As the 76ers left the NBA bubble last season with their tails between their legs after 4 straight losses to the rival Boston Celtics, there was nothing to feel except a sense of relief. Disastrous roster construction had created what was much more like an island of misfit toys than a basketball team. Everyone was miserable, including the star player, and it had created a hapless marriage between fans and the team. It was hard to envision THAT same team coming back into the fold a few months later and provoking any sense of joy for its fans.
But, that was exactly how it played out. After a complete overhaul in coaching and the front office, the team on paper made more sense. From Game 1 you could tell this team was different. Bradley Beal went full scorched Earth, dropping 60 points in the opener, but the Sixers never wavered. They won a close game, the issue that had plagued them in the past, and they were off and running. They were blowing out opponents left and right highlighted by a New Year’s Eve beatdown of the Orlando Magic where they were at one point up by 40. In a year full of instability within the NBA due to COVID and a ridiculous schedule that led to injury issues, the Sixers of all teams were the beacon of stability.
They had their bumps and bruises like everyone else, players missed games, but they kept on winning. Powered by Joel Embiid’s MVP campaign, his dominance was able to carry this team night in and night out. But it wasn’t just Joel, it was that the team around Joel finally made sense and allowed him to flourish. In an attempt to add more perimeter shooting specialists around the All-Star center, Daryl Morey went out and got a Curry brother for Josh Richardson. He unloaded the bad Al Horford contract for the rights to Danny Green, who became a valuable veteran “3 and D” guy. The puzzle pieces seemingly had finally begun to fit.
But the best part about it, if there is a better part than winning, was how enjoyable it was to root for this cast of characters. In a winter where we couldn’t go anywhere (including the games themselves) and had to remain isolated, this group of guys gave us an escape from an often depressing reality. Games crammed in night after night allowed you to stay connected with friends and family. My mom who had previously not watched NBA basketball, watched every single game. We would text during and after each game. It was a connection in a disconnected year. It was easy to root for Dwight Howard getting excited for Frosty’s, or the development of Tyrese Maxey, or Matisse Thybulle coming from nowhere for a block on an unsuspecting jump shooter. They were good people on a good team in a year when we needed it the most.
And nobody will remember any of it.
The 76ers Game 7 defeat on their home floor to the Atlanta Hawks will go down as the biggest squandered opportunity in Philadelphia sports history. In a city where there are no shortage of heartbreaking endings for our teams, this just didn’t break hearts, it destroyed our psyche. With enormous blown leads in Game 4 and 5 of the series with the Hawks, the Sixers gave an inferior team life in a series they had no business being competitive in.
There will never be an easier path to an NBA championship for this team, or really any team. They earned the #1 overall seed and the East and it was well deserved. That work should have meant something. After playing in a Game 7 in Toronto, we knew firsthand how important it was to have homecourt advantage. And the path with homecourt advantage played out with perfectly for them. They avoided the other two regular season beasts of the East in Milwaukee and Brooklyn, who were forced to play each other before the Eastern Conference Finals. The path to the Finals somehow got even easier when Brooklyn became plagued with injuries and got bounced by Milwaukee. Lebron was out early in the West. Kawhi likely may be done for the season too. Every meteor that was careening straight for Planet Sixers was obliterated before it ever made impact.
And they lost. They lost big leads. They lost late in games. They lost a Game 7 on their home floor in front of a raucous crowd. They lost after a 5-23 shooting performance from the other team’s best player. They lost after taking two wins in this series on the road. It was like watching someone play Chutes and Ladders, make it to the top of the gameboard and slide all the way back down to the starting line where they began.
But that’s exactly what the Sixers will have to do this offseason, start again from the beginning of the game board. Most of their offseason moves worked last year, whether it was through the draft or through trade. It would be fantastic to see this team string together multiple successful offseasons to help build this thing even further.
We just all know deep down that despite this roster and this coaching staff being better constructed than it was before, they still cannot come back from this.
They didn’t just lose a game last night, they squandered the greatest opportunity for a championship in this franchise’s history.