The NBA is coming back. The league and the players union are working tirelessly on medical protocols that address the still raging COVID-19 pandemic (no small thing) while spitballing ideas on how to ensure the social justice movement doesn’t get lost in the shuffle (ditto). But come July, 22 teams will report to Orlando, and a new, er, resumed season will begin.
And when it does, I’m all in on Philadelphia.
That’s right, Philadelphia. The delightfully dysfunctional Sixers. The 39-win club that stumbled into the pandemic in a virtual tie with Miami for the fifth seed in the East. The NBA champions of home games and NBA chumps of the road. Physically imposing Philly, with strength in the paint matched only by weakness outside it.
Philadelphia: Your 2019-20 Eastern Conference champs.
Most predictions on the outcome of a resumed season are meaningless. Backing 53-win Milwaukee? Giannis Antetokounmpo hasn’t played so much as a pick up game in three months and what happens if Eric Bledsoe is 2020’s Shawn Kemp? The Lakers will be a trendy pick but let’s see what an extended layoff does to a 35-year old LeBron James’s body.
There is simply too much we don’t know.
But what about things we can assume? Let’s assume that these games are going to be a little sloppy. Players are just trickling into practice facilities and full scrimmages are still weeks away. It’s a safe bet to say that the three-point shooting numbers will be awful early on, and they may not improve much over a three-month playoff.
You know which team doesn’t rely on the three-point shot? Philadelphia.
Let’s assume there’s an advantage to having a dominant low post player. Someone you can play through and grind a game out. Joel Embiid surged out of the All-Star break. He averaged 27.6 points in Philadelphia’s first five games back. He pulled down 11 rebounds, knocked in 53.2% of his shots and made got in 11.4 free throw attempts per game—making 86% of them. In an interview with NBA.com, Embiid says he has been working out six times a week during the pandemic. “I have something to prove,” Embiid told the website. “Whenever the opportunity comes, it’s going to be my time.”
Let’s assume there will be plenty of defensive struggles. If the three’s aren’t falling, scores will. Games will be grinded out. A team with a top-six defense and lockdown defenders at several key positions should have an advantage.
A team like—wait for it—Philadelphia.
I wanted to run my theory past Brett Brown, the Sixers coach. The first question: What’s the deal with Simmons? Last month, GM Elton Brand said was “very optimistic” that Simmons, who missed the Sixers final eight games with a back injury, would be able to return. Any chance Philadelphia has of making a run hinges on the health of Simmons, one of the NBA’s best defensive players.
“My opinion, and this is not confirmed yet, is that we are going to be able to inch him back into this,” Brown said. “Is he going to be 100%, I don’t expect that. But I think he is going to be available.”
Brown has kept busy the last few months. When the NBA shut down, Brown put his staff to work. He searched for reasons why a team that was 29-2 at home could be a dreadful 10-24 on the road. Everything from travel schedules to hotels to team meetings were dissected. He studied the offense, which failed to click, especially in the half court. He studied the defense, which slipped into the middle of the pack after Christmas. “It was what did we do well and what didn’t we,” Brown said. “And let’s fix the stuff we didn’t.
Conditioning, Brown says, is the key to success in a resumed season. “A fitness base is everything,” Brown said. Brown would like his team to be at a B-plus by the time they leave for Orlando, and work their way up from there. Mentally, there are different challenges. “A real fear is the question of if guys want to be there,” Brown said. “None of us can dismiss that—it’s human nature. Coming out of a pandemic, to assume everyone will be gung ho about going would be very naïve.”
Still: Orlando feels like an opportunity. Three months ago, Philly looked dead in the water. Simmons was gone, and the team’s chances of doing anything meaningful in the postseason went with him. Brown appeared on thin ice. Brand, too. A first round exit would have led to a summer of speculation about the long term viability of the Simmons/Embiid partnership.
Does Brown see it that way?
“In so many words, yes,” Brown said. “How can you not … it’s a melting pot of opportunity, albeit under crazy sort of conditions.”
Indeed. It’s redemption time for Philadelphia. They won’t make three’s, but no one will. They can play bully ball with Embiid, who Brown would like to run out for 38 minutes a night. They can suffocate you defensively with Embiid, Simmons and Josh Richardson. Al Horford—a disappointment in his first season in Philadelphia—has been terrific in recent years in the playoffs. Games with scores in the mid-90’s? The Sixers were built for that.
So is Brown buying my logic?
“I wouldn’t say it the way you said it,” Brown said, laughing. “But I do think we have a team built for the playoffs.”
Fine, Brett. We’ll talk again in the Finals.