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Philadelphia 76ers Mid-Season Report

Scott Wachter / USA TODAY Sports

Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers experienced one of the worst fates you can suffer in last Saturday’s game. Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum made a last second three-point step-back to propel the Celtics past their long-standing rival. Embiid attempted a near 75-foot heave and rocketed it through the net but time had expired before the ball was released from his hand. 

“Unfortunately, story of my life,” said a dejected Embiid following the loss. The statement rings all too true to the Sixers fanbase. 

The 76ers most recent narrative arc has been less of a Mike Lupica rise-and-triumph story and more of a Stephen King-esque horror novel. The organization has gone through what feels like countless changes over the course of “The Process”. The Sixers hired a new head caretaker, err… coach in Doc Rivers three seasons ago. The organization banded together and forced away the curse of the evil clown terrorizing their city in Ben Simmons. Finally, James Harden, after being in Shawshank Prison for his crimes against the Rockets and Nets, was given his second chance (side note, after spending some time around the city, Harden might stumble upon a letter written by former inmate Jimmy Butler, saying “meet me on a beach in…Miami.”)


Where Things Stand

The Sixers through 62 games are sporting a 40-22 record, and currently control third place in the Eastern Conference. The roster boasts impressive top-ten offensive and defensive metrics, right up there beside teams considered to be title contenders. The Sixers arguably have the best roster situation they have had since Embiid earned superstar status. Similarly, the potential playoff path along the way isn’t as daunting in the East as it was last season. Consistently though, teams like the Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks and even the Cleveland Cavaliers have been given better chances.

Any case for the Sixers being a championship contender rests on the shoulders of their centerpiece Embiid. Embiid can make the argument that he is the most dominant player, not just at his position, but in the entire league despite playing in an era with another center who has the chance to rattle off three consecutive MVP’s.

So why does it feel like a cloud of skepticism is creeping up next to them?

The Case for the 76ers 

Embiid has followed up his stellar season by averaging 33 points a game after leading the NBA in scoring last season. That would be the most by a center since Moses Malone in the 1981-82 season. Embiid has taken his durability more seriously this year as well. The former Jayhawk has played in 48 games so far and is on pace to play in 65. 

The seven-foot product from Cameroon has shown during his career that he is not shy. Embiid likes the spotlight whether it was him asking if Rihanna was single on Twitter in 2018, or his new celebration that pays homage to the D’Generation X crotch chop celebration. The center exemplified that most in a game on January 28th. Embiid laid the smack down matched up against the Denver Nuggets and Nikola Jokic. Embiid registered 47 points, 18 rebounds and five assists in what can only be described as an instance of basketball peacocking. 

The Sixers additionally have gotten a revitalized James Harden this season. Harden’s role in the Sixers offense has been carved out to be an elite facilitator and shot creator. The speculation around Harden after the early playoff exit last year was whether or not he had lost his ability. Harden looked older, had a difficult time getting separation and fouls, and his shooting had regressed. Harden has settled in under his first full year with the Sixers. The thirteen-year veteran’s shooting percentages are back where they were in his peak seasons with the Houston Rockets and leads the NBA in assists per game.

The Sixers role players have contributed solid seasons too. Tyrese Maxey has been redeployed as a bench threat in recent months and regained his footing in the offense. PJ Tucker and De’Anthony Melton have slid perfectly into their defensive disrupter roles as well. Jalen McDaniels will be interesting to see how he incorporates himself into the lineup especially with the Sixers gluttony of wing options on the roster. McDaniels profile does give the Sixers another forward who can play in both big and small lineups and stretch the floor. 

The Case Against the 76ers

Who would you trust more in a playoff series, Harden or Rivers? Unfortunately that’s the question everyone asks themselves when thinking about the Sixers. For all of Embiid’s greatness, the question persists whether he will have the security he deserves in a playoff series? There’s almost a decade’s worth of evidence against both Harden and Rivers that would lead people to say once again, “maybe next year”. 

The Sixers roster is not at the same level as their competitors. The Celtics and Bucks have uber-deep benches, with playoff proven players. Tucker is the only player on the Sixers with NBA Finals experience. The 76ers have improved their depth but still possess some alarming holes.

The Sixers still don’t have a legitimate backup point guard. Maxey is a score-first guard, and hasn’t shown much growth as a facilitator. Needless to say, the biggest indictment on this team’s depth is their lack of Embiid insurance. Montrezl Harrell isn’t the right type of backup after just 25 games of action. Harrell’s playing time has fallen precipitously since the start of the new year and was fortified by the signing of free agent Dewayne Dedmon last week. 

The Sixers are also one of the worst offensive teams down the stretch in tight games. Chalk it up to not having enough shooting or the defensive schemes around Embiid, but regardless of what it is, scoring late has been their achilles heel all season. 

The Verdict

This brings us all the way back to coach Rivers. Rivers undoubtedly is one of the more respected coaches in the NBA. The twenty-four year veteran coach has a knowledge of the game that extends from his playing days. Rivers’ resume in the last ten years though has been abundantly lackluster. There have been some built in excuses for him in years past. Rivers dealt with the corpse of Ben Simmons for half a season last year. The good news is similar ills have stayed away from their team so far. It’s now up to Rivers to put it all together.

As the eternal hoops clock continues to tick away, it is time for the 76ers to capitalize on what they have. Players don’t last forever and as Embiid approaches his 29th birthday, the Sixers are dangerously close to having nothing to show for rostering a once in a generation type of player. 


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