NBA All-Star weekend is upon us, a perfect time to take a breath from the hectic schedule of the regular season and zoom out to the big picture. The Philadelphia 76ers are in a unique position where the team that emerges out of the All-Star break will look much different than the one that entered, as former Brooklyn Net James Harden is expected to make his Sixers debut when they return to the court next week. Before we look ahead, though, let’s take a look back at my colleague Paul Hudrick’s predictions for the team back in the preseason:
“The best case scenario for the Sixers would be finding a trade partner for Ben Simmons that has an All-Star player to send back. Whether it’s Damian Lillard, Zach LaVine or a player not on the radar yet, a perimeter scorer of any kind would do wonders for the Sixers’ title chances. Joel Embiid remaining healthy, Tobias Harris breaking through and becoming an All-Star, and the Sixers’ young players — like Matisse Thybulle and Tyrese Maxey — taking a leap would also be ideal.”
Paul nailed this category. The Sixers got a high-profile perimeter scorer (Harden) back in exchange for Ben Simmons, Embiid has been remarkably healthy aside from his COVID-19 absence, and Tyrese Maxey has taken a huge leap. Sure, Tobias Harris has been far off his near-All-Star performance from a year ago, but at least he’s been better in 2022. Nice job, Paul!
“The team doesn’t find an adequate trade for Simmons and the three-time All-Star makes good on his threat to sit all season. Nobody wins in that scenario. The Sixers will be worse off for not having Simmons’ elite defense and passing ability. At 25, Simmons will have sat out a year of his prime, which hardly seems worth it. If health becomes an issue with any of the team’s top remaining players, it could make for a long season.”
All I can say is thank goodness Ben Simmons isn’t still on the Sixers post-trade deadline. Things would have taken a dark turn in Philadelphia. I don’t think it would have gotten quite as bad as the darkest timeline in Community, because Embiid’s MVP chase would have been a worthwhile distraction, but let’s just say it’s a good thing Kevin Durant gave Sean Marks his blessing to make the Harden trade. No one will have to lose an arm trying to put out a fire.
“The team is clearly in a stalemate with Simmons. He won’t report and the team isn’t moving off its demands. What seems most likely is Embiid and Harris keeping the team afloat in the first half while Daryl Morey waits for an opportunity sort of like Kyle Lowry last season. Toronto didn’t ultimately trade its franchise icon, but it was discussed. Getting a healthy Embiid elite perimeter help puts the Sixers back in the second round of the playoffs. If they have to go up against the Nets or Bucks, that’s an uphill battle.”
This isn’t too much different from the best-case scenario. I guess Paul was feeling optimistic! There was indeed a stalemate with Simmons, and Embiid kept the team afloat in the first half of the season. Now that Harden is here, I think the team has its sights set higher than the second round of the playoffs, so let’s discuss future expectations now.
Why I’m excited about the rest of the season
The Harden trade has revitalized the fan base in a big way. Embiid is an MVP frontrunner. Maxey looks like at least a long-term starter in this league with a legitimate All-Star ceiling, Still, every time things would be going well for the Sixers this season, Ben Simmons’ camp would leak something to the media to kick up another cloud of dust. It was a real turd in the punch bowl situation. Now, that distraction is gone, and fans can watch James Harden, who is closer to the dusk than dawn of his career, but is still a top-20 player in the league. Daryl Morey went star-hunting and came back with a hypergiant. Philadelphia’s ceiling for title contention this season has been raised significantly.
Updating record and seeding predictions
Before the season, Paul predicted a 51-31 record and the third seed in the Eastern Conference. Currently, the Sixers are on pace for 49 or 50 wins, and sit tied for third place in the East. Again, right on the money, Paul! The Eastern Conference is as tightly packed across the entire playoff picture as I can ever recall. Seeds 1-8 are separated by just seven games.
Moving forward, I don’t think the Sixers will fall off their current pace in either direction. Getting Harden for a not-working-from-home Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, and Andre Drummond is a clear talent upgrade, but there will be a learning curve as the team and the Beard acclimate to each other. The good news for Philadelphia is the Sixers have over 20 games to iron out the kinks in preparation for the postseason. I’ll say 49 wins and the fourth seed in the East.
The Sixers are listed at +700 to win the championship, tied with Milwaukee, and behind only Phoenix, Brooklyn, and Golden State. The odds seem about right, but it’s too risky a proposition for my liking. As mentioned above, the East is stacked, and the Sixers have a lot of question marks right now. Is James Harden’s hamstring definitely good to go for the rest of the season? Who is the backup center in the playoffs now that Andre Drummond is in Brooklyn? Do the Sixers have enough perimeter depth, particularly on the defensive end after Matisse Thybulle and Danny Green? I could see the Sixers making the NBA Finals, but I also wouldn’t be completely shocked if they lost in the first round. The East is that deep.
I would prefer a wager on Joel Embiid to win MVP at +140. In a recent straw poll around the league, he was the leader. The other close competitors for the award, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo, already have MVP hardware on their mantle, and voters love a fresh storyline. Harden’s arrival will bring even more eyes to the Sixers on a national scale, and if Embiid continues his level of play this season to date, I expect he’ll receive the award.
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