The Philadelphia Seventy Sixers are (arguably) the most talented NBA team on paper. They have two dominant stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, complemented by an impressive supporting cast. The Wells Fargo Center provides one of the fiercest home crowds in the nation. However, the 39-26 Sixers find themselves at an underwhelming 6th place in the conference. Many fans wonder- Can the Sixers make a real championship push in the Orlando Bubble?
What went wrong during the first 65 games of the season?
The seemingly never-ending injury woes of the Sixers have become a running joke among fans. Center Joel Embiid only first saw the floor two years after being drafted due to foot surgeries. Even then, he only played 31 games in his rookie year. The three-time all-star is yet to have a 70+ game season. Point forward Ben Simmons also sat out for a year after his respective draft day and was sidelined due to back injuries before the abrupt closure of the league in mid-March.
This season, unfortunately, has been no exception. Josh Richardson, starting shooting guard/small forward and trade acquisition from the summer of 2019 has already missed 17 games. Embiid has missed 21 games, Simmons 11. The loss of Richardson is less drastic, but still takes a prominent and consistent scorer out of the lineup.
In 48 appearances so far, Richardson is averaging 13.8ppg/3.4rpg/3.1apg on 43/33/79 shooting splits.
Injuries most likely cost Philadelphia a few games. However, their failure to mesh on the court is what’s most troubling.
Questionable Systems and Play Calling
Philadelphia Seventy Sixers Head Coach Brett Brown is certainly no stranger to criticism. After a grueling 4-year rebuild in which the team went 75-253, Brown has faced constant pressure for immediate playoff success. Under Brown, however, the Sixers have yet to advance past the second round. Lack of experience, lack of depth and lack of leadership have all been reasonable excuses in the past. With so much talent, and now with two years of playoff experience, Philadelphia is running out of excuses.
In their pre-season predictions, ESPN had the Philadelphia Seventy Sixers slated as a legitimate title contender, and the third best team in the Eastern Conference. The team has not lived up to the hype, and the blame rightfully is being placed upon Brown’s shoulders.
Brown’s in-game decisions are questionable to say the least. He runs an offense in which a point guard who can’t shoot rotates around the top of the key, while keeping a dominant big man outside of the arc for a fair amount of plays. At the same time, he places a stretch 4/5 at best (Al Horford) inside the paint, clogging Embiid’s path when both are occasionally put down low. Many have called Horford “washed” as his scoring has dropped this year, but I personally deem Brown responsible for underutilizing Horford as a shooter.
A Rough Offseason for Philadelphia
Over the summer, the team lost perrenial all-star guard/forward Jimmy Butler. They dealt him to Miami in a sign and trade deal in exchange for Richardson. Butler, unimpressed by Brett Brown’s lack of direction and control over the squad, did not hesitate to voice this opinion. The Sixers made several other questionable moves over the summer, including giving 33 year old Al Horford $27 million a year until 2024. They also extended Tobias Harris on a 5 year, $36 million a year deal.
It is unfair to criticize Harris, as he has been a crucial veteran presence and top tier role player throughout the season. However, it is certainly up for debate as to whether his contributions are worth a max contract.
The Sixers, however, selected Matisse Thybulle in the draft. Thybulle has quickly become a defensive standout and fan favorite.
The Sixers’ Light at the end of the Tunnel
The Sixers head into Orlando with a fully healthy roster. They have a coach who is fighting for his job, along with two motivated stars ready to silence the doubters. Reports have surfaced that Ben Simmons will now be running the 4 as opposed to the 1, and every casual in-scrimmage Simmons 3-pointer tweeted by the Sixers excites me more and more. The newly open point guard spot allows for Shake Milton to shine and be a potential x-factor.
Shake Milton has potential to be a competent, shot-first guard who Sixers fans have longed for ever since Jrue Holiday’s 2013 departure. This year, Milton made 42% of shots beyond the arc, and averaged 22 points per game as a starter in the final 9 games before the closure. He poses a legitimate deep threat, which the Sixers lacked after JJ Redick’s signing with NOLA during the offseason.
Philadelphia has a comparatively easy schedule to close out the regular, and I expect them to head into the playoffs as a fourth or fifth seed. They also benefit from reduced rotations in the playoffs, with one of the deadliest 8/10 man rotations in basketball. Experimenting with Shake Milton as a starter may click and hugely improve the offense. If not, they can simply revert back to the old rotation.
The Sixers have already downed both Los Angeles clubs, Boston, Milwaukee and Toronto this year. Ben Simmons is one of a select few who can (relatively) contain Giannis Antetokounmpo. Who’s to say an angry Philadelphia team with something to prove can’t make a run?
I for one, will always trust the process.