The phrase, the more things change, the more they stay the same is apropos for this upcoming season. The Sixers have continued to retool their roster year after year, in an attempt to win a title for the first time in 40 years.
Newcomers P.J. Tucker, De’Anthony Melton, Danuel House, and Trevelin Queen have been welcomed with open arms, as their presence on the team will add toughness and depth on the wing and frontcourt. Yet the Philadelphia faithful have been down a similar path in recent seasons past, as well as with the team who lost in the NBA Finals over 40 years ago. The Sixers were good enough to represent the Eastern Conference, nonetheless, they could not get over the hump. The phrase “we owe you one” was used in commercials to promote the team’s upcoming 1977-78 season, and it was born from a 4-2 loss to Portland in the 1977 NBA Finals. Philadelphia had made the best of their acquisition of Julius Erving at the beginning of the season, and with a 2-0 lead, the series headed to the Pacific Northwest and they would lose the next four games.
Moses Malone was the missing piece to the puzzle. He was shipped to the City of Brotherly Love in a sign-and-trade with Houston after winning the league MVP in the previous campaign. The team clicked immediately from the outset, and their record stood at 65-17 after 82-games. They swept the New York Knicks in the semifinals, and ousted Milwaukee in five. They captured the ultimate prize after beating the breaks off a depleted Lakers lineup in four games. Malone was once again the MVP of the league and after a performance of 25.8 points per game, while shooting 50 percent from the field, along with 18.0 rebounds, he was awarded with the Finals MVP.
Los Angeles and Boston dominated the league in the 1980’s, however Philadelphia was always in the conversation, having gone to consecutive conference finals in ‘80, ‘81, ‘82, and then again in ‘85. The Lakers and Celtics won all but two titles in that decade with the Sixers and Pistons crashing the party in ‘83 and ‘89 respectively.
The 1982-83 season was full of All-Star level talent from the starting five, and key reserves off the bench. Everything leading up to the playoffs that year was a formality, as the franchise was destined to win it all, or bust. The biggest difference between now and then is that the team as it currently stands, has yet to move beyond the second round, while their predecessor made frequent trips to the championship round and was eventually able to win one.
Moses Malone made the most of his first season in Philadelphia by dominating the boards. He pulled down 5.7 off the offensive glass, and 9.6 on the defensive end. Dr. J had the second-highest rebounding total with 6.8 per game. That type of commitment from the superstars of the game is difficult to defend and compete against.
There are some stark similarities between the championship team and the roster as it currently stands. For starters both Billy Cunningham and Doc Rivers are former players, turned head coach. We also have to address the presence of former Rockets’ employees Daryl Morey, James Harden, and Tucker, setting the tone for history to repeating itself. The next order of business is for Joel Embiid to align with his full capabilities and become a force rebounding the basketball. He played in 68-games last season and he lead the team with 796 total boards, for an average of 11.7 per contest. He also scored 30.6 points, blocked 1.5 shots, and handed out the third-highest number of assists with 4.2 a game.
What Embiid brings to the table goes without saying — he can do just about any and everything. Meanwhile, with the emergence of Tyrese Maxey as a starter and budding All-Star, not to mention Harden looking to enter training camp in tip-top shape, the necessity for Embiid to do it all should lighten. This could allow for the big man to focus more on rebounding and cutting down on turnovers. In essence he will have to trust the process to allow for the cohesion to settle in and let his teammates make more contributions to the bottom line. The Sixers should look to have a multi-tiered attack on both ends of the floor. The biggest void for the team to fill is the absence of Seth Curry and his speciality of knocking down both open and contested shots. Philadelphia needs to be a team with good shooters from the perimeter and midrange. Harden and Embiid will cause matchup problems and it will be up to Maxey, Harris, Tucker, and others to make the opposition pay for switching off and sending players to double team.
The Sixers can take a few lessons from the great teams of the past to understand what it means in a winner-takes-all scenario, to bring the elusive Larry O’Brien trophy back to Philadelphia. Wilt Chamberlain was the eighth wonder of the world, and in the 1966-67 run to the title he was the anchor with 24.1 points, 24.2 rebounds, and a team leading 7.8 assists on a consistent basis. Six people averaged double figures per game, with Chamberlain taking on the challenge of distributing the ball and toning down his scoring abilities. The following year, he would average 8.6 assists, becoming the only player in NBA history to have led the league for an entire season in points, rebounds, and assists.
Julius Erving was MVP of the league in 1981, and Moses Malone held that distinction for the next two seasons. Both players were iconic in their own right and they were superstars that set their ego aside to focus solely on winning. Harden won the award in 2018, and Embiid continues to play at an MVP level. Harden handed out 10.5 assists, pulled down 7.1 rebounds, and scored 21.0 points in 21 games for Philadelphia. He will benefit from a full year with the Sixers and his mentorship toward Maxey will continue to pay dividends as the team continues throughout the season.
There is one goal as far as the Sixers, front office, and fans are concerned. The team is a few weeks away from training camp, and they are in a unique position to change a few narratives. Simply put, they have underachieved, and the 2022-23 season will serve as another opportunity to get things right.