Hey, Sixers fans.
You’ve been through a lot.
The Process. Navicular bones and thoracic outlet syndrome. Burnergate (and the Colangelos in general). The collaborative front office. The Kawhi shot. Not keeping Jimmy Butler. The Al Horford era. Ben Simmons ... well, Ben Simmons. And, of course, second-round exit after second-round exit.
You’ve been hurt, over and over. How can you possibly be expected to open your hearts and love again?
Well, this post won’t ask you to do that. If you’re worried about the health of Joel Embiid and James Harden for the postseason, that’s fair. If you have concerns over Doc Rivers’ rotation and player usage, also fair. If the backup center situation gives you anxiety (evergreen), totally fair.
But if you’re thinking about getting back out there, this might be the time.
After a 5-0 West Coast trip, the Sixers have won 18 of their last 22 and sit alone as the East’s second seed — a full game ahead of the Bucks, three games behind the Celtics in the loss column — largely fueled by their star duo, the improved depth of the roster and the unselfish tone that’s been set.
Everything with the Sixers begins and ends with Embiid and Harden. Over the last 22 games, they’ve been magnificent.
Over his last 18 games, Embiid is averaging 35.1 points on 66 percent true shooting and sensational shooting splits (55.5/42.6/87.2). He’s been hyper efficient and scoring with ease, sitting narrowly ahead of Luka Doncic for the league’s highest mark. While his defense can be up and down — in part because of the offensive load he’s carrying — when he turns it on, he’s as special as ever.
Defense ➡️ offense for Philly pic.twitter.com/9kE7IoyOgh— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) January 18, 2023
Embiid SWATS Powell ❌ pic.twitter.com/pOkaVwdsz5— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) January 18, 2023
The block on Norman Powell is of particular note. Embiid is running up and down the floor more than he ever has. Part of that is likely being physically capable of doing so — Embiid hired a world-class dietician a couple years back and has taken his general health much more seriously. Part of it is a heightened sense of urgency, feeling moments where his team needs a defensive boost.
But Harden’s presence seems like it’s motivated Embiid a bit to get out and run. As has been documented, Harden’s passing wizardry has gotten Embiid — and really everyone — much easier looks. If you’re Embiid and you know you’ll get rewarded every time you hustle down the floor and get a seal on a smaller player (which is like ... every player) you’re more likely to do it.
And though his scoring tailed off a little over the last two games of the trip, Harden has been fantastic over his last 20 games, averaging 21.3 points and 12 assists. He’s playing some of the most efficient basketball of his career. During that stretch he shot 46.6 percent from the field and over 40 percent from three on 7.3 attempts.
The spotless West Coast trip highlighted just how special this duo can be. Embiid and Harden have played 692 minutes together this season with a net rating of 10.1, per PBP Stats. They’ve posted a preposterous 122.86 offensive rating. We saw on so many critical possessions — including back-to-back game-winners in Utah and L.A. — how Harden can create open looks for Embiid from his favorite spot on the floor. Having an actual half-court offense should be cause for great optimism with this team come playoff time ... though much stiffer tests will come soon enough.
But as we saw with the Sixers’ comeback win over the Kings Saturday (or maybe you didn’t see it ... Go Birds) this team is more than just its superstar duo. Trailing by as many as 21 to a surprising Sacramento team that currently sits third in the West, Tyrese Maxey and company mounted a furious second-half surge to pull out a 129-127 win.
While he didn’t have the most efficient night, Maxey was clearly the driving force behind the win with a 15-point heater in the third and a tough finish through Domantas Sabonis late in the fourth. Even players in the doghouse like Danuel House Jr. and Paul Reed made big contributions.
This is a much deeper basketball team than we’ve seen in recent years. Maxey is still ascending, whether he’s starting or coming off the bench. De’Anthony Melton might yo-yo back and forth as well, but he’s been one of the Sixers’ most indispensable players. Guys like Shake Milton and Georges Niang have solidified their roles in the rotation despite the team’s added depth.
Matisse Thybulle is clinging to a rotation spot while wings like House, a free-agent signee the team was excited about, and Furkan Korkmaz, the second-longest tenured Sixers, are on the outside looking in. The only shaky spot at this point is backup center, where Montrezl Harrell has nudged out Reed ... for now. It also feels like a spot where Daryl Morey could look to upgrade — with a veteran so that Doc Rivers will actually play them, of course.
While the team’s “splashiest” signing in P.J. Tucker has seemingly lost the offensive touch he had with the Heat last season, he’s been a reliable defender and had several Tucker-esque moments. We can debate whether Tucker’s contract has been worth it, but there’s a pretty important area where he’s made the Sixers better: leadership.
It’s cliche. It’s hard to quantify. But when the Sixers signed Tucker, the “intangibles” were part of what they were paying for. Plenty of jokes were made about Morey going out and signing dogs this offseason, but make no mistake, Tucker absolutely has that dog in him.
And it’s seemingly been contagious.
Last month, Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia wrote a piece about the team’s “brutal honesty.” Obviously when it comes to the Sixers over the years, that hasn’t always been a strong suit. We’ve seen Embiid crave it from the likes of Jimmy Butler. We’ve also heard Embiid take a passive aggressive swipe or two in media availabilities. Though Tucker is not near the caliber of player, it’s easy to imagine he shares a similarly assertive approach to Butler’s.
From Levick’s piece:
“I think this group is brutally honest with each other — what we need from certain guys ... and what we need as a team to be successful,” Georges Niang said Sunday. “So obviously losing in Toronto was not a great feeling, but you have to go through stuff like that to eventually reach the top. And I think we’ve had multiple conversations and multiple practices where I don’t want to say guys have been called out, but (we’ve) addressed what we need from everybody to be successful, and I think we’re kind of hitting our stride with that right now.”
The Toronto game Niang is referencing dropped the team to 1-4. After a disappointing loss to the Spurs a couple nights prior, it was Tucker who spoke up postgame to call the team out.
There’s also a selfless attitude around the Sixers. Tucker is a player that doesn’t care about stats or scoring (much to the chagrin of many Sixers fans). He does whatever it takes to win. Melton fits a similar vein, adjusting his role to the team’s needs. And even looking at Maxey, who could start on most teams in the NBA, starring in his role without a complaint.
To Embiid’s credit, he sensed this was coming. When the team returned home for an eight-game homestand following a miserable three-game road trip, Embiid told reporters the vibes around the team were great — they simply needed to get healthy. That’s when this run started.
So, if you’re a “talk to me after you get out of the second round!” person, it’s hard to blame you.
But if you want reasons for optimism, there are some. The Sixers have a functional half-court offense and a go-to, late-game action for the first time in the Joel Embiid era. They have their most depth since they snagged Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova off the buyout market. There also appears to be an attitudinal shift from recent postseason flops.
Maybe you don’t want to be all in so you can avoid this team hurting you again in May, but it might be worth enjoying the ride a bit here in case they don’t.