The Philadelphia 76ers have not played a basketball game in well over a week now. Their next game won’t come until the start of the 2024 season, sometime this fall. It’s the unfortunate reality of playoff elimination, and it leaves a lot of time for thinking. It also, though, leaves time to watch the teams still remaining in the playoffs and compare them to the Sixers. The main focus, of course, is the team that the Sixers would’ve matched up with had they won that fateful Game 7 in Boston. The Miami Heat have already taken a 3-0 lead on the Celtics, and seem destined for the NBA Finals. It’s a development that has left many Sixers fans wondering “Why isn’t that us??” Well, there are multiple reasons for the Heat’s success compared to the Sixers, but I believe there’s one big reason that South Beach has seen better basketball than South Philly: development.
No, I’m not talking about real estate. I’m talking about players, specifically role players. Since LeBron James took off back for Cleveland, the Miami Heat have been an organization that has been built on the strength of role players. Yes, Jimmy Butler is HOOPING this postseason, but the big difference between the Sixers (who do still have Joel Embiid) and the Heat is the ability of the secondary and tertiary players. Let’s take a look at some of those players for each team and see if you can tell the difference I’m talking about. The Sixers’ playoff rotation included PJ Tucker, DeAnthony Melton, Georges Niang, Jalen McDaniels, Danuel House, and Paul Reed. The Heat’s rotation includes Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, Caleb Martin, Duncan Robinson, Kyle Lowry, and Kevin Love.
Do you see it? Let me tell you what I take from those lists. Of those 6 players on the Sixers list, only one of them was drafted by the organization: Paul Reed. The rest of the list either came to Philly as free agents or via trade, and you could argue that they were all established NBA players by the time they put on a Sixers uniform. Meanwhile, the Miami list of 6 includes 4 undrafted players, obviously the ones not named Kyle Lowry and Kevin Love. There are multiple takeaways from this interesting trend, none of which are that the Sixers should start signing every undrafted free agent. You see, it’s not so much that the Heat rotational players are undrafted; it’s that they have been given time.
Kevin Love and Kyle Lowry are super important to this too, as are Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. You need some veterans to bring young players along and help establish a culture, but the Sixers approach of having nearly your whole rotation made of free-agent mercenaries doesn’t seem to be working. You see, in Philadelphia, with a ravenous fan base, a process to justify, and a window of a superstar in Joel Embiid that seems to be small compared to others in the NBA today, there just isn’t much leeway to play young players. I don’t think this is a talent recognition problem; Tyrese Maxey has gone through huge development, as has Paul Reed. Both are important parts of this team. On top of that, Isaiah Joe and Charles Bassey, who both moved on to different teams this past offseason after not making the Sixers’ roster, have proven to have some ability to play at the NBA level. How does Miami handle similar situations?
Well, they let the young guys play. Not only do they find undrafted or unsigned players with discernable NBA skills, but they sacrifice regular season opportunities for their stars to help develop their role players. I don’t know if the Sixers could even employ that strategy considering how this fan base treats regular-season losses, but it’s clearly paying dividends for the Heat right now. Patience is not something the Sixers have earned, and it’s not something that might even be rational at this point in the Joel Embiid era, but the Heat have been using patience and development for years now, and to me, it’s the big difference between why these franchises are where they are right now.