By Lachlan Waugh
The NBA this coming season seems to be headlined by three teams, with the Warriors dominance looking to continue and enter new heights; the Celtics re-take control of the East and the Lakers resurrection into title contention. But the fourth? The rise of the 76ers and whether they’re a legitimate seed for greatness.
We got a taste of what they can do, their ‘epitome’ which was during a 16 game winning run to finish the regular season, leading to a 52-30 record and snatching the third seed off the Cleveland Cavaliers in the East. The first round matchup with a well-rounded Miami Heat side tested the young Sixers and whether Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid could push their side up another ladder rung en route to the NBA ‘Promised Land’. The return of Embiid in game three was enough to propel his side on both ends of the floor, and a 4-1 series win injected belief in an NBA finals appearance sooner than many expected.
This offseason has delivered a few worrying moments though. No viable offers for LeBron James and Paul George, the circus around Bryan Colangelo’s twitter and effectively selling out his own wife, and a failed attempt to bring in Rockets GM Daryl Morey. But for now what only matters is basketball, and whether Philly are creating a craft around it. In my mind, it’s fair to say they are.
That ‘craft creation’ has showcased positive results around the young talent, and how much it had transcended. That young talent headed by Ben Simmons and Embiid, who have the potential to be a top 10 all-timers in their respective positons (that could be an overstatement for Embiid, but it’s hard to argue with it after his performances late in the season).
Specifically, Ben Simmons has been their centerpiece for success. He’s an embodiment of LeBron James and Magic Johnson – someone with a high IQ, a unique physique and skillset with an ability to impact his team to such a high degree, but I would assume you knew all that already.
During his side’s winning stretch, Simmons led his team in assists 10 straight games, averaging 12.8 per game, 4.6 more than his season average. He averaged 8.1 rebounds per game during the entire season, sitting second amongst other guards only behind Russell Westbrook. The moment we saw Simmons for what he can achieve, what he can live up to was against LeBron James’s Cavaliers in April where a win for his side would give them the edge over the Cavs in the east with only a handful of games left. Simmons ended with 27 points, with an offensive performance that proved he can score at will. He added 15 boards and 13 assists with a shooting percentage of 71 per cent.
It is incredibly accurate that numbers can lie, especially if when dissecting someone like Russell Westbrook (that can be for another time), so sometimes the eye test is what is needed to assess. That is what elevates Simmons the most, what proves how talented and transcendent he really is. Seeing the vision he has of the court, the mixture of stability and strength when he dribbles the ball inside, and the obvious strength and size advantage he tends to have over others far more physically matured than him.
The other part of the young tandem stands Joel Embiid, an All-Star and second year (fourth year really) centre who missed the final 10 regular season games as well as the Sixers’ first two playoff games with an orbital injury. Much like his first official rookie year, 17-18 saw Embiid show off his vast offensive skillset and his defensive intensity. Before his injury, he averaged 22.7 points during March and April (ignoring his final game before injury where he had nine points off five minutes of play); with 8 games leading his side in points scored. In the final three games of the Miami series when returning, Embiid averaged a double-double, with 23 points in his return.
Is Coach Brett Brown halting their potential?
No, and that is a somewhat absurd thing to say at this stage. Former GM Sam Hinkie’s idea of tanking and rebuilding back in 2013 was at a whole new level, meaning expectations for Brett Brown and the team to succeed never developed until this past season. Those expectations were most definitely exceeded, and worthy role players picked up the slack as well as rookie Markelle Fultz showing signs of promise in the final few regular season games.
But that positivity untied, slightly, when the second round the playoffs rolled around and the smartly-structured Boston Celtics exposed the 76ers. With a 22 point lead in game two in Boston, and the opportunity to even the series heading home, the Sixers blew their golden chance with a range of badly timed substitutions, debatable use of timeouts, offensive and defensive formations and ultimately, experience.
Whatever momentum was created from the first round win was quashed, and with a young team competing in their first post-season the blame falls mostly, if not purely, on Brown.
However it is important to note Brown is effectively in his first go round at creating a contender and his first taste for competitive basketball. His skill at being a developer and mentor predominantly to Simmons and Embiid became evident with their stunning growth, so Brown’s position should in no way be in jeopardy. For now, at least.
The missing ingredient?
The missing ingreident is one that never really became avaliable in swingman Paul George filling a void at the two and three positions. It would give Philly extreme variation in their offensive game – a lock down three shooter and someone who can play in and out, as well as a great defender. Maybe Wilson Chandler can fill that void, somewhat, coming off the bench as a two-way menace. Reagrdless of his struggles the last few years whihc is indirectly not his fault, Chandler adds experience and options on both sides of the ball… but Wilson Chandler can only take you so far.
Therefore free agency in 2019 is the play for Philly, with Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard likely avaliable, who can provide exactly what they need on both ends. Next year will be a defiing moment for the future of the process.