June 29, 2020
No team had a more bipolar season, pre-pandemic, than the 2019-20 Philadelphia 76ers. On any given night, they were as likely to blow out a title contender on their home floor as they were to lose to a bottom feeder on the road. Was Joel Embiid ready to play? Would Tobias Harris' touch be there? Could Al Horford clear a sheet of computer paper with his vertical leap? All fair questions to ask on a given night.
It's what makes them such a difficult team to project heading into the Orlando restart, even in a setting where every team's path will be hard to predict going in. They were the agent of chaos during normal times and are now being thrown into the most chaotic environment any of them will have been in as professional basketball players.
It is true that on paper, Philadelphia's schedule is one of the friendliest for any team involved in the resumed season. They don't play on the first day of the restart, and don't have any back-to-back games until toward the end of the eight-game slate, by which time some of their opponents may have already locked up seeding or elimination. What isn't clear is whether any of those factors will actually matter.
So having watched the Sixers more than any person should this season, I am prepared to offer my thoughts on which version of the Sixers will show up for each individual game, factoring in opponent motivation, rosters, season performance, and just general buffoonery. Outside of positive tests that have already been announced, this exercise assumes that the teams will otherwise remain whole between now and early August, though the real world may get a lot messier.
Starting from the beginning...
Home Sixers: I don't think you would find any Sixers fan who legitimately fears the Pacers, nor do they come up as a serious title contender at almost any time. They have nonetheless given the Sixers some trouble at times over the years — Philadelphia won the season series by a comfortable 3-1 margin last year, but the teams have split the 10 games they've played during the post-Process years. Indiana, in fact, could easily be up 3-0 in the season series if not for Ben Simmons' defensive heroics during their meeting in November.
But part of that, I believe, comes down to Indiana's approach to the regular season vs. Philadelphia's. No one who watched Indiana's New Years Eve massacre of the Sixers would sit here and tell you the Sixers offered an honest effort in that game. People are often too quick to blame effort in losses, but that game is one of many this season where the Sixers were the more talented team and simply didn't bother to show up.
One "positive" of this layoff is that I think most guys are going to come out ready to play basketball again. There's a feeling of freshness to it all. And if the Sixers are able to at least match the competitive level of the Pacers, they should be able to get a W here, particularly with Indiana's Malcolm Brogdon on ice for two weeks following a positive COVID-19 test. That'll slow the Pacers' ramp-up period, and as recently as last week, Victor Oladipo expressed uncertainty he'd be ready for Orlando.
The Sixers, for all their faults, usually show up ready to rip at the beginning of seasons. Expect more of the same here.
Home Sixers: As an organization, the Spurs are known for their professionalism, preparation, and ability to extract value from areas of the league other teams are behind on. Doesn't that sound like a team you should bet on coming out strong during the Orlando restart?
I'm less bullish on their prospects. For one, we are long past the point where we can wave everything away with, "Doesn't matter, Spurs magic." They are what their record says they are — a below-average team that no longer has the spine of a playoff threat. They have an assortment of players who are individually gifted, but they are constructed primarily around players whose reliance on long twos is focused on despite defensive issues being the real problem. The Spurs have been only marginally better on defense than the Golden State Warriors, who spent most of the season running out lineups reminiscent of the 2013-16 Sixers.
They simply aren't that scary anymore. The November meeting between the two teams was a fairly pedestrian affair, with the Sixers coasting to victory before blowing the doors off of Miami the next night. Even with their focus on Jimmy Butler's return, even with DeMar DeRozan managing a relatively efficient 29 points, the Sixers still cruised from start to finish. I see no reason to doubt their ability to do so again in August.
Home Sixers: Weeks before we begin in Orlando, the Wizards feel like a safe bet to mail these games in and call it a season. Davis Bertans already opted not to play in order to protect his future payday in free agency, and with one of their key rotation players out of the mix, the Wizards go from being a playoff longshot to a near impossibility. Normally you'd be afraid of a Bradley Beal explosion, but it feels unlikely here.
Have the Sixers had their best performances against the Wizards in recent memory? Far from it. In fact, the Sixers haven't won in Washington since they very first Process season in 2013-14, during the hot start that quickly fizzled out and turned into the loss-ridden campaign everyone expected. But I don't read a whole lot into that. The Wizards were good-ish during a down period for Philly, and heading down to D.C. these days to play in a cavernous arena against a nondescript team is not exactly the sort of setting that gets this team going.
(Quick sidebar: that fact is why I think skepticism about their performance in the empty-gym restart will be fascinating to track. Embiid loves the roar of the home crowd, but he also loves engaging with the hecklers while on the road. Hard to know what his energy level will be like, to say nothing of the rest of the team.)
I just don't think Washington has enough talent or motivation to get a win here.
Road Sixers: Come on, you thought the Sixers were going to beat Markelle Fultz and the Magic in Walt Disney World? Be serious, guys.
Three games in, the Orlando Sixers feel as though they're building momentum. Three straight wins? Improved team chemistry? At least one national TV pundit claiming they could win the whole thing? Perfect time for the 2019-20 Sixers to take a huge, steaming dump on the court. I can't decide if this is going to be a double-digit loss or a game they choke away in the fourth with a collection of the ugliest turnovers the team has had since last October. Leaning toward the latter.
This was supposed to be Fultz's big Philadelphia return game, and frankly, I was uber fascinated by the potential reception he was going to get. Fans bent over backward to support him while he was with the Sixers, but I don't know how much goodwill is actually left for him around here. It certainly wouldn't approach the venom Jimmy Butler received during his first return this season, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say there will be no more Minnesota Vikings inspired "FULTZ! FULTZ! FULTZ!" chants at Wells Fargo Center.
Needless to say, there would be nothing more Road Sixers than Fultz dropping 20+ on them in Disney Word and inspiring all sorts of bad reaction columns the morning after. To make matters worse, the Oklahoma City Thunder pick will move into the danger zone of not conveying, inspiring all sorts of arguing over whether they should have traded Fultz in the first place.
Home Sixers: This was one of the tougher picks. The Blazers have put some beatdowns on Philly in recent years, and with the Damian Lillard/C.J. McCollum guard combination, it's not crazy to view them as a team uniquely equipped to bother post-lockdown Philly. On the other hand, this Blazers team is a lot worse than in years past, the Sixers beat them without Embiid earlier this season, and conceptually they're similar to the Spurs, with a top-10 offense weighed down by miserable defense.
Jusuf Nurkic is the biggest X-factor in this matchup, as he was set to make his season debut in mid-March before the league shut down as a result of COVID-19. Embiid is better than him by a good margin, but Nurkic provides Portland with a better starting option than Hassan Whiteside and at the very least improves their depth. Reports suggest he's expected to play, there's just no way of knowing how effective he will be after roughly 17 months off from basketball.
Stopping the Portland backcourt will be a legitimate pain in the ass, but I just can't see Embiid allowing one of his targets of humiliation, the aforementioned Whiteside, get the best of him. Embiid could roll into Orlando with a full beer gut and a new sponsorship deal with Chick Fil A and I would still take the Sixers here.
Road Sixers: Let's be honest with ourselves, Devin Booker dropping 30+ in a Sixers loss feels like an absolute certainty. The only question is whether he'll play in this one to begin with.
Here's the major swing point for this game: Phoenix's motivation at this point in the restart calendar. The Suns being included at all is a bit silly. At six games back with only eight more to play, odds are they're going to be eliminated from playoff contention fairly early even if they hold up their end of the bargain. Dates with the Mavericks, Clippers, Pacers, Heat, and Thunder all come before the matchup with Philly.
Unless Booker forces the coaching staff to play him, odds are they'll put him on ice to avoid a major injury in a meaningless game. In theory, that would allow the Sixers to get rest for one or more of their best players in advance of their only back-to-back of the restart. These are the moments you went out and signed Al Horford for, after all.
Naturally, the Sixers will probably lose the gimme and necessitate wins in their last two, because they can never do things the easy way.
Home Sixers: Fresh off an inexplicable loss to a team with nothing left to play for, it's time for the Sixers to infuriate everyone who just wrote them off as a serious playoff threat. There has to be one win over a team people expect them to struggle with, so why not this one?
Throughout the last few years, the Sixers have managed to come up with a signature win over one of their bogey teams (mostly the Boston Celtics) later on in the season, convincing everyone things were going to be okay in the playoffs. In Simmons' rookie year, Embiid put up 26-16-6 in a road win over the Celtics, and last season Jimmy Butler delivered a memorable dagger to beat the Celtics in late March. Both of these performances were memorable in spite of their poor record in the season series against Boston.
You may have heard Embiid struggles to deal with Marc Gasol. No better time than this game to make a statement and convince people the struggles are a thing of the past.
Home Sixers: James Harden's jersey is (allegedly) retired in a Houston strip club. Betting on him to have some fun while stuck in Orlando.
Road Sixers: James Harden's jersey is (allegedly) retired in a Houston strip club. Betting on him to be bored out of his mind and go into full assassin mode while stuck in Disney World.
I don't know guys, this one is too close to call. But it looks to me like they're looking at 6-2 or 5-3. It could have been worse.
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