The Philadelphia 76ers are headed back to Scotiabank Arena in Toronto to take on the Raptors for the first time since their historic Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals last season.
Kawhi Leonard's game-winning shot cut the 76ers' season short of their goal, leaving them with a long offseason full of decisions in how to make this team a championship contender. Philly's roster saw some decent turnover as Jimmy Butler was sent to Miami, receiving Josh Richardson in return, and former rival Al Horford joining the Sixers via free agency.
In the seven months - and 16 regular-season games - since Kawhi's Game 7 dagger, what have we learned about the 76ers?
Our NBA.com staff share their thoughts on the matter.
Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_ ): I honestly don't think we've learned anything about the 76ers since that shot.
Yeah, their roster has changed, but the only thing we've learned from that is that this team is really big. Aside from that, I don't think we've seen what this team is capable of. Between Ben Simmons' shoulder injury, Joel Embiid's suspension and a game missed from knee soreness and Josh Richardson's hip injury, we've barely seen Philly at full strength.
They had a strong showing when they were healthy on opening night against the Celtics, but since then, they've lost big games to the Suns, Jazz and Nuggets. Simmons' game doesn't look all that different, even after knocking down his first-career 3-pointer. Their lineups still don't make sense at times. Tobias Harris hasn't exactly proved he's worth the money he got this offseason, either.
The 76ers were pegged as one of the two teams - along with the Bucks - as clear-cut favourites to win the East this season after their offseason moves. Are they still contenders to represent the East in The Finals and potentially win an NBA title this year? Certainly. But there hasn't been anything I've seen since Kawhi's shot back in May that makes me think this team is any different from last year's 76ers team or the year prior to that.
Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13): Kyle hit the nail on the head even if he didn't realize it while typing.
"Simmons' game doesn't look all that different..."
We've learned that they'll miss Jimmy Butler more than anyone was ready to admit.
Go throughout NBA history and find the most recent champion that did it without a perimeter player who could score from the outside and off the bounce down the stretch of tight games. Seriously, start scrolling.
Simmons was supposed to be that guy and the early returns suggest he's just not there yet. To be clear, he's got MVP potential and he's only 23 years old so this isn't a statement pouring salt on his overall potential. It is, however, important to note that it could be an Achilles heel for a team that many people picked to come out of the East and potentially win the whole thing. Looking up and down the roster as currently constructed, there's not even the Fred VanVleet or J.J. Barea type to come in off the bench and relieve some pressure as a shot-maker as Philly's top perimeter reserves don't fit that mould.
Championship windows shouldn't be taken for granted and they can slam shut faster than anyone expects. Just ask Oklahoma City or Chicago.
Unless the 76ers' front office looks elsewhere for an upgrade to bolster the perimeter shot-making, losing Butler could end up costing them dearly.
Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay): First off it's still ridiculous to me that people like Micah continue to find ways to pin the 76ers problems on Ben Simmons' lack of range. That's not the only issue with this team and to be honest it isn't the biggest one.
Now to answer the question about what we've learnt since Kawhi's shot eliminated the 76ers is that they still lack leadership.
And while I disagree with Micah on the Simmons stuff I do wholeheartedly agree with him that they miss the heck out of Jimmy Butler. For all of Butler's faults, he was the one guy on the roster last year that would pick the team up when it needed to be picked up. He was the one guy that would believe the 76ers had a chance to win no matter the score. He gave them a swagger - a championship swagger.
This year that's gone and I don't know that anyone on the team can replicate that.
Every championship team needs that one piece that gives them an attitude to take them over the edge in close games and later on playoff series. This isn't about Butler's talent and what he did in the clutch even though the 76ers still need to figure out life without him down the stretch of games. This is about the mentality he brought to the team - and that can come from the third or fourth option on the team.
Pat Beverly brings that edge to the Clippers. The Warriors don't hit the pinnacles they hit without Draymond Green's grit.
Elton Brand probably thought bringing in Al Horford would give them the leadership they may have lost without Jimmy Butler, but if he was paying attention he would realize Horford did nothing to help lead the Celtics last year when they needed it. The 76ers need someone with swagger, someone who sets the tone - the emotional tone. He's not on the roster right now and their season will end the same way as last year if they don't find him.
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