It has been 160 days since the Sixers last played a meaningful basketball game. In that time span, Bryan Colangelo has been replaced as General Manager by Elton Brand, Markelle Fultz has returned with an increased willingness to take jump shots, and entirely too much attention has been placed on wondering what in the world the Sixers can do to overcome the loss of the greatest shooter of all time, Marco Belinelli.
As each new development came about — whether it be the trade for Wilson Chandler, a sneak peak at Joel Embiid’s offseason workouts or Ersan Ilyasova taking his charge-drawing talents to (basically) South Canada — along with it came the narrative framing of whether or not development x, y and z was enough (or so damaging as to limit the team’s ability) to overcome the same Celtics team that ended the Sixers’ season 160 days ago, oh but also plus Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Kawhi Leonard and actual Canada may have a thing or two to say about the notion of needing to overcome the Celtics to get to the Finals, but the sentiment remains: the Sixers’ collection of talent has thrusted them into a territory in which fans expect championship contention.
Is it appropriate for some fans to desire a Finals appearance from this squad? I won’t tell those fans no. The Sixers have a bonafide MVP candidate in Joel Embiid, and Bovada has even placed upon him the 8th highest odds to win the award. Ben Simmons’ odds don’t trail too far behind at 11th highest. Both franchise cornerstones could realistically take the kind of leap that places each of them among the 10 to 12 best players in the NBA — that is, of course, if they’re not already there. As the basketball axiom goes, if a team has the best player on the court, they’ve got a chance to win any series. But if we’re playing with the narrative frame mentioned above (overcoming the Celtics), it’s only fair to note that while, yes, the Sixers could possibly have the best (and second best) player in a Sixers-Celtics 7-game stretch, the Celtics take the next four player spots on the list and have the best coach in the NBA sans Gregg Popovich.
So charting the Sixers pathway to the Finals through the Celtics is simple enough to envision. To believe they’re capable, you have to believe an iteration of one of three or all of the following assumptions:
- The natural growth of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, and to a lesser extent Dario Saric, is itself enough to put the Sixers on par with Boston’s offerings.
- The addition of Markelle Fultz with a newfound confidence, and to a lesser extent the addition of Wilson Chandler, Landry Shamet, Mike Muscala and Zhaire Smith, provides the Sixers two-way value and depth they didn’t have in last year’s playoff series.
- Despite coming away with just one win in the series, the Sixers aren’t all that far off of Boston to begin with.
Do you believe any of those? They’re all within a realistic stretch of the imagination, but for me, I might pull a hammy trying to get there at this point in time. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid’s struggles vs. Boston, the Sixers lack of scorers who aren’t matadors, the genius of Brad Stevens. Those things are all real and we can’t yet decide if they’ve been sufficiently addressed. And though Aron Baynes shooting a million percent from three isn’t real, the disappearance of said feat isn’t enough.
While the Celtics aren’t the only threat to the Sixers’ pursuit of Eastern Conference supremacy this season, they profile to be Philly’s primary foe for some time. For the Raptors, Kawhi Leonard has one foot on a jet airplane branded with a Los Angeles-based team’s logo while Kyle Lowry will be 33-years-old by season’s end. For the Bucks, Giannis simply isn’t getting much help, and Khris Middleton, Milwaukee’s second best player, will be a free agent next summer, meaning the team could lose one of their most important players or sacrifice significant cap space (and thus, potential to significantly improve their roster) to retain him.
So it is acutely appropriate to view the Sixers through the lens of but what about the Celtics. Both the Sixers and Celtics have a core of young players who figure to be with their respective franchises for the foreseeable future. The Celtics stand in the Sixers way this evening, this postseason, this half-decade. It’s Danny Ainge’s demonic ways versus the Process, and the stakes are a real chance to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in a handful of early Junes. And that’s what make this evening’s game so exciting. We finally get some closure, even if only temporary. Have the Sixers done enough in the last 160 days to compete with the Celtics?