The Philadelphia 76ers have been ridiculed, mocked and created every reason for them to be the laughing stock of the league for a few years. They were criticized for ‘trusting a process’, something that looked all but a failure when Joel Embiid went down with a season-ending injury in back to back season before he even stepped on the court. Add in a season-ending injury to Ben Simmons in September before the start of last season, and every ounce of wind in a fans sail seemed to be sucked away.
Forward to March of 2018 and the Sixers are looking like a team that will be in the heart of the Eastern Conference playoffs coming up in a few weeks. Overcoming ANOTHER injury/problem with a high draft pick in Markelle Fultz, the Sixers have had a steady, successful season up to this point, which can be attributed to many factors.
With the playoffs in their sights, let’s take a look at the two factors that make the Sixers a scary opponent for any playoff team in the Eastern Conference.
Added Veteran Presence
The Sixers had one of the youngest, if not the youngest team in the NBA over the past few seasons. Their bench was usually filled with one to two solid players, then filled in with players hoping to keep their careers alive on a ten-day contract. Henry Simms, Brandon Davies, James Anderson — these all were players who had no long-term stay with this franchise. Once the team showed the hope and signs of success with Joel Embiid last season, team management knew that adding a veteran to this team was going to be what put this team over the edge.
In a total revamp they went out and got a pure knockdown shooter in J.J. Redick. The Sixers had basically the most money in the league to spend, so his 1-year, $23 million dollar contract did not worry Sixers fans, it only got their blood pumping. Redick is at 16.7 ppg, 91% from the line, and 42% from three. That’s not an easy task of a 33-year-old player. It was a riskier signing than some realized, but the big picture of what Redick brings is someone who can bring you back into a game with his perimeter threat, and someone who’s been to the playoffs plenty of times before. I’ll pay $23 million for that any day of the week.
The rest of the veteran presence will all have their significant role in this ‘process’. Amir Johnson brings a defensive presence off the bench that was completely absent last year. When Embiid was off the floor, the Sixers defensive rating was 108.9 compared to their 99.8 rtg when on the floor.
*Defensive Rtg. is points allowed per 100 possessions.*
Embiid can’t play 48 minutes, and he can get tired at times. The presence of Johnson can hurt the Sixers offensively, but defensively, the drop off isn’t what it was last season.
JOEL EMBIID POSTERS WESTBROOK AND THE STAREDOWN
— Basketball Society (@BBallSociety_) January 28, 2018
With the mid-season additions of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, the Sixers are rolling at the right time. Marco Belinelli has hit at least one three-pointer in every game since joining the team, and with Ersan being on the team last year, it brings in a player virtually every player is used to, and a veteran who can stretch the floor.
It’s all coming full circle why the Sixers brought in these veterans, to sustain longevity for playoff success for not only this season but seasons ahead.
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons
Ben Simmons is a generational talent—the rare sort who demands that opponents deviate from their usual matchups, compromising entire rotations and game plans in the process. There are virtually very little answers to guarding a player like him because he is such a rare breed. Similar to LeBron, Simmons has the ability use speed, agility, and a sense of grasp to dominate the position at such a young age. Like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Simmons hasn’t truly figured out how to stretch out his jump shot. That will come with time. Simmons has shown the ability to create, score, and create extra opportunities with his rebounding. His value at such a young age is amazing to see, and 100% deserving to the rookie of the year.
But when paired with Joel Embiid, the duo is so tough to stop. The numbers are out there for how the Sixers struggle as a team without Joel Embiid on the floor. Well, for one, it’s tough to get better without Embiid on the court, but it is significant and something the Sixers have to control. They have to juggle with the fact that they will have to push Joel Embiid to see how many minutes he can play. For a player that is now able to finally play back to backs, he can now stop worrying about a minutes restriction. Joel Embiid just became the first Sixers since Charles Barkley to have back to back games with at least 20 points and 19 rebounds. He’s a generational talent that will look to shine in the playoffs.
If there is one improvement that is being overlooked it’s the Sixers defense. Joel Embiid showed the defense inside last year, but with Simmons being so big, he is able to guard four, even five positions. The Sixers are now 17-0 when holding opponents to under 100 points. Balanced defense leads to the up-tempo basketball that the Sixers love to play.
With these two factors of dominant young players, and with veteran talent around them, the Sixers have been able to show why they can beat any team in the Eastern Conference on any night. An ability to win at home has become a normality and winning on the road early in the season matured this team beyond measures. It’s things like that, that can get a team further than expected in the playoffs.