Before the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, the city of Philadelphia experienced a 25-year pro title drought. That wasn’t as long as the Curse of Cleveland, but in terms of the actual number of titles versus the number of championships we expected them to win from 1984 to 2017, no other city in professional sports had underachieved more than the City of Brotherly Love.
Philly’s Winning Streak
Before winning Super Bowl LII last February, the Eagles’ last NFL title came in 1960, back when there was still no Super Bowl. And the NBA’s Sixers have not hoisted the NBA’s Larry O’Brien trophy since 1983. But after Alabama won the 2018 NCAA Football championship game in January, Philadelphia has won the next two biggest team sports titles in America.
In February, the Eagles won Super Bowl 52 against arguably the greatest quarterback ever. Last month, the Villanova Wildcats won their second NCAA title in three years. And despite the fact that they will be losing some key players to the 2018 NBA Draft, the Wildcats still have the second-best odds to win the 2019 NCAA title at 8-1.
Now, the NBA’s Sixers are returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2012. With a young but talented line-up, the 76ers have won at least 50 games for the first time since Allen Iverson was NBA MVP in 2001. Considering this franchise won just a total of 10 games during the 2016 NBA season, they have come a long way and have overachieved this season.
But while this season has plenty of milestones already, that may not be enough, as the expectations in the city are now at an all-time high given what the Eagles and Wildcats have achieved this year. So, given all the pressure, can the Sixers keep up their city’s winning streak?
Trust the Process
We trusted the process, and now the Sixers are in the playoffs. When we talk about the Sixers’ success this season, we don’t have to look far beyond Joel Embiid. The 7-foot Cameroonian was the Sixers’ 3rd overall pick in 2014. However, injuries prevented him from playing in his first two NBA seasons. Embiid showed plenty of promise when he debuted during the 2016-17 campaign, but then again, his stint was cut short by an injury.
Embiid returned this season with plenty of confidence and no signs of rust. He began this season playing with minutes restriction but once that was off, Embiid and the Sixers likewise took off. Embiid’s stellar play earned him his first All-Star appearance and a starting role at that. But just as Embiid had taken the Sixers to the Top 4 in the Eastern Conference standings, he suffered yet another injury.
Embiid fractured his orbital bone when he was accidentally bumped by teammate Markelle Fultz during their game against the Denver Nuggets on March 26. He underwent surgery on March 30 and will possibly return in two weeks time. The playoffs begin on April 14, and if the two-week timetable is correct, he should be back after missing the first couple of games in Round 1.
Embiid’s injury came at the worst time possible. The Sixers were peaking, and the regular season was ending. Sure, they have been able to carry on without him, winning seven consecutive games without their main man.
The Team Has Stepped Up
But winning those games can be deceiving, because out of seven games, only the one against the Cavs last Friday was against a playoff-bound team.The other six opponents? They had been eliminated from playoff contention and are fighting for better lottery position more than anything else.
Not to discredit the rest of the Sixers, especially Ben Simmons. The top pick in the 2016 NBA Draft has taken over the Sixers like it was his team right from the start. The Sixers’ super rookie has been doing it all lately.
Simmons is averaging 15.6 points, 10.3 rebounds, 10.1 assists, and 1.8 steals per game in the Sixers’ last 10 games.
Behind Simmons’ court generalship, the rest of the team has collectively stepped up, too. Without Embiid’s post up game, the Sixers have increased the speed of their offense. Their pace of 107.17 in their last 10 games is five possessions per game more than their season average of 102.14. Those extra possessions have led to more points scored.
Philadelphia’s offensive rating has improved to 111.0 in their last 10 games, which is better than the 17.3 points per 100 possessions that they are currently averaging for the season. They’ve done that with better shooting. The Sixers’ true shooting percentage has increased to 57.9% in their last 10 games, which is better than their season average of 56.8%.
Make no mistake, winning 14 in a row is no fluke. And neither are the Sixers. This team is a serious contender. They are young, talented, and hungry. They are peaking at the right time. But going to war in the playoffs without Embiid is a different story.
Embiid Is a Must
Embiid was the most valuable player on the team when he was on the court. When he played, the Sixers’ offensive rating was 111.4 points per 100 possessions. Without him, that number significantly dropped to 103.4 points per 100 possessions.
On defense, the Sixers allowed just 99.7 points per 100 possessions when Embiid was manning the middle and anchoring their defense. When he was on the bench, the Sixers gave up 104.4 points per 100 possessions.
Add up the numbers, and you get a net swing of -12.7 in net rating without Joel Embiid. A difference of 12.7 points per 100 possessions due to one man is too much. For the Sixers, it means that they live and die with Joel Embiid. For them to have their best chance of going all the way, they need to have Joel Embiid on the floor.
Good thing for the Sixers, Embiid isn’t lost for the season like Kyrie Irving is for the Boston Celtics. He’s going back two weeks at the earliest. Having the home-court advantage in Round 1 lessens the effect of Embiid’s absence. After all, the Sixers have the second-best home record in the Eastern Conference.
Finishing third in the East is crucial, because if they accomplish that, the Sixers will play the Boston Celtics in Round 2 ( assuming the Celtics survive ). If not the Celtics, then the Sixers will get home-court advantage again versus the #7 team, whoever that will be between the Bucks, Wizards, and Heat.
If the Sixers make the Conference Finals, then anything can happen from there on. Right now, the odds say that the Sixers have the fifth-best chance to win the NBA title. Only the Rockets, Warriors, Raptors, and Cavs have better odds. Who would’ve thought at the start of the season that the Sixers would be in this position?
It’s been a great season for the Sixers. They have exceeded everybody’s expectations, and there would be nothing to be ashamed of no matter what happens. But expecting them to win a title this season may be too soon, too much, even with a healthy Joel Embiid. Sure, they are peaking at the right time, but it’s not just about momentum and talent.
The future has never looked better for the 76ers. This team has nowhere to go but up. They may end up not winning the NBA title this year, but in a way, the Sixers making the playoffs with home-court advantage is already keeping up with the city’s winning streak.