Opinion: Sixers’ success hangs on difficult decisions involving Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons

The COVID-19 pandemic has distorted time.

The Philadelphia 76ers were a bounce and overtime victory away from reaching the Eastern Conference finals last season. It might as well be a lifetime ago.

Today, the Sixers are two games from getting bounced out of the playoffs in the first round after losing to the Boston Celtics on Wednesday and falling to 0-2 in the best-of-seven series.

Not only are they no closer to an Eastern Conference championship than they were last season, they are headed in the opposite direction.

And the long-term prospects aren’t encouraging either.

The micro is problematic and so is the macro, and while Ben Simmons is missed, it’s doubtful his presence would change the outcome of this series.

So what next for the Sixers in a conference that will improve at the top with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant available for Brooklyn next season?

The Sixers have two outstanding players in Joel Embiid and Simmons who bring unique skills to the court but have limitations.

Embiid is an old-school center in a smallball world, and while he can step out and shoot threes, the league is not built around those kind of centers. Simmons is an extraordinary playmaker and defender who can’t shoot three-pointers.

The two players need a bridge to make it work. That player was Jimmy Butler who decision-makers were told was the guy you spend big money on to make all the other big-money contracts work. Just look at the impact Butler has had on the Miami Heat.

The Sixers didn’t go that route. Instead, they overpaid Tobias Harris on a five-year, $180 million deal. Good for Harris. Bad for the Sixers who gave max money to a No. 3 or No. 4 and are stuck with that contract. They also have Al Horford on the books for three more seasons at $27 million per year in addition to $30 million-plus a season on average going to Simmons and Embiid for the next three years.

Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons (right) and center Joel Embiid. (Photo: Bill Streicher, USA TODAY Sports)

But it’s not just one or two decisions that have derailed the Sixers. They are dealing with the fallout of multiple mistakes. Mistakes that have turned a promising future into a crossroads for the franchise. It’s a spot the Sixers didn’t expect to be nor should they be.

What does Philadelphia do next? General manager Elton Brand is smart and respected both by other executives and players and has to bail out of decisions made by executives before him.

Replacing Brett Brown as coach might be the easiest route in the short-term. Keep the main pieces of the roster intact and see what a new coach with a different style and approach can do.

His winning percentage has hovered around .600 the past three seasons and his work early in his tenure when the Sixers couldn’t win 20 games in a season was valuable. He maintained an impressive disposition focused on development.

But in the previous two seasons, the Sixers didn’t advance beyond the second round and likely won’t make it out of the first this season.

The coach is almost always the easiest to blame.

The more difficult move – the riskier move – is a roster shakeup involving Simmons or Embiid. That won’t be easy either, given their limitations. The deal better work out perfectly for the Sixers or that will set them back further.

The Sixers thought they had a window to compete for a championship and perhaps they still do with the right moves. But that window has closed more and sooner than they thought it would given everything they did to get players they thought would help them win a championship.

Follow USA TODAY Sports NBA columnist Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt

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