As the 76ers’ second-round elimination from the Atlanta Hawks sinks in, President Of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey spoke with reporters on Tuesday.
Here are four takeaways from his end-of-season press conference:
Positivity involving the core, but questions surround the big 3
Morey took multiple opportunities to show his opinion of the Sixers’ current big three of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Tobias Harris. He referred to Simmons, who’s faced intense criticism for his lack of scoring and awful postseason foul shooting, as “an All-Star.”
“We have a lot to build on,” Morey said. “We’ve got an MVP candidate; we’ve got an All-Star; we’ve got a player who should be an All-Star; we’ve got solid vets; we’ve got young players pushing those vets. I had the great fortune to work with (Hall of Fame coach and former Celtics executive) Red Auerbach in Boston early in my career, and he always felt strongly that you want to have a structure like we have now, which is obviously great top players, great veterans, but you also have young players pushing those veterans for time — and I think that was a great dynamic we had this year.
“Look, for myself and the front office, it’s our time right now to go back to the drawing board and figure out what’s next. I think for the coaches, as well, and then for the players, as well. I think that (Sixers head coach Doc Rivers) did a nice job addressing a lot of those things with the players yesterday.”
Morey did not claim with certainty that Simmons will be a Sixer next season or indicate the team is willing to trade him. Neither of those approaches would have been smart or expected in a press conference setting.
More illuminating than Morey’s comments on Simmons was his assessment of where the Sixers stand. Of course there’s no strategic advantage in highlighting flaws with the Sixers’ roster, but he sounded genuinely positive about the team’s outlook and its best players.
“We’re committed to this group,” he said. “This was a really good group that played at a very high level. Obviously, part of my job is to self-reflect, read what others are writing, because you can learn from that. And a lot of what I’m reading, I frankly don’t understand people saying the Sixers are in a bad situation. I don’t choose to come here, Doc doesn’t choose to come here if this a bad situation. Really, 25 or 26 teams in this league would love to be in our situation with an MVP-caliber top player, an All-Star, a near-All-Star, great young players who are signed for the long term, good veterans.
“So we’ve got a good foundation, we just have to do better. I have to do better; everyone has to do better. And that’s the bottom line. That’s the challenge, and I can tell everyone in Philadelphia there’s going to be a ton of effort up and down, from myself and the front office to the coaching staff and the players, who are being challenged as we speak in meetings with Doc Rivers on how they can get better.”
Making the best of restrictions
Harris, Embiid, and Simmons are set to make approximately $100.6 million combined next season.
Morey’s only offseason free-agent signing last year was Dwight Howard for the veteran minimum. He used a piece of the taxpayer mid-level exception to sign Isaiah Joe to his rookie contract, but Morey never saw fit to use the other $4.8 million or so.
A trade appears the Sixers’ most realistic avenue for acquiring a high-impact player, again. Growth from a young player already on the team like Tyrese Maxey would be significant, too. Morey said the Sixers feel Maxey “has a really good chance to step into the rotation next year” on an every-game basis.
“We don’t have a lot of buttons to push,” Morey said. “We have three top-level, max players. That’s actually the ideal situation you want as an NBA team. But it also starts to limit your options with sign-and-trades and how much mid-level you have and how much cap room you have to sign (players). … Internal improvement is probably the bigger lever, and the nice thing is, because we have young players, because we have players that we think have areas you can obviously improve … it’s pretty rare, frankly, to have top players who are already performing at a very high level in this league who also have things that you can point to and say, ‘Hey, if we can improve that, the team can get a lot better.’
“That’s pretty rare, and it’s actually an opportunity, not a negative, when you’re looking at, how do we take the next step? With all that said, even though they’re limited, the tools we have, in terms of free agency and trade and draft, obviously my job is to explore all those, and we will. But I would say more internal improvement than external.”
Should Simmons remain in Philadelphia, his offseason work is of huge importance. There’s no mystery about where he must be better.
“I wish basketball was rocket science sometimes, because it would allow us to create more of an edge,” Morey said, “but I think it’s pretty straightforward what certain players need to improve.”
Piling up praise on Rivers
Morey deferred to Rivers on several questions. For a cynical listener, perhaps it seemed to be an attempt to deflect on difficult subjects. To other, it might have come off as humility, an understanding of his turf.
Morey had a lot of good things to say about Rivers, ranging from his influence on team culture to his adaptability. A team chocking a 2-1 series edge and two big leads doesn’t tend to reflect well on its head coach, but Morey never gave the impression he placed much blame on Rivers for the Sixers’ second-round exit.
He was asked about the possibility of moving Simmons to a full-time power forward role. Former Sixers head coach Brett Brown briefly attempted a similar shift in the NBA’s Disney World bubble, starting Shake Milton as a half-court ball handler, before Simmons suffered a left knee injury that ended his 2019-20 season.
“I think that’s frankly a better question for Doc and his coaching staff. … I leave it to Doc and his staff,” Morey said. “And I think you heard Doc — and I agree with him — how tremendous the staff around him was. … Frankly, a lot of Doc wanting to play Maxey was really more Maxey-related — that we were seeing in practice what he was able to do. I think the best coaches, like Doc, they don’t pre-script: ‘We have to play X way.’
“In fact, I thought Doc just did a tremendous job with the roster. It’s a roster that — a lot of teams, as we played in Houston, are playing a certain style — but our players play a different style. To take that mix — especially with where the rules are at in terms of how much perimeter contact is allowed versus paint contact — to take that mix of payers and turn it into the No. 1 team in the East … obviously we didn’t get as far as we needed to, but I thought the job that Doc and his staff did was tremendous.
“Long story short, the players like Maxey, some of it is you can’t always say, ‘We need X, and let’s go get X.’ If you do that, it creates challenges in terms of building a team. I really appreciate the coaching staff’s ability to say, ‘OK, we have this set of players. We’re going to come up with the best way to use them.’ And they did that very well all season.”
The pain of elimination
The Sixers were 13th in offensive rating during the regular season, per Cleaning the Glass, and 14th in points per 100 half-court plays.
The team was dependent on its stellar defense and its transition offense, and that became especially obvious when Simmons posed a minimal threat in the half court during crucial playoff games and others couldn’t create good shots.
“We need to be a better offensive team,” Morey said. “I think — and I know Doc believes this — there’s internal improvement that can help there. And then there’s obviously potentially some external improvement, as well. Just take game seven at home, which is just incredibly — I’m still stunned, sitting here, that we didn’t win the game seven at home. But one of the big reasons is Doc did a really good job getting our guys to push in transition, and actually we even got in transition in game seven but somehow only made 40% of our shots off their misses. That and Joel have the been the lifebloods of the offense. Half court is Joel and transition, it’s Ben.
“And frankly, Ben and others made some incredible passes in transition. But we didn’t knock the shots down in transition to a level that … I’d have to look, but I think it might’ve been our worst performance. Tobias has been unbelievable in transition and was getting the same shots that he was getting all year, and they were rimming out. We’re two days after. You can tell it’s a little raw still. I think you replay that game seven a bunch of times, and we execute better and we win.
“But look, the reality’s the reality, and we didn’t do it. And frankly, if we’re squeaking by the second round, that just tells me we’re unfortunately not good enough, probably, to win the title. So we need to get better, but that series is still incredibly painful.”
According to Cleaning the Glass, the Sixers in game seven started 26.5% of plays in transition, an excellent number. They scored 119.0 points per 100 transition plays, though, which would have ranked 29th in the NBA during the regular season, and also committed a few costly transition turnovers.