Before the 2017-18 NBA season, the prospect of the 76ers’ sneaking into the playoffs as a seventh or eighth seed would have been considered a success.
My, how things can change over 82 games.
In October, there were still uncertainties about how many minutes, let alone games, Joel Embiid would be able to play. There was incredible suspense about pairing the last two No. 1 overall picks in Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz. Where would Dario Saric fit in? What was the bench going to look like?
The Sixers opened the season with three consecutive losses, then after the team’s first win, on Oct. 23 in Detroit, the Fultz saga began.
Fultz was benched because of a sore shoulder. There was no way to know that it would be 68 games before he would return.
After another loss, then rattling off a five-game win streak, the Sixers went into Sacramento feeling pretty good. On Nov. 9, the Kings gave the Sixers their first black eye of the season in the form of a De’Aaron Fox game-winning shot.
Doubt started to creep in about the Sixers’ readiness and their ability to hold onto leads, but then, Embiid waltzed into Los Angeles and had a historic night. Embiid scored 32 points against the Clippers on Nov. 13 and returned two days later for the best night of his career. On Nov. 15, he scored 46 points to go with 15 rebounds, seven assists, and seven blocks against the Lakers.
— Joel Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) November 16, 2017
Up to that point, Robert Covington had been wowing, shooting at a 50 percent clip from three-point range, and Simmons had already racked up two triple-doubles and been named Eastern Conference rookie of the month for October and November. But winter was coming.
The Sixers suffered 11 losses between Nov. 27 and Dec. 23. Turnovers, fouls, and blown leads became the narrative.
Quietly through the Sixers’ woes, Saric was proving himself to be one the most consistent players on the team. In 40 consecutive games from Nov. 29 to March 1, Saric scored in double figures.
In the midst of the Sixers’ worst month, the team finally unloaded Jahlil Okafor, sending him, Nik Stauskas and a 2019 second-round pick to the Brooklyn Nets and getting Trevor Booker in return on Dec. 7.
Stumbling through most of December, the Sixers flipped the script on Christmas day. After a win over the Knicks on national TV, the Sixers went on to lose only 12 more games. Embiid was named an all-star starter, and Embiid, Simmons, and Saric were selected for the Rising Stars world team.
On Feb. 3, Embiid played in his first back-to-back games. He played in 63 games during the regular season, well more than what could have been expected after three years of injury and uncertainty.
The Sixers built a seven-game win streak from Feb. 6-24. On Feb. 22, Simmons scored a career-high 32 points in Chicago. The team lost only five more games before going on a 16-game tear to close out the regular season.
In February, the Sixers said goodbye to Booker and added Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova to the roster, pushing Jerryd Bayless out of the rotation and rounding out the bench.
Simmons was sensational in 2018, earning Eastern Conference rookie of the month in January and February and for games in March and April. Averaging 15.8 points, 8.2 assists, and 8.1 rebounds, Simmons posted 12 triple-doubles, the most by a rookie since Oscar Robertson recorded 26 in 1960-61.
The Sixers’ 16-game win streak set an NBA record for consecutive wins heading into the playoffs.
— Robert Covington (@Holla_At_Rob33) March 22, 2018
During the streak, Fultz made his long-awaited return to the court on March 26. But midway through the streak, the Sixers were dealt a heavy blow. On March 28, Fultz and Embiid collided during a game against the Knicks and Embiid suffered a concussion and left orbital fracture.
No return date has been set for Embiid. He completed the regular season averaging 22.9 points and 11 rebounds and racking up 38 double-doubles (11th most in the league).
In the season finale on April 11, Fultz, 19, became the youngest player to record an NBA triple-double.
The Sixers head into the playoffs as the third seed in the East, their highest postseason position since 2001. They finished the regular season first in the league in rebounds per game (47.4) and second in assists per game (27.1). They have the league’s third-best defensive rating and are fourth in deflections per game (Covington leads all players with 308 deflections).
Now only two questions remain: How far can the Sixers go? And, when will we get to see Embiid return, masked and ready to run?
“No one cared who I was until I put on the mask”…. The Phantom of The Process pic.twitter.com/JOkQxCAxYA
— Joel Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) April 12, 2018