Philadelphia 76ers: Beat the Bucks philosophy is woefully flawed

(Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
(Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images) /

While the Philadelphia 76ers certainly need to be able to beat the Bucks in a playoff series, building a team solely with that intention has proven to be woefully flawed.

There’s an old adage in sports that you build a team to win your division, and while basketball doesn’t operate under the traditional constraints of a divisional system like, say the NFL or MLB, it’s abundantly clear Elton Brand took these words to heart when building the Philadelphia 76ers.

After a successful stint helming the Delaware 87ers‘ transition into the Blue Coats, Brand parlayed some 38 years of basketball experience into an interview for the Sixers’ then-vacant GM job; a job he eventually snatched away from its interim holder Brett Brown.

From there, Brand made his presence known almost immediately by pulling off a massive two-for-one starter swap with the Minnesota Timberwolves to land disgruntled superstar Jimmy Butler for Process-favorites Dario Saric and Robert Covington and was off to the races towards an eventual South Philly street fight for a spot in the NBA Finals.

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However, there was one team that always seemed to get Brand’s goat: The Milwaukee Bucks.

Oh boy the Bucks, a team of shooters built perfectly around a generational superstar. Factor in two-time Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer and I can see why the Sixers would feel a tad inadequate. After dropping inter-conference games to the Pacers, Nets, Celtics, and two to the Raptors, it became clear that the team’s four starters plus Wilson Chandler lineup would be unable to superkick the Bucks out of a seven-game series.

No, three months after swapping out two starters for Butler, Brand did it all over again by moving Chandler, Landry Shamet, Mike Muscala, and two first-round picks to the Los Angeles Clippers for 6-foot-7 forward Mike Scott, six-foot-8 forward Tobias Harris, and 7-foot-3 John Wick villain Boban Marjanovic, doubling down on size to beat the Bucks in an eventual playoff bout.

Only there was a problem with this plan: Philly got bumped in the second round by the Toronto Raptors before they could even test their mettle against Milwaukee.

With a month to marinate on the future before the 2019 NBA Draft, Brand cracked a plan so unusual, so old school, that no one would be able to defeat it: Go all in on size and defense.

Out went T.J. McConnell, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, and (counterintuitively) Boban Marjanovic and in their place came Al Horford, Matisse Thybulle, and a slew of vet minimum nonfactors, and so far, the results have been ugly.

Bad ugly.

Granted, Brand’s, um ‘brand’ of basketball is never going to be pretty, as terms like bully ball were thrown around with reckless abandon, but who would have thought under their candy-coated veneer, you would find the doughy soft consistency of a microwaved peep?

With nary a top-50 playmaker to be found behind Ben Simmons, and a virtually non-existent half-court offense when the 6-foot-10 point guard is playing with a true center, the 76ers have been among the least fun teams in the league to watch, as even a massive lead feels unsafe due to their lack of offensive firepower.

Seriously, how can a playoff team have four players who average 15 or more points a game and somehow score the 23rd most points per game of any team in the league? That is not how you win basketball games. And yet, with the trade deadline hours away, Brand and company have doubled-down on a commitment to Horford, arguably the team’s weakest link, because of his ability to contribute in a potential series against the Bucks.

But again, we have a problem: If the playoffs started today, the 76ers may not make it far enough to face the Bucks to begin with.

Currently the only playoff-bound team with a sub-500 winning percentage on the road, the 76ers would have to defeat the Celtics a minimum of two times to even have a chance at facing off against the Bucks in the second round, a task that’s easier said than done when you consider just how handily Boston took care of a Josh Richardson-less Philly squad without Kemba Walker.

If Boston bounced Philly twice in three years after signing away another perceived roadblock in Horford, everyone, Brand and Brown included, may be handed their walking papers.

“This team is soft.” “The team doesn’t listen to Brett Brown anymore.” “Trade Ben Simmons for D’Angelo Russell.”

When quotes like that are thrown around with reckless abandon by the national media midway through a perceived championship-contending season, something has to give; something has to change.

For as flawed as they were last season, the 76ers were beyond fun to watch. They played with heart, they played together, and most importantly of all, they looked like they were having as much fun playing the game as fans at home were watching it. When Embiid cried after Kawhi Leonard‘s quadruple doink Game 7 winning shot, I believed how much it hurt him.

Fast forward some nine months into the future and I don’t think the players on this team even like each other.

When you take a step back and look at the situation objectively, it’s been fairly obvious, as Simmons called the team soft after their low-water mark loss to the Heat, Richardson believes the locker room needs more accountability, and Embiid has said players need to be less selfish and be more willing to play their roles.

Compare those comments, if you will, to the recent comments of Dillon Brooks of the Memphis Grizzlies. When asked about Andre Igoudala’s status with the team, the third-year second-round pick out of Oregon said he couldn’t wait for the ex-Sixer to be traded, stating to Evan Barnes of The Memphis Commercial Appeal:

"“A guy that’s on our team that doesn’t want to be on our team. I can’t wait ’til we find a way to trade him so we can play him and show him what really Memphis is about.”"

Now that is the kind of fire this iteration of the Sixers is missing. While some critics scoffed at Brooks’ comments, his teammate and eventual Rookie of the Year Ja Morant issued a vote of confidence via a very on-brand emoji-laced Tweet.

Gosh, do you remember when Embiid used to tweet? Man, simpler times.

Ultimately, what happens moving forward is anyone’s guess. Who knows, maybe the team is able to catch lightning in a bottle, secure a legit difference-maker like Bogdan Bogdanović, Davis Bertans, Derrick Rose, or, um, Denzel Valentine, and a chemistry shuffle evens everything out? Better yet, what if Josh Harris intervenes and the team makes a more substantive move that flips Al Horford for a bigger piece like Chris Paul, or (less likely) Buddy Hield? Now that would be cool.

dark. Next. Could Furkan Korkmaz be on the move?

Regardless, if the Philadelphia 76ers are going to right the ship, leave their road woes in (January of) 2020, and make good on their championship aspirations, they are going to have to turn their focus away from beating the Milwaukee Bucks, and onto good old fashion winning in general. While such a change in philosophy may ultimately come back to bite them in a seven-game playoff series, it becomes a bit of a moot point if they’re bounced in the first round by Boston, Indiana, or Miami.