- As the Process continues to take shape with Joel Embiid healthy and Ben Simmons the favorite to win Rookie of the Year, it won't be long before the 76ers have to prove that they can win in the playoffs.
Watch the Sixers this year, and they will have moments where they look like the next team to beat the Warriors. Then, often in the same game, they will have extended stretches where it looks like they've forgotten how to play basketball. Unstoppable Ben Simmons fast breaks and effortless Joel Embiid dominance will give way to careless turnovers, dead-end offensive sets, missed free throws, and desperate heaves to avoid shot clock violations. Either version of the Sixers is kind of amazing, and baffling, and likely to leave you speechless. But most of all, and best of all, it's different.
We're in the middle of an era in which half the NBA's best teams are taking the same shots, running the same plays with the same small lineups, exploiting the same inefficiencies. Whatever you want to say about the Process and this year's early results, Embiid and Simmons are working from a separate blueprint. So as this experience comes into focus with the playoffs approaching—Embiid miraculously healthy, Simmons eying rookie of the year, nine wins in 12 games, sixth place in the East, win over the Cavs last week, 20-point blown lead to the Bucks Sunday—it seems like a good time to for a closer look at what's happening to the Sixers.
Brett Brown's story is a good microcosm of how gratifying this year's success has been. It's already easy to forget how dark the depths of the rebuilding era really were, but for perspective, the current longest losing streak in the NBA is 15 games (Memphis). At one point a few years ago, the Sixers tied an NBA record with 26 straight losses. Near the end of that streak, in 2014, the Sixers were playing the Spurs when Gregg Popovich was asked about the opposing coach. "I feel terribly for him, but I don’t feel sorry for him,” Popovich said of Brown, his former assistant in San Antonio. “He would be angry if he knew I felt sorry for him, because he doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him."
This past October, after 252 losses in four years, the Sixers arrived in training camp with Vegas setting the over/under on wins at 40.5 and fans talking about the playoffs. The combination of youth and accelerated expectations seemed like a recipe for disaster. Brown looked like the obvious fall guy when things fell apart. But while some around the team were measured in their approach (J.J. Redick to SI in October: "I try to not make specific goals, like win 40 games or make the playoffs.") the coach was emphatic about the standard for this year. "It was the first sentence out of my mouth on opening day," Brown said of playoff talk in October. "I'm looking at it as an opportunity, not some albatross around my neck. That's my goal for the city of Philadelphia and for our team. That's how I see it."
Brown's attitude made him hard to root against, but it was still a little bit concerning. Young players lose games, and more losing in Philadelphia would probably mean consequences for whoever was in charge.
Listening to him in D.C. last week, Brown is still hard to root against. Whether it's his appraisal of Ben Simmons' progress ("Just having the ability to go grab a game ... the confidence to walk a game down"), the way he calls the playoffs "a playoff" ("at some point we hope to be in the first round of a playoff"), or his emphasis on little things ("I'm more interested in doing the homework than the exam at this stage"), Brown is like a poet laureate of coach-speak. I love him for it. But more importantly for anyone marking the progress here, this season is the first time in five years that nobody is pitying him for his role in Philadelphia.
"We've settled into a rotation," Brown said of his team's progress the past few months. "[And] the evolution of Ben Simmons, going from a college four-man to an NBA point guard, just intellectually and composure and feeling the game. We've talked with Ben, [saying] 'just 'cause you dribble it up the floor doesn't make you a point guard.' And he's grown in so many areas. I think that defensively we're starting to have an identity. I believe we hover around 4th to 6th defensively. I'm proud of that. We lead the NBA in passes. We share the ball. I'm proud of that. We've slowly started to gain an identity."
Among groups that have played at least 300 minutes, the Sixers starters have the best net-rating (+18.8) of any lineup in the NBA. The team's fourth in defensive rating, first in rebounding, and second to only Golden State in assist-percentage. And yes, definitely, aside from Brett Brown's little things, most of this can be explained by one big thing—the sustained health of Joel Embiid. He's playing back-to-backs this year, he's averaging more than 30 minutes-per-game, and he's played more games this season (51) than in the first three years of his career combined.
As for his impact, the smarter corners of the basketball media have spent the past two years marveling at the defensive impact of Rudy Gobert and the limitless offensive skillset of Karl Towns. Both of them deserve every bit of praise they've gotten. But alongside the hype for two superstar centers, it should be noted Joel Embiid essentially combines Gobert's defense with KAT's offense. It's outrageous. He's got the highest net-rating (+10.2) of any starter who's not on the Rockets or Warriors. Embiid is a hilarious human being and his recovery is one of the best stories of the season, but for all the headlines, sometimes it feels like we're still underplaying just how dominant he already is. His presence alone has raised the floor for the Sixers in the East.
Beyond Embiid, it gets interesting. In almost every game he plays, Ben Simmons has stretches where he flies down the court looking like a future MVP candidate. His gets to the rim at will, he finishes better in traffic than anyone could've expected, and he's active enough on defense to create all kinds of opportunities in transition. At his best, Simmons just looks impossible.
Then, when things slow down and games get close, you remember that he's a rookie, and, actually, a jumper is pretty important. There are stretches where he has a tougher time bullying his way to the rim, he's sometimes reluctant to initiate contact (he's shooting 57% from the line), and the entire offense begins to look a lot more disjointed as his impact is muted. This is how games like Sunday night happen, where Philly went up 19 points on a decent Bucks team in the third quarter, only to surrender 21-0 run from there, getting buried down the stretch for a double-digit loss.
Nobody should pin the problems solely on Simmons. There are more general cracks in the foundation. The Sixers lead the league in passes, but they also lead in turnovers, many of which come from Embiid. Robert Covington makes them look borderline unstoppable when his catch-and-shoot threes are falling, but his shooting has been awfully streaky since a hot start in the first month. Dario Saric has been excellent all year, but he's still slow and lumbering in ways that complicate his value when his shot's not falling.
As good as the starters have been, the bench remains an adventure from night to night. Meanwhile, Embiid's minutes will always be a source of anxiety. Brown's rotations will be questioned just the same. And speaking of questions, there is a chance that Found Fultz Footage from pregame shootarounds could remain a vibrant Twitter industry through multiple playoff rounds this spring.
"We all get greedy," Brown admitted last week when asked about raising his team's expectations beyond a mere playoff appearance. "Does our bar change? Internally, we have different goals that we talk about. Externally, we talk about continuing to try to achieve our goal and make the playoffs. And along that path we've been playing pretty good basketball."
It's not insane for the Sixers to start thinking bigger. They are apparently a legit LeBron possibility, they will be a scary matchup wherever they land in the playoffs, and they have moments where, seriously, they look like a future Warriors antidote. But if we're thinking about the next steps from here, it's bears mentioning that all of this is about to become more complicated.
Brown has silenced skeptics so far, but it won't be long before he has to prove that he can win in the playoffs. Embiid will have to stay healthy, and improve his conditioning, and cut down on the turnovers. Simmons will have to learn to shoot at least a little bit, while Covington will have to be a little bit more consistent. All of this accelerates ten-fold if LeBron shows up this summer, but even if he doesn't, scrutiny will be heightened going forward.
As the rest of the NBA begins to take the Sixers seriously, there will be more questions, not less. Management will have tricky decisions to make and fans will have higher expectations. There may be more success, but it will probably be more stressful. It comes with the territory for any team that's actually contending for a title, and as long as Embiid is healthy, the Sixers should be headed that direction in the very near future.
But in the meantime, I think it's the flaws that make the Sixers worth appreciating. They clearly have the talent for bigger things, but the charm of this season is that the edges of this group haven't been smoothed yet. They don't have much of a bench. They make all kinds of careless errors. Embiid is still not totally in shape and Simmons is still a rookie. They don't bomb threes like the Rockets, Cavs, Warriors, or most of the other great teams in the leagues. J.J. Redick is the only starter who's ever been on a winning team.
There are lots of reasons this shouldn't work at an elite level. And as the playoffs approach, it should be a lot of fun to watch them try to win anyway.