The Sixers and the Nets finished the NBA playoffs in disappointing fashion. Guest writer Ty Clark revisits the season that (almost) was.
The Milwaukee Bucks have won the 2021 NBA Championship, thus ending a season defined more by what could’ve happened than what did. The 2020-2021 NBA season was a weird, chaotic mess won by the team who got hurt least. The defending champions exited ignominiously in the first round thanks to Lebron James and Anthony Davis’ injuries.
The Utah Jazz’s beautiful attack ground to a halt as Mike Conley and then Donovan Mitchell became unable to orchestrate the ballet. The Denver Nuggets’ chances faded without Jamal Murray; the Clippers’ chances faded
after injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Marcus Morris Sr. The remaining two teams, it was agreed, were not necessarily the best the NBA has, but they are still standing. The NBA Finals may as well be Vicksburg, and the Larry O’Brien trophy be temporarily renamed for General Sherman.
The Nets and the Sixers
Neither the Nets nor the Sixers could overcome their injuries. Joel Embiid and James Harden both tried their hardest but could not muster enough. Kyrie Irving’s Game 4 ankle sprain changed the entire Brooklyn series and probably cost the team their chance at the title, and Danny Green’s exit robbed the Sixers of the steadying two-way wing they desperately needed.
Both teams ended as shells of themselves with offenses helmed by All-NBA talents gasping for anything left to drag their teams to victory. Fumes only go so far. You only get so many miracle three-pointers before one of them becomes a two.
The Nets season ends in cruel tragedy. The team trades for James Harden partly because he is an ironman and can help the other two injury-risk superstars stay healthy, then Harden injuries and reinjures his hamstring. The team is defeated by the Milwaukee Bucks, partly through the Game 7 OT play of former Brooklyn Net Brook Lopez. The three superstars in search of respect end up gaining it but through a Pyrrhic victory, falling short of their intended goal. But Kevin Durant, my goodness.
The Game 5 and Game 7 shots will live forever, but the lasting image will be Steve Nash hugging Kevin Durant after Game 5. It was a brief, silent gesture, with eyes elsewhere, an acknowledgment that Durant had seemingly entered the pantheon of basketball deities to dominate a series and carry a team so dramatically. We know who he is (he’s Kevin Durant ), but it’s hard to know someone can be this good at basketball. Part of the cruelty of the Nets tragedy is that we don’t get to watch more of that incredible performance. But even in defeat, there was beauty.
The Sixers, though, have always defied beauty, eschewing shooting in favor of playing centers at two positions (and three in past seasons). They have been a basketball experiment from the start of this era eight years ago, forever tinkering with the hypothesis rather than admit defeat.
Just one more try, they say. One more shooter and one less draft pick. It’s so close to yielding the ultimate result.
But life defies our efforts to control it, and all the training in the world cannot upend the unusual nature of Ben Simmons’ basketball personality. Simmons is the perfect avatar for the Process Sixers: a basketball unicorn designed to appeal to each and every fan, coach, or media member with the possibilities of what could be only to end in frustration with what actually is. Who knows if he will figure it out. At this point in his NBA career, few Philadelphians want it to happen here. The Rubicon has been crossed. It is time to end the current order of things. Was it always destined to end like this?
After starting the season linked by James Harden trade rumors, a divisional rivalry, and championship aspirations, the 2021 Nets and Sixers ended the only way they could: in separate Game 7 losses less than twenty-four hours apart, two rounds short of their ultimate goal. Each franchise stands at a crossroads. Each fanbase sighs in anguish.
It is a cruel truth that your best chance at a title is one you don’t expect, often the year before you think your best chance is happening. Kevin Durant knows this all too well from Oklahoma City, and James Harden does from Houston. For the Sixers, their best chance was the all-in run that ended on Kawhi Leonard’s Game 7 jumper. For the Nets, this was probably the best window they had, with one more chance next year.
Where do they go from here?
Both the Nets and the Sixers have some hard decisions ahead. The Nets have many roster spots to fill and an already huge luxury tax bill. Filling out the bench with Bruce Browns and Blake Griffins (to say nothing of Spencer Dinwiddie’s) will be harder, especially with many fewer first-round picks after the Harden trade. The Sixers have to try to rebalance the roster without losing all the value in a Ben Simmons trade, then supplement it with depth while also over the salary cap. Their talent in 2022 will almost certainly not be as strong as it was in 2021, just as it was not as good in 2021 as it was in 2020. This is why some teams choose to be the Atlanta Hawks of yesteryear or the Portland Trail Blazers of today.
With few paths to upgrade, maybe it’s best just to hold onto your homegrown talent and hope things break right for you. Maybe it does, and you luck into a title or at least a deep playoff run. Even if you don’t, you get to enjoy another ride with your group. You may not get to teach them how to say goodbye the way you wanted, but you get to go out on your own terms instead of being slowly bled from desperate attempts to escape the death spiral.
In 2010, Brad Stevens’ Butler team almost won the NCAA national championship. Scientists analyzed Gordon Hayward’s heave and determined that if it was one-eighth of a degree to the left, the shot would have gone in, and the Bulldogs would’ve upended college basketball forever. Butler fans, though, hadn’t pinned their hopes on 2010. The next year was the year that was supposed to be their run, with their core group at the right, final evolution. Instead, Hayward went to the NBA. The team made it back to the championship but shot atrociously, ending in agony. The lesson was clear: you never know when you’re going to get back, so enjoy the moment you have, then keep it in your heart for a while.
Truthfully, I don’t want to keep this NBA season in my heart any longer than I have to. The empty arenas, injuries, weird basketball, and everything else…it was a rough year. Survive and advance is usually the motto of college basketball’s playoff tournament, not the NBA’s. But I will remember the efforts of these teams to get through it. I will remember Kevin Durant and Joel Embiid dragging their teams farther than they should’ve had to by seeming sheer force of will. I’ll remember James Harden playing on an injury that should’ve kept him out for a month, knowing
that this was his chance too.
I’ll remember Embiid’s MVP-caliber season, seemingly daring anyone to guard him and usually being right. As we all fought to get through things this year, these players and memories feel like an apt picture of our struggle and, for moments, of what we hoped we would see from our efforts. And now, the pandemic is waning. We may have indeed seen our efforts pay off. The world may be returning to normal. I hope the NBA returns to normal next year (and not just because I don’t want to see the Atlanta Hawks make the conference finals again).
I want the Sixers and Nets to be a little more normal too. But to them, I offer thanks for playing during this year and brightening many a socially distant night, giving us all something to enjoy and talk about. May you get a restful, enjoyable offseason. If this was the best version of you we’ll get well then; thanks for the memories. We’ll be back for you next year.