Undoubtedly, this season is a crucial one for the Philadelphia 76ers franchise. After having a playoff appearance as the stated goal last year, Brett Brown told his club they should strive to make the NBA Finals this time around. That task certainly won’t be easy with the Boston Celtics returning a healthy Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, and the Raptors taking a big swing with the Kawhi Leonard trade. Not to mention, next summer is the last one for the foreseeable future when Philadelphia will have the cap space to sign a max free agent; it’s important to show prospective future teammates how the team is one more piece away from the eternal glory of the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
With those thoughts in mind, surely the Sixers would like to enter the regular season a finely-tuned machine, having integrated the handful of new faces into the rotation and figured out how to optimize the latest iteration of Markelle Fultz. This preseason though, teams will have less of an opportunity to do that sort of rotation tinkering, as the NBA reduced the number of preseason games in order to provide players more rest during the regular season. While that’s a equal set of circumstances for all NBA teams, the Sixers also have a unique situation that most teams don’t have to contend with at the moment: they’re in China!
That’s right. Before the Sixers conquer the East, they’ll have to charm the populace of the Far East. Philadelphia will face the Dallas Mavericks in two preseason games, Friday in Shanghai, and Monday in Shenzhen, China. The first ever NBA exhibition games in China took place in the late 1970’s, but the China Games became a more regular fixture of the preseason schedule in 2004 with Yao Ming and the Houston Rockets. The league increasingly plays more games around the world as it seeks to expand its global presence. As Sixers fans surely recall, the Sixers played a regular season game against the Celtics in London just last season.
Of course, such an experience comes with its own set of challenges. The team’s flight to China took over 21 hours, having to stop in Calgary to refuel and getting delayed for a few hours due to bad weather. The associated jet lag, dramatic shift in time zone, and stress of unfamiliar surroundings could all set back preparations for the season, especially with players who oftentimes rely on very strict routines. After playing two games in China last preseason, Golden State did not look great in starting the regular season 1-2. Per usual, Draymond Green spoke his mind about the experience (per USA Today):
“I mean at the end of the day, my overall health probably will take a step back. Your conditioning, and eating the right things (are negatively affected). You head into the season, and you kind of want to tune your body up and eat healthy and this, that, and the other. So all those things that’s conducive to playing basketball take a hit...You kind of take training camp and break it up. It’s not the norm, so I think it’s a humongous problem.”
On the flip side, the trip should also provide a terrific bonding experience for a club that clearly puts a priority on that sort of thing. Remember, Brett Brown has Sixers players give monthly presentations on topics of their choice in order to allow them to show teammates their other interests. The team also occasionally has phone buckets at dinner to facilitate actual conversation amongst the group. Traveling together in a country where literally over a billion people speak a different language and have a disparate way of life can manufacture team chemistry in a way that everyone heading home after a day at the regular practice facility simply could not.
After Monday’s game, the Sixers won’t play again until they’re back in the States for the regular season opener against Boston. Maybe they will be adversely affected by the international travel in the short-term, and we’ll wring our hands about a subpar performance against a hated rival in front of a national audience. But it’s also possible that in the long run, the trip will be a boon for the club, cementing bonds of unity and trust that will serve them well in heated playoff atmospheres next spring. After all, after complaining so much about his team’s China trip last fall, Draymond Green’s Warriors club only went on to win the title. I vote if the Sixers win, in lieu of champagne, they celebrate with Master Kong iced tea.