Kawhi Leonard hit a shot from another planet. The sort of moment that belongs in Space Jam. The Philadelphia 76ers were gobsmacked and eliminated in the cruellest way possible.
Joel Embiid was in tears. Brett Brown was aghast. The Sixers were the first team in NBA Playoffs history to lose a Game 7 to a buzzer-beater.
It was fitting it was Leonard who ended the series, such was his dominance throughout (especially in the fourth quarter on Sunday). For the Sixers, though, it was frustrating in the extreme. There was little more they could have done to stop that shot, forcing Leonard to an impossible off-balance effort from the corner over Embiid.
Helpless, hurt, and painfully eliminated; the Sixers are heading for a franchise-defining offseason.
Jimmy Butler, JJ Redick and Tobias Harris are free agents. There have been rumours that Brown would be sacked if they did not make the Conference Finals. Ben Simmons’ lack of a jumper still causes problems.
Newly appointed general manager Elton Brand made win-now moves this season, giving up draft picks and young pieces for Butler and Harris. Butler thrived in the postseason, while Harris was inconsistent, missing too many open shots and playing average defence.
After The Process, the Sixers are meant to be title contenders.
Embiid is an All-NBA level centre, Simmons is an All-Star. A Game 7 loss, and the four bounces on Leonard’s buzzer-beater, shouldn’t change the outlook for the franchise. It brings the offseason questions a week or two earlier than they would have liked, however, and second-round elimination is a different feeling to if they had lost the NBA Finals to a Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson led Golden State Warriors.
Harris and Butler will be looking for max deals. There are risks in handing long-term, costly contracts to both players.
Harris broke out this season, but he shot just 32.6% on threes as a Sixer. It feels like an overpay, though his ability to stretch the floor is crucial for Philadelphia alongside Embiid and Simmons.
Butler came alive in the postseason, defending like a demon and getting buckets when the Sixers needed it most. His age – he turns 30 this year – and his injury history are worrisome. Years playing for Tom Thibodeau have put extra mileage on the clock.
Giving maximum contracts to Butler and Harris will lock Philadelphia into years of enormous luxury tax payments. Signing one of them, with Simmons’ in line for a contract extension, will still limit financial flexibility.
Then there’s Redick. The handoff game with Embiid might not have been as effective in the postseason, but he hit a few clutch shots in Game 7 when everyone else was struggling. He remains one of the league’s best shooters, replacing him would be almost impossible with their cap situation.
Brown has guided Philadelphia through The Process and over some choppy waters in the last two seasons. His position should be the least of their worries, but little from the organisation suggests he’s safe.
Brand and the rest of the Sixers hierarchy will decide their core this summer. Can Embiid, Simmons, Harris and Butler win a championship together? Will an extension for Butler hurt them when Simmons and Embiid are hitting their prime? Can they win a title with Brown as coach? Is an overpay for Harris worth it? And, most crucially, are the owners willing to lock themselves into millions and millions of luxury tax bills?
All these questions must be answered in the coming weeks. Philadelphia, like so many NBA franchises, are set for the biggest summer in recent history.