The 76ers will head into the home stretch of the season with a 37-21 record, sitting fifth in the Eastern Conference. They are 3-1 since the trade that landed Tobias Harris and are coming off an All-Star Weekend that featured both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
With 24 games left in the regular season, it’s a good time to check in. Here are five questions the Sixers need to answer between now and the time playoffs roll around.
The Sixers are 3-8 against the top four teams in the East — the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Indiana Pacers, and Boston Celtics — with two of those wins coming against the Pacers. With only four more games against East-leading teams, the Sixers are running out of chances to prove their mettle. That puts even more pressure and importance on those four games, and you can bet that everyone in the Sixers organization has these dates marked on their calendars:
If the playoffs started today, the Sixers would be playing an opening-round series against the Celtics, a matchup that has not served them well for many reasons. Brett Brown hasn’t ironed out his rotations and is trying to navigate through the third version of this team. That’s going to take some time, but mid-April is the cutoff. Everything needs to be figured out by then. If the Sixers can’t figure out a way past these teams by the end of the season and that spills into the playoffs, Brown’s job could be in serious jeopardy.
The Sixers went through a lot of change at the trade deadline, adding five new faces to the mix in Harris, Boban Marjanovic, Mike Scott, James Ennis, and Jonathon Simmons. Last season the Sixers took off after the All-Star break, but it’s going to take the team a little more time this year to figure things out. Silent at the trade deadline, last year’s Sixers only had to incorporate Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli into the team, and their roles were pretty clearly defined. This time around, the Sixers have revamped their bench, and things weren’t completely settled since the Jimmy Butler trade. Now, with Embiid experiencing knee soreness, another wrench has been thrown into the continuity building phase.
Brown defenders will say this is the reason he should have another year before his job is in question, that the team needs more time together before it can really work as a team. Brown skeptics will say that 28 games is plenty of time to figure things out. Both sides have merit, and it will all depend on the level of success and readiness of the team when the postseason begins.
On paper, the Sixers have one of the most talented starting units in the league, and the bench is much better than it’s been in the past. There are definite arguments to be made that the Sixers are still lacking someone to defend elite-level guards and that opposing teams can target JJ Redick and T.J. McConnell, as the Celtics have done. But on the other side of that, the Sixers now have such a lengthy and offensively impressive team that there’s nowhere for opposing teams to hide anyone on defense. It’s probably realistic to say that every team in the league could pinpoint an area where they could use an upgrade. Do the Sixers have what they need to win now? Maybe. We won’t know until we see it all in action.
With the short amount of time the team will have together and with the East shaping up for a rough battle through the playoffs, it probably isn’t fair to say that anything short of the Finals is failure. But the Sixers have taken some big swings in landing both Butler and Harris, who could both walk at the end of the season. If the Sixers strike out in the playoffs and that leads to their newly acquired stars leaving, it would be disastrous.
There is probably a middle ground to answer this question, and a different way to frame it. If the Sixers make it to the NBA Finals, it would be an unqualified success. If they fall just short of that and play in the Eastern Conference Finals, that wouldn’t spell failure, and could probably be considered success under the circumstances (the team not having much time together).
If it’s the Sixers brass you are asking, I think anything short of the conference finals would be a hard pill to swallow, considering what was given up to put together this team that might now have another run together. A second consecutive second-round exit from the playoffs would not look good on the heels of the Butler and Harris trades.
Outside of learning and growing together and the kind of holistic answers that Brown would give, defense must be the priority. Specifically, perimeter defense. The Sixers are going to need to figure out who, between Butler and Simmons, is going to take on the elite-guard assignments. And with all of the new pieces, the Sixers will need to make sure everyone is on the same page in the guts of the game.
There is a lot that needs to be ironed out on the defensive end. Part of that has to do with chemistry, terminology, and players understanding where they are supposed to be, and when. There are also some effort concerns that have cropped up, and the players need to make sure that they are really dialed in for 48 minutes rather than 24.