This is all too familiar.

We - the Sixers, their fans, the contingent of media covering the team - embark on the offseason while at least a handful of other NBA markets play on. For more than a month still, at that.

May is when the temperature rises and the Sixers hold exit interviews, selling hope that next time will be different to anyone who will listen.

Maybe it will, maybe it won't. With each passing season, though, this thought, in some form, likely crosses your mind:

"Forget a Finals berth; will they just get to a Conference finals?"

Each postseason dismissal; each year of wear and tear on Joel Embiid's body; each question that you were previously sure was answered but the latest outcome suggests isn't - it all makes even the most unimpressive checkpoint seem so lofty.

Got to the Eastern Conference finals; woah, hang the banner!

As much as this season of Sixers basketball ended the same way they all have in the Embiid era - that is, short of the glory - the demise wasn't as shameful as so many of the others were.

Shameful or prideful, win or lose, no season ends without reflection. Here are 10 takes from the way the 2023-24 Sixers' season came to an end.

The bet against Josh Hart making threes was a good one

Hart shot 24 percent from three-point range on 21 attempts in the New York Knicks' Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Miami Heat in 2023, per Cleaning The Glass. That futility was split into 33 percent on 12 corner threes and 11 percent on nine non-corner threes.

That's "non-shooter" status, and he only sharpened to 31 percent from deep in the 2023-24 regular season. That is, 34 percent on 67 corner threes and 30 percent on 185 non-corner threes.

So, logically, Hart shot 43 percent from three in the series against Philadelphia. 33 percent on nine corner attempts; 46 percent on 28 non-corner threes.

The Sixers happily pinched the driving lanes when Hart was one pass away on the wings. The closeouts were late, timely but without arms raised, or simply non-existent. They mixed it up when he caught the ball in the corners, either paying no mind at all or closing out after the catch.

Needless to say, Hart had plenty of time and space to shoot throughout the series. To his credit, he made the Sixers pay time and time again.

Two of the lasting memories from the series should be from Games 1 and 6. Hart knocked down three triples in the fourth quarter to seal Game 1. He hit four of them in the game; he hadn't hit more than three in a game in the regular season. The other, of course, is the shot that minted the series win for the Knicks; a top-of-the-key triple from Hart to put New York up three with less than 25 seconds to play in Game 6.

Some of that is randomness. Some of that is silly luck. Some of that is picking your bets on defense and living with the outcomes. Treating Hart as a non-shooter is not a bad bet; neither in the moment, nor in hindsight.

I will say, you can find Hart practicing for those moments during his pregame workout. Earbuds in, eyes fixed on the basket, he's simulating his decision tree when the ball hits his hands. No thought, just catch and fire. He knows how defenses will perceive him when the ball swings his way. So, if he's going to have the space, be prepared to take advantage.

Among the feedback on the series 97.3 ESPN received from those in league circles was that the Sixers could've done more to tweak the way they treated Hart from game to game, even quarter to quarter.

In other words, perhaps the Sixers should've treated Hart like an ordinary shooter in some quarters, a sniper in others, and a non-shooter in the most meaningful minutes of the games. The idea is to get in Hart's head, hoping that he second-guesses himself in crunch time.

I thought Philadelphia demonstrated various perceptions of Hart, the change influenced by location on the court and game situation. But, perhaps the strategy for toying with his confidence was disorganized and, thus, easy to tune out.

Would it have made a difference if Hart had grown accustomed to shooting against normal contests, only to appreciate the dare of practice-level shots in the fourth quarter? Who's to say?

At the end of the day, if Hart turning into what would've arguably been the league's fourth most efficient three-point shooter this regular season is what kills you in the playoffs, so be it.

In a league driven by star power, Embiid and Tyrese Maxey did all they reasonably could have

Philadelphia scored 649 total points in the series. Embiid and Maxey each scored or assisted on 282 of them. In other words, the two stars registered counting statistics (points or assists) on almost 87 percent of the Sixers' total offensive output in the series.

Through eight playoff games in 2024, Jalen Brunson - who I think has as strong a case as anyone for best player in these playoffs thus far - has scored or assisted on roughly 49 percent of the Knicks' points. That individual workload is heavier than those weighed by either of the Sixers' stars, who were each responsible for 43.5 percent of the team's offense.

There are other considerations, though. Brunson has the highest usage of anyone in these playoffs. You would expect nothing less from the superstar point guard leading a team to a 2-0 lead in the East semifinals. Despite Embiid having his own superstar equity, his playoff usage is actually 11 percent lower than Brunson's currently is. Toss in the disparity in responsibilities on defense and there's a reasonable case that their respective impacts on their teams have been similar if not even in these playoffs.

The case for Maxey is far simpler. He was responsible for roughly 12.6 percent less of his team's offense than Brunson has been for the Knicks' during New York's active playoff run. His usage was 36 percent lower than Brunson's has been. Their defensive responsibilities grading similarly, it feels slightly miraculous that Maxey was able to generate as much offense as he did given the amount of time the ball was in his hands.

If you want to point to Embiid's volume of turnovers as a counter-argument, I'll listen. Games 5 and 6 represented 56 percent of his turnovers in the series. You can toss aside the nine he committed in Game 5 because Philadelphia won. The five he committed in a three-point loss in Game 6 sting.

As for the theme of Embiid producing below his standards in the fourth quarters throughout the series, I won't be as amenable. But, more on that later.

Maxey has the luxury of it being his first playoffs as a lead ball-handler. He has a buffer built in. Not that he needed it, though.

Recency bias can be a curse. Fortunately for Maxey, the memory of his Game 5 heroics might just outlast that of him drawing dead against OG Anunoby's low-man rotations in Game 6. The forgettable Game 6 aside, Maxey consistently elevated his play in the postseason more than any Sixer has in the Embiid era - including Embiid, himself. Given the uncertainty of it being his first postseason as a lead guard, it would be unreasonable to suggest you expected more from no. 0.

That's as good a segue to the next take as any.

Maxey is a legitimate playoff star

You can overwhelm yourself looking at the numbers to make this point.

There were promising signs dating back to his rookie season that Maxey wasn't fazed by the moment in the playoffs. He took the biggest bump in regular-season usage of his career to date and turned it into an All-Star appearance and Most Improved Player award. The unquestioned second guy on the scouting report for the first time in his career, Maxey didn't blink on the biggest stage the game has to offer in the playoffs. Not only did he match the ballooning playoff usage with ballooning production, but he did so in Madison Square Garden of all places.

He averaged 38 points per game as a visitor on the world's most famous basketball court, the most a visiting player has averaged at Madison Square Garden in a playoff series since before the 1996-97 season.

Maxey fell a rebound short of a 35-point triple-double in Game 2; the only thing he couldn't do in that game was prevent the robbery that the league admitted took place on the Last 2 Minute report the following day.

Maxey followed an underwhelming-by-his-standards Game 4 with a 46-point, nine-assist, five-rebound effort in Game 5 to shock the world and stave off Philadelphia's elimination.

The regular season is a different sport from the playoffs. Context tells perhaps as much of the story as the statistics do. Maxey's lack of fear regardless of outcome and response to adversity told me as much about his playoff stardom as any statistic ever could.

The offense should flow more through Maxey over the course of the regular season, but not as some "passing of the torch"

I cannot emphasize that second phrase enough. I will expand on Embiid later, but this is not meant to be a slight on him as a player even if it's partially a commentary on his injury history.

Maxey is far from the best version of himself at this stage of his career. He doesn't consistently organize the floor or use his own gravity to make advanced playmaking reads. He's the point guard insofar as he knows how and when to get the ball to Embiid. Maxey's progression still leaves him leaning far more shooting guard than point guard, a theoretical limitation given his size.

But, as much as he's a positional tweener right now and as far as he has to go to develop into a true point guard, the only way it's ever going to happen is with reps. Forget about counting assists; as his usage rises, Maxey's assist rate will inevitably tick upwards, too. This is all about seeing the whole floor; not just what's immediately presenting, but what might present with the next action or movement, too.

Maxey's playmaking isn't the only aspect of his game that needs reps. His four highest-scoring games of the season were 42, 50, 51, and 52 points, respectively. Maxey attempted at least 11 free throws in three of those four games. He's not going to light the world on fire from three-point range every game. When it's not falling from deep, there will be times - both in the regular season and playoffs - when he's going to need to play a more probing style to get himself to the foul line.

Maxey's free throw rate was 26.6 percent in the regular season. It dropped to 20.3 percent in the playoffs. Brunson's free throw rate was 30.2 percent in the regular season and 37.9 percent in the playoffs.

I won't reject the premise that you get the benefit of more favorable officiating when you wear a Knicks jersey. But, at the same time, some guards know how to put themselves in positions to accentuate contact better than others do.

Maxey's type of dribble penetration does not consistently get a generous whistle:

Simply put, Brunson's brand of probing, manipulative dribble penetration is far more likely to get the attention of the officials:

This isn't at all to say that Maxey should abandon his speed. His ability to put pressure on the rim is one of his greatest gifts. But, balancing the styles of dribble penetration is one of Maxey's clearest opportunities for growth. Because when the three ball isn't falling on any random night, the most consistent stars make up for it by getting to the foul line.

In order to best leverage those skills in the most important games, he needs more reps with the ball in his hands in the regular season. Maxey needs more reps making the play multiple passes away and using his own gravity to create and act on advantages around the court. He needs more reps getting defenders on his back, feeling out that contact, and continuing accordingly.

The Sixers can do that by extending the minutes Maxey plays without Embiid. That's more of a luxury they'd probably love to have in the regular season. But, the Sixers will win playoff games with both stars on the court. So, in the interest of preparing them for the postseason, the most feasible answer is to run the offense through Maxey more in the regular season.

The benefits extend beyond investing in Maxey's development.

For one, it'll make Embiid's work easier. Their two-man chemistry was excellent this season. Only greed could sour that. But, if Embiid's workload is lighter and the game is slowed by Maxey learning how to consistently get to the charity stripe, the big guy theoretically remains fresher while he's on the floor. If he's playing fewer minutes in a fatigued state, Embiid's risk of injury should be lower.

Ultimately, it's as much about Embiid's willingness to lower his share of the offense as it is about anything. Doing so might just be what's best for the Sixers.

Speaking of Embiid...

Embiid made strides as a postseason player, but it's time to alter his approach

Toss aside the fact that Embiid averaged 33 points (still second-most in the playoffs despite having been eliminated over a week ago) and nearly 11 rebounds in the series. His 34 assists against 25 turnovers made for a ratio of 1.36:1. That still is not a great assist-to-turnover ratio for a player of his usage, by the way. But, it's at least a positive ratio; that's progress from where he's been for the majority of his postseason career.

Throw the best assist-to-turnover ratio of his playoff career into the pot with the scoring and rebounding. Add in the defensive impact. You get the best Box Plus/Minus (BPM) and second-best Value over Replacement Player (VORP) of his playoff career.

The only game of the series in which Embiid was actively harmful to Philadelphia's chances was Game 5 in New York. Many will remember that as the game in which Embiid was terrible and Maxey saved him from putting another meltdown in a win-or-go-home situation on his resume. But, for as poorly as he shot the ball, for as many turnovers as he committed, he recognized that he had to be more of a passenger on offense. He set Maxey up for countless shots in the fourth quarter and overtime. Embiid saved his best for the battle on the glass and the defensive end of the floor, grabbing a game-high 16 rebounds and stamping several crucial stops in overtime to secure the victory for the Sixers.

He wasn't himself in that game. Probably had something to do with the workload placed on a body that had returned from a two-month layoff in the weeks prior and symptoms of Bell's palsy. The machoest blabberers you know might've deemed it another example of Embiid being "soft". I'll give Embiid the same treatment every other star fighting through ailments gets after victories - it wasn't perfect, it wasn't pretty, but he found ways to help his team win instead of running from the adversity with his tail between his legs.

Still, there are some (many?) who have lost all belief in the 2023 league MVP. There are some (many?) who gave up on him long ago. They might say that it's time to capitalize on Embiid's trade value and build around Maxey. The young guard is always available to play, and he proved himself to be a ready superstar in the series.

To that I'd say Maxey would not have had the series he had without Embiid's presence on both ends of the floor:

And yet, if there is no Maxey in Philadelphia, is Embiid even still donning a Sixers uniform? Has his belief in the franchise expired by now?

The correct answer is that the plane needs both engines in order to fly. But, both engines need some maintenance.

For Embiid, that maintenance is a stylistic change.

The big guy averaged just 5.8 points in the fourth quarters against the Knicks. He shot 23.1 percent on 26 shots across the six fourth quarters. Free throws propped up that scoring output as much as anything can prop up 5.8 points per fourth quarter. Nine assists against five turnovers doesn't do Embiid many favors, either.

I can't totally blame Embiid for those fourth quarters in which he and his team drew dead when so many of Philadelphia's shots originated from the Knicks' defense setting up like this:

attachment-Screenshot 2024-05-11 at 2.30.18 PM
attachment-Screenshot 2024-05-11 at 2.33.07 PM

On one hand, you want your stars to make the decisions most natural to them in the most important moments. Trust the work you've done to perfect your craft, do what you're best at, do what has forged your identity at the highest level. For Nikola Jokic, that is being the best-passing center in the history of the sport. For Stephen Curry, that is being the best shooter in the history of the sport. For Embiid, that is being a two-time scoring champion in the regular season and, until his meniscus injury, on pace to have the best scoring season in NBA history this season.

On the other hand, we can't laud some stars for being selfless playmakers and then criticize Embiid for making the right decisions to beat heightened defensive attention when that means he's not the one taking the shots.

He created opportunities for his teammates in the guts of the games; they didn't cash in or the Knicks made brilliant plays to get stops. It happens, sometimes all there is to do is shrug your shoulders and move on.

But, I'm not inclined to let Embiid off the hook entirely.

Why is a star donning a bulky knee brace and putting it on the record that he doesn't completely trust his knee setting up some 17 feet from the basket every time he touches the ball down the stretch of games? If his lower half is compromised, why is he putting so much space between himself and the hoop?

That gave the Knicks a wide margin for adjusting against him in the fourth quarters. It put Embiid, whose lift was inconsistent, in positions where he didn't have much of a paddle to control possessions.

That doesn't happen if Embiid commits to setting up closer to the basket.

To his credit, Embiid tried to leverage his inside game more as the series went on:

Lower body strength might be part of why Embiid doesn't go to his inside game more often in the playoffs. The inability to maintain his footing down low has been a problem for Embiid in many playoff runs. He gets moved off his spot too easily, which forces him away from the basket. It's a significant reason why Al Horford has given him fits for years.

The other consideration is that his inside game simply might not have the polish he'd like it to have, so he doesn't trust it as a tool he can use over and over again in high-leverage situations. Whether it's ball security when he puts it on the deck or shooting touch out of the low post, perhaps it's as simple as unsharpened iron.

Whatever it is, it's amplified by lower body injuries, too.

Embiid spends the regular season playing the game like a wing. It makes for a jaw-dropping watch. It might just be the path of least resistance and injury risk for him.

The downside is that, perhaps regardless of health, Embiid is a more volatile offensive player in the postseason.

His catch spots give defenses space to load up around him, minimizing driving lanes. His preferred distance from the basket makes defenses comfortable with using smaller players as Embiid's primary defenders. Those players, who have lower centers of gravity, can get under him very easily. They can get away with handsy play, increasing Embiid's likelihood of turning the ball over or chucking difficult shots.

If he features the inside game more going forward, Embiid will force defenses to guard him with their center. Gone would be the days of holding the ball away from packs of smaller, peskier defenders. More importantly, he'd simply catch the ball much closer to the basket, inherently decreasing the probability of something going awry.

The Sixers' seven-foot star commands the attention of two or three defenders every time he touches the ball in the playoffs. That's the respect his hard work has earned. It's also an obstacle that hard work has built, because it's just not feasible for a guy of his size to go through that many people every time he tries to score the basketball.

James Harden would've significantly covered up the issue of the non-Embiid minutes

By now, you all know the statistic. Philadelphia outscored the Knicks by 46 points in the minutes Embiid was on the court. They were downed by 44 points with Embiid off the court.

In a series that was so, so close, you're more than justified in concluding that the Sixers' fatal flaw was completely drowning in the minutes that Embiid was on the bench. That issue clearly ate at Nick Nurse, who, by Game 4, was playing Embiid almost entire second halves because he didn't trust his personnel to at least hold steady without the big guy.

The byproduct of that decision, of course, was that Embiid was totally gassed in crunch time. That was particularly true in a pivotal Game 4, when Philadelphia drew dead in the fourth quarter to seal a 1-3 series deficit heading back to New York.

So many sent Harden packing after last season's disaster against the Boston Celtics, the no-shows in Games 6 and 7 confirming everything they'd always believed about the Hall of Fame guard. But, the Sixers missed him dearly in the non-Embiid minutes in the series.

Some of it is about favorable matchups. But, a lot of it is about carving an identity in those non-Embiid minutes and committing to that. Possessions like this weren't a problem when Harden ran the show in the non-Embiid minutes in the playoffs:

The central theme of the non-Embiid minutes was that Philadelphia could not manufacture offense in a sustainable fashion. Sure, the defense could've been better at times. The personnel was never great at stopping dribble penetration. Paul Reed, who got most of the non-Embiid minutes, was deployed in drop coverage despite lacking the traditional size to thwart the Knicks at the rim. Therefore, better coaching (more on that later) might've helped the defense, too.

But, the symptoms that withstood the test of time came on offense - disorganization in setting up, lack of succinct strategy, and limited shot-creation. All things Harden would've helped with.

Before last offseason's transaction period began, I wrote that the Sixers should've kept Harden at a significant contract below the max. He was quite good after the trade to the Los Angeles Clippers, but I still would've been wrong about committing anything in the realm of max dollars and years for that age and production.

Regardless of his declining play, regardless of whether you like him or not, the Sixers missed Harden in that series. The lack of offensive direction in the non-Embiid minutes was one of many things that killed them.

"People are going to disagree, but we never got to the point where we could even discuss a contract with him," Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey told reporters at his exit interview last Monday. "And I know people are saying this and that and everything, but that is literally a fact that we wanted to have those discussions with him and never did."

Harden, for all of his warts and checkered resume, would've simplified the approach and created good looks for every Sixer on the court. He would've made a huge difference in the series.

Nurse's first playoffs at the Sixers' helm was unimpressive

In fairness, he was at the mercy of the limitations of his personnel. Philadelphia's torrid start to the regular season made it easy to forget that the Sixers essentially sat out of last summer's transaction period in the wake of Harden opting into his deal and requesting a trade. They spent almost no capital leading up to the 2024 trade deadline.

The star power of Embiid, the growth of Maxey, and some good collective play from the supporting cast covered up that management treated this as a gap year. In some ways, the series was a reminder of that. So, Nurse deserves pardoning to some degree.

But, not entirely.

To me, the biggest criticisms should be:

- Kyle Lowry played just four minutes next to Reed in the series, per PBPStats. A seasoned, pure point guard might've made a difference in the non-Embiid minutes if Nurse had given Lowry a real look with those lineups.

- Nurse saw how not giving Embiid a break in the second half of Game 4 cratered the team in the guts of the game, and he almost fully doubled down on it in Games 5 and 6. Just because it didn't result in the same catastrophes doesn't necessarily make it less risky. Nor is it a risk the Sixers were in a position to take, for that matter.

- Part of being a great postseason coach is making timely adjustments. Ignoring Reed's aptitude as a switch defender so that there would be continuity in the team's scheme across the Embiid and non-Embiid minutes put the reserve big man in a disadvantageous position. The team clearly was not equipped to guard the Knicks in drop coverage when Embiid was not on the floor.

- For a coach lauded for his creativity, I thought Nurse's offense lost its creative punch as the series went on. The predictability helped the Knicks anticipate where to be on defense, causing turnovers for Philadelphia. It particularly hurt Embiid's turnover count.

- Creativity can extend beyond tactical adjustments. Nurse had a guy on his bench who matches the Knicks' identity exactly. Yet, he didn't go to Ricky Council IV once in the series. Coaches of playoff teams typically do not turn to rookies for help in the regular season, let alone in high-leverage playoff scenarios. But, Embiid and Maxey got such inconsistent help from their teammates that there would've been no downside in tossing Council into the ring to see if he could add some driving force on offense or rebounding prowess on either end. The head coach essentially passed on a no-risk opportunity.

I'm so tired of watching role players who become spectators when shots aren't coming or falling

To be clear, this is to say that I'm tired of watching players who do not know how to perk up without having a hot hand.

For five and a half years, Tobias Harris was a score-first forward who only occasionally perked up to exert force on the glass or shut down the top offensive player on the other team. Because of the mistake that was his contract, the Sixers had financial constraints that inhibited them in finishing for high-level role players if they had interest in their services. Because they had to use picks in trades (to untangle their own messes), they never had the draft capital to pursue significant role players already under contract if they were interested in doing so.

As a result, Philadelphia spent five years watching Harris not know how or when to do the dirty work or shift toward another skillset to match what the game needed. Because he couldn't be that guy at the inflated salary they owed him, the supporting cast often did not include guys who made their livings being Swiss Army knives.

A summer of mistakes forced the Sixers to support their stars with handfuls of limited specialists and older veterans in every year of Morey's reign. So, even most of the guys who have been breaths of fresh air haven't lasted in Philadelphia beyond the contracts that took them there in the first place.

Morey, armed with a mostly clean slate for the first time in his Sixers tenure, said nothing at his exit interview to suggest he's inclined to invest in high-level role players who will do all the unsung work. More of the same, with a new piece better suited to be the third banana coming in, is in order.

History might say that loading up on star power gives you the best chance of winning championships. But, the teams that have consistently outlasted the Sixers into the summer months over the last handful of years have had at least one guy who does multiple things very well.

Whether it's functioning as a secondary ball-handler and making quick decisions, playing off the ball but being comfortable with creating for one's self, screening and making plays out of the short roll, connecting one side of the floor to the other, being a pesky on- and off-ball defender and matching up well across multiple positions, or having the motor to consistently find the ball as it comes off the rim on either end of the floor, the teams that are still playing while the Sixers are early in their offseasons most years have one or multiple guys who have valuable ancillary skills.

I'm tired of watching role players who don't.

This was a coin-flip series

The average outcome of a game in the series was the Knicks winning by .167 points.

That is, by definition, a coin flip.

Be as mad about the rebounding problem as you'd like. Hold Harris in low regard for the rest of your days. Dwell on the non-Embiid minutes until the Sixers someday win a championship.

By the end of the series, the Knicks had outscored the Sixers by one total point. The largest difference in any game was 11 points; a Sixers victory in Game 3.

It was that close. That's why it's difficult to point to something of which the Sixers should be ashamed.

It hurts for those involved. It hurts for the fans. But, sometimes we have to free ourselves of sweeping proclamations, shrug, and move on. Any player you could reasonably be disappointed in is either almost certainly not returning or questionable at best to be back. Changes will be made, the roster will look different. But, this time, the hardest conversations - the takes as hot as a Carolina Reaper - can stay in their holsters.

The hardest part of the puzzle is finally solved

After so many iterations of the top of the roster, the Sixers finally have their two seamlessly-fitting stars for a playoff run. Embiid's growth as a passer punctuated what was the best playoffs of his career to date. In his first career series as a lead ball-handler, Maxey proved that his regular-season stardom translates well to the playoffs.

"I think it wasn't clear that Tyrese - we all had very high hopes, and I think you'd have put pretty good odds on it; we did - could be the second-best player on a championship team," Morey said at his exit interview.

"I think we absolutely believe that now. That belief went from high to I think we're certain at this point that he can do that."

The Sixers certainly are not knocking anything down. And now is not the time for believers to turn into doubters.

Pessimism around Embiid's health in a playoff format is understandable. That's a real issue with no clear solution.

But, there should be real optimism surrounding the next couple of years of Sixers basketball. Now, it's about finding pieces that fit around the foundation, because the hardest part of the puzzle is in place.

Concerts Coming to Atlantic City in 2024

More From 97.3 ESPN