The trade deadline had just passed. The Answer was giddy.
“I feel like y’all feel,” Allen Iverson said.
Which is to say, he feels bullish.
Almost two weeks later, the Sixers emerge from the All-Star break buoyed by a four-game run in which a reconfigured lineup went 3-1. It was a preview of what should be a thrilling, 26-game sprint to secure a strong seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, beginning Thursday, when the Heat visit.
How strong could that seed be? Well, they currently stand fourth, tied with the Celtics. But they’re one game out of third place, which is held by the Pacers — who last month lost All-Star guard Victor Oladipo for the season.
Not even the Raptors, who are 5 1/2 games ahead of the Sixers, or the Bucks, 6 1/2 ahead, are out of reach. Remember: The Sixers ended last season on a 16-game winning streak. Joel Embiid missed eight of those games. And Markelle Fultz played in 10 of them.
When Iverson spoke, on Feb. 8, he offered a succinct and accurate review of the previous two days’ renovation, executed by unlikely executive-of-the-year candidate Elton Brand. On Feb. 7 and 8, the Sixers general manager added Tobias Harris, James Ennis, Jonathon Simmons, Mike Scott, and fan favorite Boban Marjanovic, a 7-foot-3, 290-pound playmate for Embiid.
When Iverson met Harris, he posed for a picture and voiced his approval on Instagram: “Here we come!”
He’s right. And the Sixers great has been starving for a moment like this.
His recent comments were an expansion on what Iverson told The Athletic in November, when the Sixers added Jimmy Butler via trade. Iverson said it was a “great” move, that “we got a chance now.”
They’ve got more than a chance now. They have expectations. Realistic expectations.
How long has it been since that’s been true? Maybe the 2002-03 team, with Iverson and Keith Van Horn, but probably not. More likely it was 2000-01, when Dikembe Mutombo joined Iverson; but that team had no real chance against the Kobe/Shaq Lakers in the NBA Finals. Perhaps the Barkley-Dawkins-Hawkins team in 1989-90? Not with the Pistons and Bulls in the Eastern Conference.
No, the last time the Sixers were this promising was 1984-85, two years removed from their last title, when Julius Erving was 35, Maurice Cheeks was 29, Moses Malone was 30 and facing decline, and Charles Barkley was a second-year pro.
The 2018-19 edition might not have four future Hall of Fame players, but it does have a pair who returned from the All-Star Game: Embiid and Ben Simmons. They are supported by Butler, himself a four-time All-Star, and Harris, who might be one yet.
Harris has grown into that promise the last two seasons, with the Pistons and then the Clippers, and he’s been even better so far in Philly.
It’s a small sample size, but in four games, Harris’ net rating — the difference between his offensive rating per 100 possessions and his defensive rating — is a plus-5.8. That’s almost twice as high as his 3.0 rating in a 27-game stint with Detroit in 2015-16.
Certainly, this is a function of joining a highly functional team. Certainly, his 110.2 defensive rating isn’t anything to brag about.
But, just as certainly, that defensive rating will decrease — that is, it will improve — as he becomes better acclimated to the Sixers’ defensive scheme, and as the scheme adjusts to maximize his strengths, such as his length. He’s listed at 6-foot-9, but his wingspan was 6-11 when measured eight years ago, and that was when he was a pudgy, 6-7, 18-year-old kid coming out of Tennessee. The Sixers have a knack for maximizing rangy athletes. Just ask Robert Covington.
Harris is much more than Covington will ever be. He has averaged 17.8 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 0.8 turnovers (less than half his season average) as a Sixer, and he has hit 38.1 percent of his threes.
He’s the centerpiece, but not the only piece.
Marjanovic has averaged 7.0 points and 4.3 rebounds in the four games, but his 13.0 minutes are the most he has averaged in his four NBA seasons, and they are crucial, quality, rim-protecting minutes as Embiid’s first viable replacement. The contributions of Jonathon Simmons, a 6-6 swingman, and Ennis, a 6-7 forward, are harder to quantify so far, since each brings a lunch bucket and specializes in perimeter defense.
Scott won’t be as hard to figure. He has made 38.0 percent of his three-pointers in the last four seasons. Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, whom the Sixers acquired last February, partly for their range, each has made 35.9 percent of his threes in the last four seasons, and both are older than Scott, who is 30. Scott made three three-pointers in wins over the Lakers and Knicks.
It was a taste of the near future.