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April 07, 2018

Young or not, the Sixers have a reasonable path to an NBA Finals appearance

In your heart of hearts, nothing more than a playoff appearance would have seem satisfying to a Sixers fan way back in October, before you'd seen the team play a minute of meaningful basketball. The odds were stacked against them to do much more — rookie ballhandlers were running the show, a fragile, second-year center was the team's best player, and an infusion of new talent was going to take time to gel.

But even the Sixers will tell you expectations have changed around Philadelphia since training camp, since we've seen Ben Simmons blossom and Joel Embiid follow up his tremendous rookie season with an All-NBA campaign in year two. After a heart-stopping victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night — a win that earned the Sixers total control of the No. 3 seed with three games to play — the players reflected on the change in mindset in early April vs. late September.

"Not many people would have expected us to be in this position with three games to go," said JJ Redick after the win over Cleveland. "I don't think you should put a ceiling on our team right now. Whether that's homecourt, or second round, conference finals, whatever, just kind of ride this wave and enjoy it. There really shouldn't be any expectations, because we're way ahead of any timeline that was placed on us. We should be proud of what we've been able to accomplish, and hopefully, there's more to come in the playoffs."

"It started in the summertime," added Robert Covington. "Guys coming in and working out on their own, nobody's forced to be here, because everybody knew what the ultimate goal was. As a unit, everybody bought in from the very beginning. We knew we were going to have to build the chemistry and everything, but that's where it became guys locking in, and a lot of people didn't expect us [to be here]. But we believed in ourselves and we knew what we were capable of."

And so here they are, 49 wins later with a chance to win 52 and send a very clear message about their trajectory. The Sixers have done everything possible to prove they will be running the East years down the line, built around the vast talent of their young core.

It has been assumed for a long while now that this year was just the first step for the Sixers, that they would follow a trajectory similar to the young Timberwolves of 2016-17. They have zoomed past those expectations, and even in the absence of Embiid have proven capable of taking down an Eastern Conference contender.

So perhaps it's time to start talking about grander expectations for Philadelphia. Yes, it will be a challenge for them just to win a series their first time in the playoffs. But with the way things have broken for them, there is a path to contending this year that doesn't require a lot of mental gymnastics.

The Sixers have improved as the season has moved on

Progress, as has often been noted throughout Philadelphia's rebuild, does not always come at a steady, unflinching rate. Sometimes you need to go through adversity and failure to improve, to learn from your mistakes in order to become who you believe you can be.

This has undoubtedly been true for the Sixers. Since January 1 the Sixers are 32-11, which puts them in some very elite company:

2018 is Philadelphia's year

Team Record since Jan. 1 
 Houston Rockets38-6 
 Philadelphia 76ers 32-11
 Toronto Raptors 33-12
 Utah Jazz 30-12
 Portland Trailblazers 30-14
 Golden State Warriors 28-14

They have matched the record with efficiency befitting that sort of run. Once again, the Sixers trail only the Rockets — you know, the team with the best record in the league and the biggest pre-Finals threat to the Warriors we've seen in years — in NETRTG since January 1, outpacing teams by almost nine points per 100 possessions.

This comes attached to an obvious caveat: Philadelphia's strength of schedule has been far lower in their closing stretch than it was to start the year, and they have met a lot of teams recently that were dead in the water over the last few weeks. But that is not the extent of the story — we are talking about a 43-game sample, over half the games the Sixers have played this season. Eventually, you are what your record says you are.

This sort of thing didn't seem possible at the beginning of the season when the Sixers showed flashes of brilliance but would ultimately fold under pressure against battle-tested veterans. As they began to accumulate wins, though, their coach believes steel has been forged within them.

"When you accumulate wins, there is a spirit that is hardened, and it grows and confidence builds. It's normal, they're human beings," said Brown after his team beat the Cavaliers. "So when somebody tells us we have the best or second-best record in the NBA after Christmas, and we start looking at real facts and math — forget opinion — it all equals a locker room that feels like we can win. We feel like we can close out games, we feel like we can get hit in the mouth and bounce back."

That response has been critical, but it's also true that the Sixers simply aren't allowing teams to punch back at them or break down their leads in the same way they did in December. Turnovers, once viewed as the fatal flaw for this team, have become less and less of a problem as time has gone on. Even within their current hot streak, they have dipped for the Sixers with each passing month (with the understanding, of course, that they've only played four games in April):

 MonthTurnovers per game 

Philadelphia's improvement into an elite defensive team is tied directly to that fix. Opponents have a few less extra possessions per game as a result, and most importantly, a few less opportunities in transition. When the Sixers are able to set up with Embiid, Simmons, and Covington together on the defensive end, they are tough to beat on a possession-by-possession basis.

The Eastern Conference is opening up for them

Though the Sixers currently have one major health hurdle of their own to clear, the uncertainty of Embiid's recovery at least affords him a chance to play in the postseason. One of the primary competitors for the Eastern Conference crown, the Boston Celtics, can no longer say the same about their best player.

Kyrie Irving's injury has changed the complexion of the Eastern Conference playoff push. Boston's offensive engine has been ruled out beyond the playoffs, and the East's second-best team will now have to make due with a collection of young, untested players flanking Al Horford. If there's a coach who can make it work, it's Brad Stevens, but they are considerably less daunting in their current form than they are with Irving.

Assuming the Celtics survive their first-round series — I think they should still probably win without Irving, regardless of matchup — that would offer their opponent in the second round a chance to win a series against a team missing its best player. As of right now, the team best positioned to do that is Philadelphia, who simply needs to win out in order to earn the No. 3 seed and place themselves on the Boston side of the bracket.

The goal for any team in the East right now should be to avoid Toronto and Cleveland as long as possible. The former has earned the respect with their all-around performance this season, and the latter has LeBron James, who hasn't been toppled in the Eastern Conference playoffs since before he left Cleveland for the Miami Heat. If current seeds hold, the Cavs would play Toronto in the second round, so the process of elimination would wipe out one of the two scariest teams left before the Conference Finals.

Philadelphia and their fans should have a healthy amount of respect for every team left in the picture, frankly, including the lower seeds. The Pacers have been a tough out all season, the Wizards have playoff experience to fall back on, the Heat are tough and well-coached, and the Milwaukee Bucks have Giannis Antetokounmpo, an athletic freak of nature who can take over a game on a given night. Beating whichever team emerges as their first-round opponent should be the only concern from the team's perspective right now.

However, look at what the Sixers have done against the teams in the East who currently hold homecourt in that stretch since January 1:

Opponent (date)Final score 
 Boston* (Jan. 11)114-103 (L) 
 Toronto (Jan. 15) 117-111 (W)
 @ Boston (Jan. 18) 89-80 (W)
 @ Cleveland (Mar. 1) 108-97 (W)
 Cleveland (Apr. 6) 132-130 (W)

*Game played at neutral site in London

When it comes to the Cavaliers specifically — a team most would still expect to make it to the Conference Finals — there is only so much that increased effort can make up for. It was jarring to watch them against the Sixers on Friday night, playing transition defense as if they were a group of players who just met for the first time. In fairness — they basically are! A large portion of this team has been asked to come in at the trade deadline and form a championship-caliber group in just a couple months.

As we sit here in early April, all the Eastern Conference contenders have flaws. The Raptors have to exercise years worth of demons in the playoffs and prove they can beat LeBron when it matters. The Celtics have a major injury that has robbed them of their best player, compounding the absence of Gordon Hayward that they've expertly navigated all season. And the Cavs, despite having LeBron James, are going to have to execute almost perfectly on offense to cover for their defensive weaknesses.

So sure, the Sixers are going to have to prove the stage isn't too big for them. But is that any more glaring a concern than their foes are dealing with?

They will have the best player(s) in almost every series they're in

Philadelphia's underlying numbers and progress as a group are great, and that's why they come first in this discussion. But playoff basketball often comes down to a simple question: do you have the best player in a series?

It is the question that prompted Philadelphia's rebuild to begin with. Yes, the Sixers appeared in the playoffs frequently enough and had some fun players throughout the 2000's. But not since their magical run to the Finals in 2001, when they had the MVP-winning Allen Iverson on their squad, have the Sixers been able to be confident about their top-end talent vs. teams they were up against.

The presence of Embiid alone has changed that for the Sixers, to say nothing of the play of Simmons, which has only improved as the playoffs come closer. Embiid is one of the only players in the playoffs who can rightfully claim they can completely alter the course of a game at both ends of the floor. He can crush increasingly small teams in the post, lock down the paint on defense, and drag defenders out of the paint to clear space for Simmons' drive-and-kicks.

Outside of a matchup with Cleveland, armed with one of the best players of all-time, you can make an argument that Embiid is the most impactful player in every other matchup. What's more, he'll play even more minutes in the postseason than he has in the regular season, with a lack of back-to-backs empowering Brown to lean on his best player(s) even more.

That alone should scare teams waiting to see how Philadelphia looks in a playoff series. Philadelphia's starting group of Simmons, Redick, Covington, Saric, and Embiid has consistently been one of the league's best groups this season. That has only become truer over time, and they are comfortably the best five-man unit among heavy minutes groups this season.

Five-man groups with > 400 mins. played together

Team Lineup NETRTG 
 76ers Simmons-Redick-Covington-Saric-Embiid21.4 
 Thunder Westbrook-Roberson-George-Anthony-Adams14.2 
 Raptors Lowry-DeRozan-Anunoby-Ibaka-Valanciunas11.5 
 Trailblazers Lillard-McCollum-Turner-Aminu-Nurkic10.4 
 Warriors Curry-Thompson-Durant-Green-Pachulia10.0 
 Timberwolves Teague-Wiggins-Butler-Towns-Gibson 8.6

If you're not particularly numbers inclined (or don't want to look at the rest of the qualifying units), here's a simpler way of putting it: the efficiency gap between the Sixers' best and most-played unit and the league's second-best unit is larger than the gap between the second-best and tenth-best unit.

That group will have more of a chance to play together than they ever have in the regular season. The bonus on top of that? Their bench has been significantly better since the Sixers acquired Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli to round out their group. A shortened rotation will showcase their starters more while still giving the improved reserves a chance to shine.

The Sixers have proven they can survive without Joel Embiid

Special as Simmons has been as a rookie, there were plenty of indicators suggesting he was struggling when Embiid would hit the bench. That's something good teams can and do punish in the playoffs, where every possession matters much more.

If Simmons' recent play with Embiid on the bench hasn't changed your mind with the eye-test, you will be happy to learn the numbers support an uptick for the squad when Embiid is out of the game.

Since January 1, the Sixers are outscoring teams by 6.6 points per 100 possessions with Simmons on the court and Embiid off, per the NBA's stats database. It is certainly a drop from their otherworldly production when they share the court, but that's to be expected when you split a pair of stars. It is also almost the exact inverse of what happened when Embiid left the court in the season's early months — the Sixers were outscored by 6.7 points per 100 possessions with Simmons on and Embiid off in the games they played up until December 31 of last year.

Simply holding the fort without Embiid was a struggle early in the season, and now they're not just doing that, they're comfortably beating teams. The Sixers have learned to move in and out of different styles depending on their personnel, and their recent stretch with Embiid hurt has been highlighted by Simmons tearing down the court in transition, flanked by shooters who can punish even a moment's hesitation.

The Sixers are no longer in a place where they rely too heavily on a single method of offensive creation. They can hurt you in transition, they can hurt you on the low block, they can hurt you with difficult shotmaking from guys like Marco Belinelli, Redick, and other shooters on the roster.

Markelle Fultz's late inclusion into the rotation, questioned as a possible wrench in the machine, has given them yet another curveball to throw at teams late in the year. He will likely not look as good in a playoff setting when teams realize how hesitant he is to shoot a three and gameplan accordingly, but adding an isolation scorer out of nowhere is not something most playoff teams are afforded this late in the year.

So why can't it happen?

Everything you can see with your own two eyes suggests the Sixers are peaking at the right time, whether that's the swagger they play with or all the data trending upward.

It's still important to retain some skepticism, however. The Sixers' two best players are 21 and 24 years old, and they will be relying on a set of players who are largely untested in a playoff format. Hell, none of the triumvirate of Embiid-Simmons-Fultz even appeared in an NCAA Tournament game during their college careers. That means nothing in terms of their ability to be great NBA players, but they will soon be on the biggest stage of their lives without much experience to lean on.

Intangibles and experience matter. Most of the teams they'll go up against are led by stars who know what they can get away with physically, what breaks officials will give them, and how to navigate that tightrope once the regular season ends. Tests like that big game against Cleveland are a good proving ground for Simmons and Co., but they are no substitute for the real thing.

No one should be so arrogant as to expect a deep playoff run for the Sixers. With Embiid an uncertainty heading into round one, it would not be a shocker to see them upended by a more experienced group before they can find their sea legs. A median outcome here looks something like a second-round loss — enough talent to offer a statement of intent, without the battle-tested resolve to sustain that over multiple series.

If you were putting odds on it, there's probably no better than a 10-15 percent chance for the Sixers to make the Finals. They need to play well, for matchups to break their way, and for no unexpected problems to arise between now and June. That's a tall order for a team and coach venturing into unfamiliar territory.

Just don't write off the possibility altogether. Philadelphia has earned the right to be taken seriously in the battle for the Eastern Conference, even if future results ultimately prove it's not their time just yet.

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