Well, Sixers fans, we made it.
The regular season has ended, the dust has settled, and 72 games for each NBA team sit either comfortable or ruefully in the rearview mirror.
Some teams (eight, to be exact) will participate in this week’s play-in tournament. Others are strengthening their connection to the cosmic, hoping against hope that the lottery gods will bless them with good fortune this July.
Twelve teams will use this week to prepare for the start of the NBA Playoffs in earnest, which are set to begin at some point this coming weekend.
The Sixers are not only among those twelve, but sit atop the Eastern Conference standings to finish the season for the first time since Allen Iverson’s 2000-01 Sixers did so, prior to winning the Conference trophy in the springtime.
Soon, the NBA Playoffs will begin, and sixteen teams will once again have a record of 0-0. The goodwill amassed by this Sixers team will begin to crumble bit by bit, should they struggle to meet the expectations garnered by this successful season. With each round, the tension will increase. As it does, the memory of the Sixers winning 49 times in 72 games will become less and less relevant to all involved.
And it should.
Ultimately, each team is in it for one reason: to win the NBA Championship. The magnifying glass placed on postseason play is justified.
But while the story of this Sixers season is far from being written, with the regular season complete and a week to decompress, I thought it wise to take a closer look at what the team has accomplished so far, and how they did it.
Think about where things finished for the Sixers last year. Ben Simmons was hurt. Tobias Harris struggled even more in the postseason than he had in the regular season, before sustaining a scary fall in Game 4 against Boston. Joel Embiid looked completely disillusioned with basketball as a whole as his team was summarily swept in short order in the Orlando Bubble.
Soon, head coach Brett Brown was handed his walking papers. Rumors swirled that a mere rejiggering would take place in the team’s front office, rather than the complete upheaval demanded by the chorus of thirsty Sixers acolytes.
For a franchise that rostered two young stars, the Sixers seemed rather doomed, relatively speaking. The team’s brass had made a number of pivotal personnel decisions in the prior offseason, and just about every one of them had failed in remarkable fashion. Josh Richardson and Al Horford took the places of JJ Redick and Jimmy Butler — moves that not only cramped the team’s spacing, but depressed the team’s cornerstone piece in the process (pardon the pun). To add insult to injury, just as the Sixers were packing their bags to leave Orlando once and for all, the player they chose not to keep — Butler — was on a no-holds-barred demolition tour of the Eastern Conference, ultimately dragging the underdog Heat to a six-game series against LeBron James and the Lakers in the NBA Finals.
It was hard to see how things would get better anytime soon.
And then, surprisingly, the tide began to turn.
First, owner Joshua Harris ponied up the cash to lure Doc Rivers — a legendary, albeit not perfect, head coach — to Philadelphia on a five-year deal. Rivers was no stranger to difficulties in the NBA Playoffs (his Clippers had just blown a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets), but what Rivers represented was a respected, championship-winning, CEO-type of hire intended to lead the Sixers into greener pastures.
Following Rivers in shocking fashion was Daryl Morey, also on a five-year deal. Known in these parts for employing Sam Hinkie in Houston, Morey was looking for a new challenge as the Rockets were due for a rebuild with James Harden prepared to demand a trade. The longtime executive found his way out of Houston and over to Philadelphia, where he would remake the roster in his image with a few sensible tweaks on NBA Draft night. He first dealt Horford and a first-round pick to Oklahoma City, bringing three-time-champion and NBA veteran Danny Green to town. Next, he traded Richardson and a second-round pick to Dallas for the sharpshooting Seth Curry. To round out his night, Morey selected Tyrese Maxey, Isaiah Joe, and Paul Reed in the draft.
Curry and Green would fill out the Sixers’ starting five and ultimately prove to be extremely well-fitting complimentary pieces among the Sixers’ existing three starters.
Each of the three rookies appear destined to outperform their draft position.
While Morey deserves lots of credit for adding desperately-needed talent that fits this roster, tons of credit should also go to Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid, who have seemed especially dead set to make up for last year’s failure since the beginning of the season.
Harris just narrowly missed joining the elite 50/40/90 club, but that he was even bordering on such an achievement speaks volumes about his efficiency all season. He has proven to be a reliable late-game offensive creator, and has improved his defense in a meaningful way.
There are endless ways to exalt the season Embiid just turned in. I could write about his knockdown shooting in the mid-range, or the rate and efficiency with which he got to the free throw line, or, more broadly, about the leap he took into being a surefire top-five player in the league and no-doubt MVP candidate. I could discuss how he achieved career-highs in points per game, steals per game, field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, free throw percentage and true shooting percentage. But to me, what stood out most was how seriously he took every game. Last season was a slog, and it often looked as though Joel was playing at half-speed, especially on defense. Not this year. He committed himself over the abridged offseason to building up a fitness base that would keep him fresh in fourth quarters and throughout a long season. He dedicated himself to dominating his competition each and every night on both ends of the court — spurring not only his MVP candidacy but the Sixers’ league-leading Defensive Rating. He did it all for the Sixers this year, and his play is the main reason that Philadelphia ended up in the one-seed.
This Sixers team was a joy to watch from start to finish. Not only did they win more games, but they seemed to gel off the court better than any Sixers team in recent memory. There also seemed to be a noticeable increase in the amount of connective tissue between Embiid and Ben Simmons on and off the court than ever before. Potentially most important: they will arrive at the Playoffs fully healthy.
In a strange year amid a global pandemic (one the Sixers were unable to fully avoid, mind you), the team stuck together and won more games than any team in the East — including star-studded Brooklyn and perennial league-wrecking Milwaukee. Only two teams in all of the NBA eclipsed Philadelphia’s win total. They fought for and earned the first seed in the East, and that substantial accomplishment ought to be appreciated.
Very soon, it will be time to turn our collective attention to the games that really matter. It will be nerve-wrecking as all hell. Who knows how it will turn out. Maybe they’ll disappoint. Maybe they’ll win it all. But just know that the confidence you feel in the 2020-21 Sixers was hard won from the top down, and you should take a moment to appreciate this regular season for all it was.
Now let’s go win this thing.