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February 22, 2023

Five Sixers thoughts after the All-Star Break

From Embiid and the scoring title, to the second-round wall, to Mac McClung.

It was an eventful All-Star Weekend for the Sixers in Salt Lake City. Mac McClung won the slam dunk contest, the first Sixer ever to do so. Joel Embiid followed that up with 32 points for Team LeBron in Sunday night's All-Star Game. A rumor also surfaced about the likelihood of James Harden returning to Houston in the offseason, which evens things out in the cosmos that the Sixers inhabit. 

With 25 games remaining in the regular season and playoff hoops coming in just seven weeks, I'm going to take stock of this squad and give five thoughts ahead of the "second half" (what a misnomer calling the games after the All-Star Break this) of the season. 

1. Joel Embiid will be the first center to win back-to-back scoring titles in 47 years. Buffalo Braves Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo averaged 30.6, 34.5 and 31.1 points per game across the 1974, 1975 and 1976 seasons, respectively. Centers have led the league in scoring just three times since then: David Robinson in 1994 and Shaquille O'Neal in both 1995 and 2000. 

This is uncharted territory in the post-merger NBA. 

Embiid was the league's top scorer at 30.6 points per night in 2022. Scoring around the NBA is way up this year with seven guys averaging at least 30. Embiid is currently second at 33.1 points per game, ever so slightly behind Dallas' Luka Dončić's 33.3 mark. 

I say the big fella overtakes him by April 9.  

A fun note: James Harden currently leads the NBA with 10.8 assists per game. The NBA hasn't had a pair of teammates to lead the league in both scoring and assists since the 1982 Spurs. The Iceman himself, George Gervin won his fourth scoring title with an average of 32.3 points per game. Johnny Moore's 9.6 assists per game also led the way. 

2. The Sixers' March schedule is brutal. The Sixers currently sit third in the Eastern Conference standings, just three games behind top-seeded Boston and 2.5 games behind second-seeded Milwaukee. Since 2018, the Sixers have finished in the top three in the East three times, even earning the top seed in the conference in 2021 (just don't ask fans what happened in the playoffs that year). 

Beware the Ides of March, however.

Look at this stretch from the end of this month into March:

It's a historical turn of events for the Sixers:

Only Philadelphia!

The Sixers are currently two games up in the standings over Cleveland, a team full of blossoming young talent – a complete inverse of the Sixers. There's legitimate concern they could slide down to the No. 4 seed. 

What's the difference between the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds? The second round, which has been a brick wall for this franchise. 

If the Sixers win their first-round series as the No. 3 seed, they'd play the Bucks in the second round. This team would have a real shot against Milwaukee to advance! If they're the No. 4 seed, however, they'd end up playing Boston in the East semifinals, a matchup where I can just not see them winning four times in seven games. 

3. The Sixers are stuck at backup center. I could've written that sentence at any point in the last six seasons and it would've proven true. Behind Embiid, the Sixers have Montrezl Harrell, Paul Reed and Dewayne Dedmon. I'm rolling with Reed come the postseason just for the athleticism and upside, but that's a black hole. 

Until the end of my days, I'll think about the Sixers' Game 7 against the Raptors in the 2019 Eastern Conference Semifinals. In a two-point loss, Embiid was a +10 in over 45 minutes of play. Backup center Greg Monroe was a -9 in the less than two minutes he was on the court. Improbable? Yes, but this is the Sixers we're talking about.

Can the Sixers trust any of these guys to not be a -9 in 101 seconds of action? I don't know. How could you trust anything with this team when it comes to the playoffs? 

4. The Sixers' playoff closing lineup needs to be Embiid, Harden, Tobias Harris, Tyrese Maxey and De'Anthony Melton. I have no qualms with Maxey coming off the bench at the moment given the imbalance of this roster. I love the versatility Melton brings playing alongside Harden and/or Maxey. 

Can they rely on P.J. Tucker at the end of a playoff game though?

At this stage, I say no. Tucker is a dog and the only player on this roster with a championship ring. He's grinded out a tough career and cashed in a nice payday this past offseason. He turns 38 in May though. If he's shooting fewer than two threes per game and not bringing the defense he's been known for, what's his utility late in games unless Rivers is going offense-defense? 

The NBA is wide open and there is a timeline out there where the Sixers gut it out and make the conference finals (or even the NBA Finals), but I cannot get the taste of 21+ seasons of not getting beyond the second round out of my mouth. 

5. Mac McClung needs to play at least one minute as a Sixer. Will this have a concrete impact on the franchise's desperation to make it out of the second round? No, but come on, do something for the fans. This city rallied behind a stripped-down rebuild, lived through the Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons eras and saw their general manager canned for a bunch of burner accounts. Throw them a bone! Put McClung in for a game!

It would be the most Sixers thing ever for McClung to win the slam dunk contest in a Red Sixers jersey (which you cannot buy on Fanatics!) and for him to never actually play for the team. Don't let Mac McClung be Philadelphia's Moonlight Graham. Give him at least one game of action so he can officially go down as a Sixer. 

McClung is back playing for the Delaware Blue Coats in the G-League Wednesday night. The Sixers have a nationally televised prime-time home game against the Celtics on Saturday night. Do the right thing and let McClung try to dunk over Al Horford. 

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