The Philadelphia 76ers season ended in sad fashion on Thursday, falling to the Miami Heat 99-90 and losing the second round series 4-2. The single digit deficit doesn’t even really speak to the game, as it wasn’t even that close after the halfway mark. It was a disappointing exit, with the Sixers’ not trying particularly hard towards the end, and there really seems to be a massive gap between the Sixers’ and the teams that still remain in. With every failure of a season multiple questions are asked, ones that will shape the future of the franchise. Fortunately, two of the most pressing offseason questions were answered.
How Much Should James Harden Get?
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James Harden has a player option, so maybe there isn’t that much they can do for next year, but the idea of extending Harden past 2022-2023 is on the table. James Harden used to be a max level player, but throughout the playoffs it is clear that he is not. Excuses were made for him, with his hamstring being brought up and perhaps not having enough time to gel with the team, but his playoff performance was simply not that of one of the best players in the game. Harden was brought on to FINALLY be that second star, that secondary scorer that could truly lift the burden off of Joel Embiid’s shoulders. A man that, when Embiid sat or was not playing well, could take the reins of the team and carry them like Embiid has done so many times. Instead, Harden was anonymous on the scoring end. The number of shots he took in the second half of many games were unbelievably low. When Embiid was out with injury, it was not Harden who stepped up to shoulder the scoring load, but a second year player in Tyrese Maxey. In fact, Harden’s fourth quarter performances were reminiscent of Ben Simmons’ last year, who was dragged so severely for it he didn’t play this year. Harden has said he wants to be a distributor not scorer, and to his credit he did that. He was fantastic at it, averaging 8.6 assists per game throughout the playoffs, and could have had many more if not for poor shooting nights from teammates. The offense is run better when he is in, and Embiid gets the easiest shots of his career because of Harden.
That being said, elite distribution and nothing else is not a max level player. The only players in the top-30 highest paid players right now that would be considered pass-first are this new Harden, Ben Simmons and John Wall, and those last two are considered as some of the worst contracts in sports right now. If Harden gets a max deal for 3-4 years, that will go down the same road. If he wants to play like a pass first player, he can get paid like one. Perhaps something to the tune of Chris Paul (who is the far better distributor and better defender) who signed a four-year 120 million dollar deal last year, with the fourth year non guaranteed. That is absolutely the max Harden deserves, as he completely disappeared in the playoffs scoring-wise. One of the things that hurt was that he really didn’t even try to score, taking the fourth most shots on the team (again, he was brought to be the second option, maybe even a 1b to Embiid’s 1a), and in the second half of the closeout game he didn’t even seem interested in running the offense deferring time and time again to let Maxey or even Shake Milton run things. Harden has at least paid lip service to the idea that he is willing to take less money to stay here and if that’s the case that’s great. When a team comes knocking with a max offer though, the Sixers’ cannot be tempted to match it lest they truly end any semblance of a chance of winning a title. They already have one max mistake in Tobias Harris, they cannot make a second one with the Harden that showed up for this year’s playoffs.
Overall though, more important than the money (with the Sixers’ already in the luxury tax, signing Harden to a discount doesn’t really free that much money up for other things) is the years on the contract. Getting hamstrung to this level of play for 4-5 years is not an option, especially at max price.
Should Doc Rivers Stay?
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Another question that was answered, and the answer is an emphatic no. Doc Rivers has taken a lot of possibly unjustified heat over the last two years, but it is clear that he is not the man to take this team to a championship. Watching him try to rally the team in the final minutes was depressing, as they don’t seem to buy into him at all. There is no belief on this team. Whatever he did to help Tyrese Maxey grow into what he has become is appreciated, but there is a ceiling to this team with Rivers as its coach and it isn’t the NBA Finals. Similar to Mark Jackson, who helped turn the Golden State Warriors around, it’s clear they both did some good things for the franchise but they simply were not the men to take the team further.
Even if one was as optimistic as can be for Rivers, saying it’s the players fault or bad injury luck, at a certain point something else needs to be tried to at least shake things up and now is time. This series answered loud and clear that Doc Rivers will not win a championship as the head coach of the Sixers. As of right now, Morey is backing Rivers, but it wouldn’t be the first time a coach is fired after something like this is said and it certainly won’t be the last.
The amount of true mobility this team has is rather limited. The team is basically capped out with three players on or near max deals in Tobias Harris, James Harden and Joel Embiid, so running it back as is for the 2022-2023 season is the likely option. If Maxey can continue to grow and become an all-star level perimeter player that Harden was supposed to be, they have a chance. Improving the bench will be difficult with the financial situation and Danny Green’s injury (the best role-player in this year’s playoffs) so there’s not likely to be significant improvements made on that end. The two things they can cleanly control are hiring a new coach that can get more out of the players they have and the minimum level guys they will bring in, and not locking themselves into deals that will hamstring them further, i.e. James Harden. Those two decisions used to be questions, but they have been all but answered with how the playoffs turned out.