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Looking Back and Forward: A Sixers Retrospective and Playoff Preview

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The most exciting Sixers team in most of our lifetimes, defined in large part by the Process in which the team was assembled, begins what is hopefully a long playoff run tonight.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Having written about the 76ers since the Eddie Jordan era, the prospects of a playoff series where a healthy 76ers team would be considered a heavy favorite is more than foreign to me. It’s a bit unbelievable. I need to be pinched. But after a 52-30 season and a 16-game winning streak, anything is possible. We’ve made it to the other side of the Process and the world has changed with it.

Four years is short for a scorched earth rebuild, but devotees know this moment tonight, a home playoff opener hosted by the NBA’s Next Best team, a start of what is hopefully an extended playoff run, is a longer time coming. You can go back to the Eddie Jordan era, the Iverson trade, or even further back to the 2001 finals season. There hasn’t been this much excitement around the team during my lifetime. This is, we hope, a new normal.

Even since I’ve regularly written about the team, the 2009-10 season, my life has changed immeasurably. Most of those changes are part and parcel in the, ahem, “process” of growing older. I’m no longer a sophomore at Temple University - I’m building a career in the real world, my hairline has pulled a LeBron, and I no longer have the energy to pull double-duty with writing for this website and keeping up with my everyday responsibilities on four hours of sleep.

I’ve grown up with the team and its direction an integral part of my daily life. It’s exciting and exhausting and stressful. Hence the hairline quip.

The Sixers have changed along the same timeline and have seen a surprising number of iterations: the once-lovable Doug Collins Sixers, the Bynum trade and the initial refusal to tank, Sam Hinkie’s hiring and three sub-20 win seasons represented by a carousel of a roster and the emergence of a snake, to January 2017 to now. It’s a roller-coaster ride that’s been anything but part and parcel, and given the depths in the valley of losing and how far the team has come from the bottom of the league, the experience has been worth the trip. There will never be anything like the Process Sixers again, and it’s been a privilege to be able to chronicle it. Any reasonable person would suggest the Sixers are far from peaking. The roller-coaster will continue and hopefully only become more exciting.

But we’re still on the journey, and with the usual bad news overshadowing some of the positives built (Joel Embiid being injured and missing game one), let’s focus on the here and now on what should be a hard-fought playoff series against a respectable opponent:

  1. Even with a healthy Joel Embiid, the pivot point of the series would have been how Miami handles Ben Simmons and vice versa. James Johnson is as solid of an opponent as you’ll find to defend Simmons in the half court. He’s about as tall as Simmons, stronger than him, and is fast enough to give him issue. They also have Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson who can make him work, and Dwyane Wade if it comes down to it still has some of his old supernatural athleticism. Due to this, Simmons won’t command as many double-teams in the post as he does against the majority of the NBA, and the Sixers will need to maximize shooting around him on the court to give him as much space to work. That means...
  2. Do not expect to see much Markelle Fultz or T.J. McConnell alongside Simmons. McConnell’s hesitancy to shoot from three could really be something Miami takes advantage of. He needs to be a willing - and able - shooter to stay on the floor. McConnell has taken 62 threes for the season. While he made 44% of them, they’re almost all wide open, and he passed on far more opportunities to shoot. That needs to stop when Miami predictably overloads the paint.
  3. Also with that said, the Sixers will probably go to heavy doses of lineups including both of Dario Saric and Ersan Ilyasova when Hassan Whiteside sits to maximize spacing around out shot-less point guards. Lineups with our two traditional power forwards have fared well this year, outscoring opponents by 15 points/100 possessions, but they’ve only played 83 minutes together, and at least anecdotally they’ve struggled a bit without a natural back-end communicator on defense. We’ll see how that fares against a Miami team that likes to run exhaustive halfcourt sets.
  4. Remember last year when Dario and Ilysaova would play together alongside Embiid? That was a trip yet remarkably competent compared to some of the Process lineups of yesteryear. I hope JaKarr Sampson has a ten-year career.
  5. I specified Miami’s ability to defend Ben Simmons in the half-court setting above because God himself can’t stop Ben Simmons in transition. The Sixers need to run off of misses, makes, anything, with Ben leading the charge and with our wing shooters as his remora.
  6. I’ve been researching how sustainable Marco Belinelli’s shooting percentage was this year after a half-season long bench performance not seen for the Sixers at least since the days of the Lou-for-one and the Lou Williams Hate Advisory Index right here on this website (shout out to my old friend Dweebowitz, who I wish were here for this moment). Belinelli had almost identical shooting percentages to the since-displaced Jerryd Bayless, who I can only assume is locked up in an Iron Mountain facility. Belinelli converted 62% of his two point shots as a Sixer, which is comically anomalous compared to his entire 10-year career. His career high on twos came in 2013-14 as a San Antonio Spur, when he converted 53% over a full season. His career percentage on two-point field goals is 47%. If regression hits hard - don’t be surprised if Belinelli shoots the Sixers out of a game or two during the postseason.
  7. Belinelli’s effectiveness as a Sixer is also one of Ben Simmons’s top arguments for a rookie of the year award. The number of dimes he’s dropped for Belinelli on cuts to the basket is innumerable. Some of Marco’s efficiency spike is sustainable due to improved shot selection, made possible by the Prince’s precision passing.
  8. With Belinelli’s potential regression in mind, and his known ineffective defense,, keep an eye on the Sixers’ use of Justin Anderson. I’ve been riding the “Anderson needs to be in the rotation at year-end” train hard on social media specifically because of teams like the Miami Heat, who are unafraid to play small with multiple plus-athletes filling each wing position. Anderson is a capable defender on the wings and will allow the Sixers to play Covington at the power forward in a pinch to match size with Miami. That might be necessary against a backup unit that frequently plays four wings with Kelly Olynyk holding down the center spot. Erik Spoelstra won’t be afraid to go to that lineup in any scenario where Joel Embiid is sitting on the bench, including at any time in games where Embiid doesn’t play.
  9. Dwyane Wade shot 41% overall, primarily on two-point field goals, as a returning Heatle. Let’s settle down on him being a huge difference-maker in this series.
  10. Speaking of washed up players, let’s go back to Jerryd Bayless! He tied the unofficial modern-day Sixers record of 30 consecutive healthy DNPs, previously accrued for by Kwame Brown in the final Doug Collins season. Unlike Kwame, Jerryd would not fake out the beat corps by going to the scorer’s table to get candy rather than check in. Keep cashing those checks and best of luck with the degree.
  11. Can I just say how cool it is that Liberty Ballers alumni Derek Bodner, Rich Hofmann, and Kyle Neubeck are now beat writers with careers covering a good 76ers team and being the definitive writing voices of a Sixers playoff run? Seriously. I’m proud to have stood beside them here and proud of their accomplishments, and the city deserves to have people covering the team that will do the job through thick and thin and truly analyze them. Media angst during the down years influenced public perception of the Process in such a way as to turn team ownership and the NBA against what the Sixers attempted to do. That won’t happen with informed, critical-thinking writers like those guys. It also formed the defiant attitude fans have toward Process detractors.
  12. We resurrected our old LB classic email thread (aka “No One Reads This”) a couple weeks back and the talented people in the mailing list continue to amaze me.
  13. The Sixers averaged a Pace rating of 104 in the final seven games of the regular season, per Basketball-Reference’s Pace tracking (which I trust more than NBA.com’s, because I can see how it’s calculated and it’s objective). That pace is five possessions per game more than season’s average, a not-immaterial increase resulting from injuries to Embiid, Saric, and others. It’s easier for the Sixers to score with Ben Simmons attacking in transition and finding elite open shooters, and without an elite defensive center it makes sense to scuff up the game. Miami plays slow, relative to other teams - they’re 27th in Pace during the regular season. This will be a stylistic battle where each team will try to impose their will on the speed of the game, especially if Embiid sits. In that case, it’s a great thing that the Sixers will be playing in front of a raucous home crowd early in the series.
  14. Miami won’t be worn out by a high-paced series, however. The “best conditioned team in the league” doesn’t get up and down the floor, but they do run exhaustive half-court sets which pounce on teams not ready to match their conditioning, focus, and level of execution. The Sixers need to stay patient on defense and resist gambling for steals out of laziness.
  15. The Sixers are going to continue relying on J.J. Redick as the straw that stirs the half-court offense drink. I’m interested to see whether Miami puts a bigger player on him or chooses to use Goran Dragic as his primary defender. But no matter what, Miami coach Erik Spoelstra is going to mix coverages against Redick to do their best to prevent shooting opportunities.
  16. Embiid coming back timely I think swings this series from “uncomfortably close” to “a comfortable dispatch” - but the Sixers still have the clear best player even in Embiid’s absence and enough shooting to keep Ben Simmons effective. The signings of Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli late in the season have propelled the Sixers into a zone where they have a margin for error because their bench is no longer a tire fire, and the one team in the East playoff bracket that just has no margin for error based on their lack of top-tier talent is their opponent. I had previously stated Sixers in 5 as my prediction, but without Embiid for what might be the majority of the series, I think the Sixers clinch at home in 7.