Despite a scary Joel Embiid facial contusion thanks to Markelle Fultz last night, the Sixers clinched a playoff spot for the first time in six years, marking the next step of “The Process.”
After three years of tanking, stashing draft picks and effectively redshirting rookies due to injury, the Sixers have molded a true winning culture. Brett Brown created a blue-collar, pass-happy and hard-working environment that’s a challenge for any opponent.
But this story isn’t about the Sixers simply clinching a playoff spot. It’s not even about the return of the No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz, who played for the first time in 68 games Monday after going through one of the weirdest combinations of injury and mental problems.
This is about the culmination of talent and personalities on a roster that has me feeling eerily similar to the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles.
The Sixers currently sit in the four spot in the Eastern Conference with a record of 44-30. Winners of eight straight, they chase the three-seeded Cavs by just a half-game.
With a less dominant Cavs, a limping Celtics squad and an unproven Raptors team, the Eastern Conference has never been more wide open. I’m here to tell you that the Sixers are going to take it. The team is a mixture of youth, off the charts talent and fun. Sound similar? The city of Philadelphia presented the Eagles with a fan base that fell in love with the dancing, swag and underdog theme that propelled the team to a Super Bowl victory.
The youthful Sixers squad added some much needed veterans near the trade deadline. The additions of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova has allowed the team to be nine deep (including Fultz). The Sixers can now go pound for pound with any team in the East and even the league.
Too many people questioned Embiid’s health. They devalued Ben Simmons because he operates without a jump shot. But what they got right was the massive ceiling of this Brett Brown lead team. I’m here to tell you that it just may be championship-worthy.
Breaking down the roster by position, Simmons is a unicorn unlike any other, as a triple-double machine who is a mismatch nightmare at both ends of the floor. Simmons can guard all five positions and is a main factor in an elite Philly defense.
We all know what J.J. Redick is. He’s a stud shooter with one of the highest free throw percentages in the league. From all of last season’s free agents, he might be the best overall “fit” for a team that needed to improve their three point shooting and veteran leadership. I can’t stress the importance Redick will have for the Sixers during their playoff run, as the sharpshooter has made the playoffs every year he’s been in the league.
It seems that any time the Sixers win a game easily, you can glance right at the box score and see that Robert Covington had double digit points. He is a deflection machine and will defend with the premiere guards and forwards throughout the playoffs. He’s had the most inconsistent year, but he’ll keep chucking up threes and be a difference maker if the Sixers make a run.
This brings us to Dario Saric, an under-appreciated and constantly improving with every game played. Similar to Hedo Turkoglu at the beginning of his career, Saric is crafty around the rim and has added a consistent three pointer that is crucial for someone playing the four spot in an offense led by Ben Simmons.
Lastly is Joel Embiid. The first time All-Star could one day be a league MVP. He has zero flaws in his game aside from the amount of turnovers. Embiid is a ferocious dunker with a silky smooth midrange and a deceiving feathery touch from three. On defense his huge body doesn’t give and a premier shot blocker and rebounder. Embiid is simply impossible to contain at 7’2”, and is only getting better at the ripe age of 24.
What separates the Sixers is their size but also their new bench depth. I can’t stress the importance of adding two more veteran shooters in Belinelli and Ilyasova. Belinelli effectively allows the sixers to never play Jerryd Bayless again, and the same goes for Ilyasova cutting into Richaun Holmes’ minutes. Now adding Fultz into the mix puts the team over the top. The combination of Fultz, Belinelli and Ilyasova added an extra 31 points in a 123-104 win against the Nuggets on Monday night. That, and a scrappy player in TJ McConnell makes the second unit relentless.
The roster is all set from top to bottom with quality players that process fans would have only dreamed about just a few years back. I thought before the season that the Sixers would get the three seed in the East. Still they have shattered my expectations in the way they are winning games and their dominance at home. The schedule has opened up, allowing them to climb in the standings playing mostly non-playoff teams.
If they stay put in the four seed they’ll have a more-than-winnable series against the Pacers. That would set up a second round matchup with the Raptors, which is where we would see what the team is really made of. However, if they sneak into the three seed, they would face a more difficult first round matchup against the Wizards, assuming that John wall comes back for the postseason. A series win against the Wiz would set up a potential second round series with the Celtics who are still without Kyrie and of course will be missing Gordon Hayward’s services. No one could fault the Celtics if they got upset in the second round after they have dealt with injuries all year.
Regardless of seeding, the Sixers are in a prime position to make a serious run. I really believe in the direction this team team is going. Cap space and an established culture with Brett Brown has the team looking at 10 years of Eastern Conference dominance.
Free Agents next year
Teams like the Warriors know that you can build a super team through the draft. Hitting on draft picks is key, but then again the Warriors also added Kevin Durant after they had already established themselves as the league’s best. If I had to pick one free agent to join the Sixers it would not be LeBron James.
James and Simmons are practically replicas and would result in stunting Simmons growth. What JJ Redick taught me is that a dialed in shooter in an offense with Embiid and Simmons is deadly. Redick is great, but has his limitations. A guy like Klay Thompson would be an amazing fit, but it doesn’t sound like he wants to leave the already lethal Golden State dynasty.
That brings me to Kawhi Leonard. He’s my ideal fit at the three, sliding Covington to the bench. Rumors of Leonard leaving the Spurs have only made it easier to picture him in blue and red. (I also think JJ Redick will retire a Sixer and take a less lucrative deal than his 20-plus million he’s making this year.)
Also, the Sixers could potentially add the lottery-bound Lakers first-round pick after the season.
The Sixers could very well make an Eagles-esque run and win the championship this year, but a future starting five of Simmons- Redick- Leonard- Saric- Embiid with the No. 1 pick in Markelle Fultz coming off the bench is downright crazy.
To all the fans that have sat through the misery but understood the direction, our time is now.