Okay. Here we are fourteen games into the 2020-21 NBA season. (It would be an even 15, but the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder was postponed due to COVID-19 concerns. Yeah, everyone. COVID is still out here partying whether we’re going into the club or not.)
The Philadelphia 76ers are 9-5 in those games, but still a half-game out of first place in the Eastern Conference. The team has a new general manager in Daryl Morey, a new coach in Doc Rivers (plus an epic assembly of a coaching staff), and an all-new look on the floor.
Morey and Rivers are big names. Combine that with the play of Joel Embiid this season (25 PPG, 11.5 RPG, .653 TS%, 120 ORtg) and his All-Star co-star in Ben Simmons, and you’d default to thinking there’s a lot of pressure on this group of Sixers.
WELLLLLLLLLL … About that …
Sure, the Sixers have some pressure on them. The team doesn’t want to waste Embiid’s prime — hence the team’s interest in trading for James Harden (more on him later). I may have contributed to such pressure when I said in the season preview roundtable that I thought the Sixers had a shot at second in the Eastern Conference. I still believe that, but there are other teams in the East that have slightly more (or in some cases WAY MORE) pressure than the boys down in South Philly.
The Toronto Raptors didn’t have a ton of pressure on them coming into this season, but they are two years removed from winning the NBA Championship and took the Boston Celtics to six games in the playoff bubble last year.
Do the Raptors look a little lost? They’re 5-8 on the season, only thanks to a recent three-game winning streak. A 2-8 start certainly didn’t make Raptors fans feel good about things. They’re middle of the pack in many offensive/defensive categories. (SIDE NOTE: Do you guys realize that the Raptors are #1 in the league in 3-point attempts, but 30th in the league in two-point attempts? Does that sound weird to anyone?)
The Raptors are weird.
What’s not weird to me is the DROP OFF of the Miami Heat (or the “Cowardly Miami Heat” as I refer to them in Liberty Ballers circles). If you asked me (a degenerate gambler) whether or not to take the over or under in wins for Miami, I would have said “under” so quickly and probably would have placed the bet for you on DraftKings or FanDuel or whatever gambling app you have downloaded to your phone (or whatever gambling app I would have downloaded to your phone).
Jimmy Butler has only played in six games, so that likely is the main problem. The Heat are 3-3 even when Butler is in the lineup; the best win they had was against … the New Orleans Pelicans? They lost to the two playoff teams they faced with Butler playing (Boston and the Dallas Mavericks).
The Heat’s defense has fallen off a cliff to start the season. They’re at the bottom of the league in opponent’s PPG (24) and DRtg (22). Miami is 5-7, and we’ll have to see what happens when guys start coming back into the starting lineup.
I’ll skip past the Boston Celtics, but I will say this.
I like their team. I like the Jayson Tatum/Kemba Walker combination. That being said, I didn’t expect them to be better than the Sixers, Heat, and Bucks. Had they traded for Harden, and I’m sure Danny Ainge was SO CLOSE to pulling the trigger, I’d be way more worried about the Celtics and their PSI levels would be through the roof.
Without Harden, the Celtics aren’t a non-factor, but at the same time, I’m also not too concerned with them considering their only big man is Tristan Thompson, and I’ll take Embiid over him in a seven-game series.
Now, we get to the two teams that had the most pressure coming into this season. First, the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Bucks got SMOKED by the previously mentioned Miami Heat in five games in last year’s playoffs. Then, they gave the reigning two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo a new five-year, $228 million supermax contract. Then, they traded for All-Star guard Jrue Holiday after botching a trade for Sacramento Kings guard Bogdan Bogdanović.
Uhm… The clock is ticking, Milwaukee.
Don’t just assume that Giannis is going to stay all five years in your town. I’m hopeful that he will because it would make my friend Sarah (a Bucks/Packers fan) very upset if he left.
After the offseason the Bucks had, they can’t get smoked early like they did last season. In fact, they’re in that “Eastern Conference Finals or bust” category, aren’t they? Making the NBA Finals would be great, but missing the Eastern Finals again is not an option.
Now, that’s not an option for the Brooklyn Nets, either.
Having Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on the roster is pressure enough, because the team has to hurry up and make good for those two.
Add James Harden to that mix.
Assuming Harden doesn’t re-sign (and I think he will), the Nets have a two-year window to get to the NBA Finals. Not great when you consider everything the Nets gave up to get Harden (Jarrett Allen, Caris LaVert, first-round picks, first-round pick swaps, portions of Atlantic Avenue around the Barclays Center, etc).
Brooklyn has to win, win now, and win often to keep those three happy, and that’s a lot of pressure to put on rookie head coach Steve Nash. To his credit, he’s making it work. Here’s my question about Brooklyn:
Does it worry anyone that they scored 125 against the Bucks (still my pick to make the NBA Finals) and STILL only won by two points AT HOME? Brooklyn’s defense could be a serious problem later on in the year and in the playoffs, and might be their undoing.
(They also gave up 129 to the Oklahoma City Thunder nine days ago [ALSO AT HOME], so there’s that.)
Then, we come to our Sixers.
Daryl Morey (the best general manager in the NBA) adds pressure.
Doc Rivers (a championship-caliber head coach) adds pressure.
Joel Embiid playing like an MVP in 14 games … ADDS PRESSURE.
Compared to Milwaukee and Brooklyn, though. It could be worse. Milwaukee was the favorite to win the East, and Brooklyn’s odds shot up like a rocket (no pun intended) after trading for Harden. The Nets are the favorite right now on FanDuel to win the East at +175. The Sixers have the third best odds at +700, but the Celtics are right there at +750.
Having Doc Rivers as your head coach helps calm some of that pressure, because he’s been there. With the Paul Pierce/Ray Allen/Kevin Garnett Celtics, he was the favorite. With the Kawhi Leonard/Paul George Los Angeles Clippers, he was expected to seriously contend. He succeeded with one and underwhelmed with the other.
That leadership is paramount to a team that (once again) has so many new wrinkles to install and get used to. Morey has finally built a team that makes sense around Embiid and Simmons with shooters like Danny Green and Seth Curry. Tobias Harris is playing with much more confidence than he was last season, and Shake Milton … what more needs to be said about Shake Milton.
The Sixers are by no means cruising, but they’re definitely playing more loosely than the Bucks, Nets, or Celtics. That’s an advantage. It’s an advantage to be able to play basketball and just have fun versus playing basketball with the overwhelming feeling of “Oh my god. We have to win right now.”
Offensively, the Sixers look way more fluid than they ever have with equal amounts of shooters and cutters who actually cut and shoot. Under Dan Burke, the defense looks to be the best it has in a while. The Sixers are 4th in DRtg. (I know. I know. Small sample size, but still worth mentioning.)
A statement was made after they beat the Heat in back-to-back nights after a three-game losing streak — which you really shouldn’t count considering Miami only had maybe seven or eight playable guys. That was also after a five-game winning streak. When guys start coming back after going through the new NBA COVID-19 protocols, this team will likely take off, again.
There the Sixers will be — like a stealth bomber taking off from an undisclosed air field ready to drop explosives on the Eastern Conference. Just wait for it, everyone. Being under the radar is fun because you can just enjoy the highs and not feel too crappy about the lows … a MUCH NEEDED feeling for some Sixers fans.