The Sixers haven’t had a winning season since 2011-12, the infamous lockout campaign with the team with the best statistical record for half of the season and an unexpected playoff run. They look to clinch a winning record and their first playoff appearance since that season tonight against the Timberwolves. Given the turbulent five seasons since the last winning campaign, which was the only such season since Allen Iverson’s first Sixers stint, it’s appropriate to look back and see how far the team has progressed before previewing tonight’s showdown.
Imagine reading the below a la Jason Kelce.
The Sixers lost 49, 63, 64, 70, and 54 games in those five years. Andrew Bynum discovered his true passion: flamenco. Jrue Holiday became a hollow all-star. His brother played here too. Damien Wilkins blew up the tank. Doug Collins harassed a reporter over text and lamented his poor fortune, then quit. The Sixers hired Sam Hinkie, then went without a coach for five months. Blowhards complained. Michael Carter-Williams looked like the second coming in a 3-0 start. You remember Daniel Orton? Sam Hinkie drove Evan Turner to the airport. MCW cratered and got moved for a pick that still hasn’t been made. JaKarr Sampson played point guard for extended stretches. He like many others came and went, in a movie credits-long list of players that got an NBA opportunity and couldn’t make it work here. Two - T.J. McConnell and Robert Covington - remain. Brandon Davies helped us get in those jokes.
The Sixers languished during two missed Embiid years, filled with disappointing news and stories designed to tarnish his reputation, including one on the anniversary of his brother’s death. Add on one missed year for Nerlens Noel and Ben Simmons. Alexey Shved happened, established his own trade value, then got traded. Jahlil Okafor somehow reached 108 mph on the Ben Franklin Bridge due to a “lack of veteran leadership” or something. Andrei Kirilenko’s saga. The Colangelo takeover. Ish Smith, not once but twice. Nine minutes of Embiid and Noel together, before a trade for a fake first round pick. Hollis Thompson was here almost the whole time. 31 games of greatness, robbed in rookie of the year voting. Sauce Castillo came and eventually went, but not before the picks swapped.
And that’s just the executive summary!
The Sixers still aren’t at the finish line, with Markelle Fultz sidelined, arguments over whether Simmons is actually a rookie, and doubts over whether Embiid will ever not be a health risk. The Sixers went through all the steps necessary to build a sturdy foundation, and that wasn’t always evident in the moment But teams with superstar talent don’t take steps toward contention - they take quantum leaps. We vastly underestimated how effective the Sixers would be so soon and that’s even with one number one overall pick having played only five games due to still mysterious circumstances. The Sixers are on pace to finish between 45 and 50 wins and make noise in the playoffs because they rebuilt with a purpose. And we’ll have years to celebrate that.
With that all said, for tonight’s game, here’s three things to watch for:
Joel Embiid inspires awe through his combination of sheer force and skill. Karl-Anthony Towns inspires awe through his prodigious talent and finesse. They’re different players in most ways, but they’ll inevitably be compared to each other for the remainder of their careers. That said, odds are that they won’t be directly matched against each other consistent with prior meetings.
Minnesota, as Jimmy Butler is out injured, is the only team with a lineup whose size across the front line comes close to Philadelphia’s. Taj Gibson is shorter than most centers, but he’s unbelievably strong and will just beat people up inside. Towns still isn’t a great defender, but he’s improved and blocks a fair amount of attempts. And Nemanja Bjelica has been pretty good at playing the three and defending on the perimeter despite his 6’10” size on both ends, not unlike Dario Saric for the Sixers.
Who defends Jeff Teague?
The alternative question here: where do the Sixers stash J.J. Redick? The Sixers have decided recently that their best matchup in defending speedy point guards is Robert Covington. They’ve been able to hide Redick elsewhere in those scenarios, as the opponents didn’t have guards or forwards across the board who could punish Redick 1-on-1. Doing this against the Timberwolves might be a challenge. Jeff Teague isn’t a better player than some of the guards Covington has recently corralled, like Kemba Walker, but he’s probably too quick for J.J. Redick (or Marco Belinelli) to contain himself for a full game. Andrew Wiggins is probably too good of a one-on-one scorer to stash anyone who can’t defend on him, and Nemanja Bjelica and his 43% three point percentage can just launch over Redick. Taj Gibson will take anyone smaller than him to the woodshed. I wonder if the Sixers just play straight-up with Redick tonight because none of the options are ideal.
Who defends Ben Simmons?
There’s no one answer for any opponent to this question that works for most teams. Jimmy Butler is one player who could neutralize him, but he’s injured. Whether it’s Wiggins, Bjelica, Teague, or some combination of the above, I can see Simmons feasting.
Time: 6:00 PM EDT
Location: The Center
Channel: NBC Sports Philadelphia