotal Process-era figure. Simmons was drafted first overall in 2016, and like Embiid, he missed his entire rookie season with an injury. When Simmons finally played the next season he was spectacular, winning Rookie of the Year and helping the Sixers reach the second round of the 2018 Playoffs. This long-awaited success prompted a run on triumphalist crowing that The Process had worked.

But Ben Simmons is a human being, and some would argue a particularly messy one. He never really improved, remaining very good at things he was already good at (playmaking, defense) and becoming distressingly worse at things Philadelphia wanted him to get better at (shooting). The Sixers never advanced past the second round in the Simmons era. Last year they lost in seven games to the underdog Atlanta Hawks, a loss widely blamed on Simmons, blame that he felt was unfair. He asked for a trade, informing the team that he never intended to play for them again, despite being under contract for four more years. In Simmons’ refusal to play and his determination to wage a war of attrition against his employer through the media, at times Simmons almost seemed intent on tanking his own trade value out of spite. It was a situation that was both comical and nightmarish in equal measure.

When the Sixers finally managed to trade Simmons for disgruntled Brooklyn Nets star James Harden back in February, it seemed almost miraculous. Ever since Simmons had issued his demand, Sixers team president Daryl Morey had doggedly insisted that the team wouldn’t trade him for anything other than superstar value, a stance that seemed absurd until suddenly it wasn’t. The only problem is that it very quickly became apparent that Harden’s troubles in Brooklyn hadn’t just been a product of his goal to sulk his way out of town, but also of rather steeply declining skills. Save some occasional bright spots, Harden certainly hasn’t looked like the same player who won an MVP with Morey’s Houston Rockets back in 2018, or even the same guy who played great for the Nets before getting injured just last season. Harden also neglected to pick up the option on his contract for next season after Philly traded for him (he claimed he forgot to file the paperwork in time), meaning that he is potentially eligible for a new five-year, $270 million contract. That’s a lot of money!

The Sixers thus once again find themselves in an excruciating position. Not re-signing Harden would be a humiliating acknowledgment that Morey may have out-galaxy-brained himself by not just trading Simmons for a cheaper young player like Tyrese Halliburton or even a collection of useful role players, instead shooting the moon for Harden while also ignoring some warning signs that Harden might not be the player he once was. (Also included in the trade to Brooklyn were Seth Curry and Andre Drummond, both of whom the Sixers could rather desperately use right now.) Re-signing Harden means potentially committing hundreds of millions of dollars to a guy who, after a few months of a closer look, definitely seems to not be the player he once was. It’s a move that could be potentially catastrophic to the future of your franchise, particularly if the most you’re able to get with him this year is yet another second-round exit.

Because seemingly everything that happens to this team is soaked in a sick and circuitous irony, the looming Harden decision presents a sort of bizarro analog to another turning-point moment in recent Sixers history: the team’s decision in 2019 to part ways with All-Star wing Jimmy Butler. Like Harden, Butler was a splashy in-season addition who was on the cusp of free agency when the Sixers traded for him. In his one season in Philadelphia, he led the team to the second-round of the playoffs and a heartbreaking loss to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors, but the Sixers declined to re-sign him, in part because they decided to throw big money at another in-season acquisition, forward Tobias Harris, but also in part because (reportedly) Ben Simmons didn’t want him around. Fast-forward three years later, and Butler has led the Heat to one Finals, might be headed for another, and is poised to knock his former team out of the playoffs along the way. Harris is a perfectly fine player who’s on one of the worst contracts in the league, and Simmons—well, you just read about him.

This might seem like a column-long attempt to prematurely shovel dirt on the 2021-22 Sixers’ grave, but it’s really not. I’m not a Sixers fan, but I want them to win tonight. In part that’s because I like watching basketball and I want playoff series to be competitive; in part it’s because I root for a team that’s currently playing in the other Eastern Conference Semifinals series, so it’s in my best interest for Sixers-Heat to go as long as possible. But mostly I just want to believe there’s a limit to the bizarre and relentlessly catastrophic cruelty that a team and fanbase can endure. After all the noise about the Process, there was a long while when a lot of people had fun reveling in the Sixers’ misfortune. The smartest-guys-in-the-room vibe and the unearned arrogance often projected by ownership and various front-office folks did them no favors when they were botching the draft, pissing off stars, enduring utterly bizarre Twitter-based scandals. But we’re so far past that now—you could simulate the past decade of NBA basketball in Philadelphia 10,000 times and still not end up with a situation more strangely tormented than this one. Basketball gods, give this team a break.

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