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The Sixers and Bucks Face Critical Decisions This Offseason

The Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers were popular preseason picks to make the NBA Finals, but on Sunday both teams fell down 3-1 in their respective first-round series. Perhaps we’ll witness a miracle comeback, but odds are that both are headed for early postseason exits.

With two Eastern Conference powerhouses facing elimination, let’s examine the biggest question facing both teams this summer.

What needs to change in Philly?

Joel Embiid didn’t sit for even a second in the second half of the Sixers’ Game 4 loss to the New York Knicks on Sunday, and by the end of it, he was completely drained. Embiid, who played nearly 44 minutes, appeared lethargic while protecting the rim, seeking rebounds, and finishing the types of shots he usually makes with ease.

A tapped-out Embiid is undoubtedly one of the reasons the Sixers lost Sunday. But not the reason. He isn’t playing like his peak self after he missed two months with a knee injury and came back only at the end of the regular season. But the Sixers have seen positive results with him on the court, boasting a plus-34 in his 160 minutes in the playoffs. However, without him, the story is far different; the Sixers have been minus-37 in the 32 minutes he’s been off the court. So what’s gone wrong?

The Sixers have been dismal on offense without Embiid, evidenced by a 61.9 offensive rating in this series. Tobias Harris’s bloated contract has yielded little production, Buddy Hield is looking like a bust acquisition, and though Tyrese Maxey is excelling with Embiid, he has seen his production plummet without the former MVP. Maxey has posted a 60.3 effective field goal percentage in the time they’ve shared the floor in the playoffs, but that number falls to 34.6 in his minutes without Embiid.

Maxey has played all but 19 minutes in four games against the Knicks, though, so it’d be unfair to blame him when he’s carrying such a massive workload and shining for the vast majority of the game. The lack of support is just glaring. Sixers general manager Daryl Morey acquired Hield at the deadline to provide shooting, but he’s been reluctant to fire and has missed all but one of his field goal attempts this postseason. Harris isn’t making open 3s, scoring on layups, or providing any resistance on defense. Philly needed these guys to make some noise—but they’re giving nothing.

The team’s offensive woes are mirrored by its defensive struggles; the Sixers’ defensive rating has ballooned to 124.2 in their minutes without Embiid on the court. The drop-off from Embiid to his backup Paul Reed has been dramatic. The Sixers defense allows 46 percent of shots in the paint with Embiid on the floor and 63.6 percent with Reed because the Knicks have no fear when he’s underneath:

Philadelphia’s shaky perimeter defense isn’t making life easy on Reed, but he doesn’t have the size or length to even deter drives. Maybe Nick Nurse should be giving third-stringer Mo Bamba a chance? At least he can shoot 3s and block shots. But whether Reed or Bamba or Howard Eskin plays minutes behind Embiid, this series is probably over.

The good news for Philly is that this summer offers hope. The Sixers will head into the offseason with $60 million in cap space and multiple draft picks via the James Harden deal to help them surround Embiid and Maxey with the right pieces.

The Sixers will probably make a run at signing Paul George to add shot creation from the wing, but it might be a pipe dream to think he’ll leave the Los Angeles Clippers. Free agent options get slim after that. LeBron James? Doubtful. DeMar DeRozan? Intriguing. Miles Bridges? Complicated, but he’s a better player than Harris. And that’ll be the goal, really: finding upgrades. There’s no dramatic makeover coming. Despite a flawed roster, the Sixers were on a 65-win pace when Embiid and Maxey were healthy this season. Making sure Embiid is durable will always be a concern, but that’s why finding another source of shot creation and depth behind him is so critical.

Andre Drummond was nearly acquired by Philadelphia ahead of the deadline before the Chicago Bulls pulled out of the deal. But Drummond would have merely been a backup; he and Embiid can’t share the floor. The Sixers should consider finding a big who can play with or without Embiid. If a trade could be made, Brooklyn’s Nic Claxton would fit better than any other free agent since he’s a stellar perimeter defender who also provides interior skills as a shot blocker and above-the-rim finisher.

The title window isn’t shut for the Sixers. But Embiid is now 30 years old, and his injuries are piling up. The coming offseason will be challenging, but the team’s flexibility will allow it to be creative and maybe produce the best roster of the Morey era yet. Right now, though, Philadelphia’s championship aspirations are as exhausted as Embiid was in Game 4.

Who will run the Milwaukee Bucks?

Two weeks ago, Marc Stein reported that the Detroit Pistons have interest in hiring Bucks general manager Jon Horst to lead their basketball operations. Stein’s scoop didn’t get much traction. The playoffs had yet to begin, and the report didn’t exactly predict that anything will happen. But league sources tell me there’s a real possibility that Horst will take the gig in Detroit.

Now, why would Horst leave the Bucks for the league’s worst team? He is a Michigan native who got his start working in the NBA as a front office assistant with the Pistons. In his 16 years with the Bucks, he’s risen up the ranks, but his power has dwindled in recent years. Giannis Antetokounmpo was more or less able to choose Adrian Griffin to be the Bucks head coach last summer, even though Horst wanted Nick Nurse. Then ownership chose Doc Rivers, though Horst wanted Warriors assistant Kenny Atkinson. And after years of bolstering the roster around Giannis, the Bucks now have the second-oldest team in the league, have suffered major injuries in three straight postseasons, and don’t have the rights to any of their firsts until 2031. This confluence of circumstances might make the prospect of a fresh, malleable start appealing.

It’s easy to see why Horst never wanted Griffin, who turned out to be one of the worst NBA head coaches in recent memory, or Rivers, whose teams have underperformed in the playoffs in nearly every season other than 2008, when his Celtics won the title. Rivers has longevity and respect from players, but he has historically given playing time to declining veterans over deserving young talent. That’s happening again this postseason, when Rivers has leaned too heavily on Jae Crowder, Pat Connaughton, and Malik Beasley. Anytime AJ Green or Andre Jackson was inserted into the game, good things tended to happen, but they received little investment from Doc during the season and virtually none in the playoffs until it was too late.

Whether Horst or someone else is running the Bucks this summer, it’ll be crucial to convince Rivers that he needs to trust Green and Jackson. They might be young, but they have proved to be positive contributors, and their youthful energy adds some punch to the Bucks’ aging core. But with the Bucks facing elimination again, Rivers isn’t solely to blame. Neither is Giannis for choosing Griffin in the first place. And neither is Horst for building this team under mounting constraints. This is the way things tend to play out when teams go all in. Ultimately, the Bucks are now just old. Brook Lopez is 36 and not what he used to be. Damian Lillard is 33 and has an extensive injury history. Khris Middleton is 32. And Giannis himself will turn 30 next season.

Odds are that the Bucks will run this back with Giannis, Dame, Middleton, and maybe even Lopez. There aren’t many other options since they have such limited assets, room, and picks. But how long can they keep this show together? There is a lot of work to be done to give Giannis another chance to win a championship in Milwaukee.

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