The Philadelphia 76ers ran through the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks on Christmas only to fall to the sub .500 Orlando Magic two days later.
After both games, ESPN’s Tim Bontemps had the same analysis: the Sixers have a low floor and high ceiling.
And, in the wake of that performance on Christmas, the Sixers show off the low end of their variance range by losing to the Magic — albeit in dramatic fashion — tonight. https://t.co/OsTPIiShLM— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) December 28, 2019
Bontemps and others love to use the word “variance” to explain the Sixers extreme ups and downs. This simple explanation lacks the abundant and obvious context provided by interviews and games from all season and even just the past few days.
How can the Sixers constantly lose to the bottom teams in the East while beating the top teams? Because they’re admittedly only trying against the top teams.
After the Bucks game, Joel Embiid implied he’s been taking it easy most games in an attempt to stay healthy for the postseason.
Interesting words from Joel Embiid. It seems like he's suggesting he's been coasting most of the season to preserve himself for the playoffs and tonight was an example of what he could do when he wants.— Slicktalk215 (@Rongs215) December 26, 2019
I wonder how other #Sixers fans feel about this if true . pic.twitter.com/Vufo44wZTg
Embiid backs this up with his play. He’s clearly not looking to physically assert himself against the Magic the same way he is against the Bucks (this was the entire basis of the overly-publicized critiques of Embiid by Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley, and Embiid agreed with them). As the Sixers’ best player, Embiid’s effort level has a massive impact on how well they’re capable of playing.
Ben Simmons, the team’s other All-Star, admits they have not been bringing the same level of energy they brought in their win against the team with the NBA’s best record. He implies that who the team has played has mattered in terms of their energy level.
Ben Simmons: "It's the most energy we've had. It's Christmas, it's always going to be there. I think this just sets the tone for us and we know what level we can compete at, we can compete with the best. We just have to set that tone every game, no matter who we're playing." pic.twitter.com/D7m4hfbgPV— Rich Hofmann (@rich_hofmann) December 25, 2019
Even coach Brett Brown, who is clearly frustrated with the team’s lack of effort against bad teams, acknowledges the obvious: the Sixers were built with the playoffs in mind.
Sixers 6-2 against top of the East.— Rich Hofmann (@rich_hofmann) December 25, 2019
Brett Brown: "I think this team is designed for the playoffs. I believe that the road we have traveled so far has been a bit erratic at times... I think the landing spot is exciting. To date, I like some of the things we've seen vs. the best." pic.twitter.com/p9KlQeCULL
It isn’t random - it’s easily predictable when the Sixers will play well and when they won’t. When they play good teams, they play great, and when they don’t, they play less than great.
Just an FYI:— Eustacchio Raulli (@EVR1022) December 26, 2019
PHI has reclaimed the 'No. 1 offense vs good teams' title. They've actually performed slightly better vs the Top 11 than vs the Bottom 19.
Do they play up or down to their competition? Definitely. And much of it comes down to effort - they’re not even trying to pretend it doesn’t.
And I’m not defending it. As a fan, it’s annoying to watch them lose to the Magic, especially knowing there’s another gear they’re just not tapping into. Want to critique it? Go ahead! Although it frustrates me, it doesn’t particularly concern me, but if it concerns you (or you just don’t like it) then that’s fine to say.
But let’s not act like the Sixers are a team with a mysteriously high ceiling and low floor. They’ve beaten great teams because they’ve tried against them, and they’ve lost to bad teams because they haven’t. This is backed up by stats, the players’ own words, and the obvious effort-level (or lack thereof) from just about every game all season.