The Sixers are all-in on new vibes after their absurdist drama
The Philadelphia 76ers mobbed Furkan Korkmaz after his winning buzzer-beater in Portland on Nov. 2, but what they have cherished more than the win is the night that unfolded afterward. Tobias Harris organized a gathering at a local club to celebrate. Every player on the trip came but Al Horford, who says he was more or less a DNP-OLD.
They toasted Korkmaz. At one point, Josh Richardson approached Korkmaz and asked what he was feeling. “This is the best day of my life,” Korkmaz replied with an earnestness that surprised Richardson. Mike Scott raised his voice an octave to imitate Korkmaz’s giddiness in a separate conversation at the club: “‘I never felt like this beforeeeeeeee!'”
Three nights later at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City, Ben Simmonstexted his half-brother, Sean Tribe, to see what he was up to. Tribe responded that Richardson and Joel Embiid were watching the Chicago Bulls–Los Angeles Lakers game with some team staff in the hotel lounge, and suggested Simmons join. Simmons came and watched with Embiid as LeBron led a huge comeback. It struck several people — including Simmons — that such a gathering would not have happened last season.
“Definitely,” Simmons told ESPN. “The chemistry is much better. Guys are giving up their time to bond.”
After Game 7 of their epic series against the Toronto Raptors, the parent of one Sixer confided to higher-ups that the team’s chemistry felt off, sources say — that they seemed like a group that would rather ride home in separate cars.
Kawhi Leonard‘s epic four-bounce shot plunged those Sixers into the unknown. Three starters — Harris, JJ Redick, and Jimmy Butler — entered free agency. Philly had given up two popular Process holdovers — Robert Covington and Dario Saric — for Butler in the first of two mega-trades that roiled the roster. In the playoffs, he became the centerpiece of their offense.
But on June 30, there was no five-year maximum offer for Butler, multiple sources say. Perhaps the Sixers pivoted after learning of Horford’s interest in joining. Perhaps they were concerned about tension between Butler and some within the team, including on the coaching staff. Maybe those two things were interrelated. Like every team chasing Butler, they probably wondered how he would age.
They effectively replaced him with Horford and Richardson on long-term deals. Every key player is under contract for at least the next two seasons. Finally, calm.
After years of absurdist drama — the Process, the resignation letter, Markelle Fultz, the Bryan Colangelo Twitter scandal, last season’s roster upheaval — the Sixers are counting on a new tranquility to grease the team’s development.
Harris and Horford are ringleaders in organizing dinners. Attendance has been robust — “sometimes 14 or 15 guys,” Harris says. He and Horford are Michelin star aesthetes. At the upscale Italian restaurant Barolo Grill in Denver, some younger teammates joked they could not read the menu, Harris says. Embiid is a steak guy. Harris has resolved (for now) to just pick the best steakhouse in each city.
“That stuff is important,” Horford says. “The longer you advance, the more you need everyone connected.” Maybe some bond formed deep in the night will spur the hard conversation that nudges Simmons into shooting jumpers, or Embiid into focusing even more on his conditioning.
Then again, despite whatever strains hovered last season, the Sixers might have been one bounce from the conference finals — perhaps from a championship.
Good vibes are fragile. If Philly’s offense — 16th in points per possession — flounders, caught between tentpole stars who don’t yet complement each other, the inevitable frustration could create fissures. The relationships that really matter are those between Simmons, Embiid and coach Brett Brown.
“You really find out about culture,” Harris says, “when you drop five games in a row.”
On the Sixers’ practice court, Brown sometimes outlines two rectangular areas along the baseline on either side of the paint, extending a few feet toward each corner and up to the foul line. Brown calls it the “low zone,” aka the dunker spot, and it is where Simmons should often be when he’s not handling the ball or spotting up. It is an imperfect solution to the Sixers’ defining structural issue: Their point guard can’t, or won’t, shoot. (His free throw attempts have also dropped by almost half, slightly alarming.) Hanging in the low zone is a way of keeping Simmons productive — as a lob threat, cutter, offensive rebounder — when he is otherwise in the way.
Brown and Simmons both harbor ambitions for Simmons well beyond the low zone. Brown says he has designed plays specifically for Simmons to shoot corner 3s; Simmons had taken none until draining his first career triple against the Knicks Wednesday night. “I want him in the corners,” Brown says. “I want him shooting 3s — on his time frame.”
But if Simmons arrives in the low zone, he needs to stay there, Brown says. “Two inches outside that, and it’s the dead zone,” Brown says. “You’re killing plays. You’re in Joel’s way. You will either be in the corner, or the low zone. Anything else is unacceptable.”