The 76ers’ starting lineup has been dubbed the Phantastic 5 by ESPN.
That same group, which features All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons along with Jimmy Butler, JJ Redick, and newcomer Tobias Harris, is featured on this week’s cover of Sports Illustrated under the heading “PROCESS THIS: The SIXERS are Finally All In.”
Some analysts have said NBA Finals appearance or bust after the team acquired fringe All-Star Harris and reserves Boban Marjanovic, Mike Scott, Jonathon Simmons, and James Ennis at the trade deadline. Others believe anything less than reaching the Eastern Conference finals could end Brett Brown’s coaching tenure.
But what people don’t realize is just how tough a task the new-look Sixers are embarking on, especially for a team as top-heavy as Philly.
Because of a shallow bench, the Sixers have to stagger their starters to ensure that two or three of them are on the floor at all times. And the elephant in the room will always be Embiid’s health.
Saturday’s 130-115 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers showed once again that the Sixers aren’t nearly as competitive when Embiid is not on the floor. The defeat marked the second of three consecutive games he’s scheduled to miss with tendinitis in his left knee.
The Sixers (38-22) are 2-4 in games this season without their franchise player. But even if he’s available to play, they are a bunch that could realistically lose in the first round of the playoffs with an unfavorable matchup.
Yet, the individual talent of their starters has people going bonkers. Never mind that Brown has the tough task of keeping all of his stars happy and finding a way to keep them all engaged. Disregard that he’s adding a pick-and-roll element on the fly to his usual free-flowing offense to take advantage of the strengths of Harris and Butler. And you can’t overlook that, at this stage, the Sixers are a group of individuals trying to quickly gel into a team.
If this was as easy as fantasy basketball, the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons wouldn’t be the last team to deal for a star (Rasheed Wallace) at the trade deadline and win the NBA title that season.
The 2007-08 Los Angeles Lakers actually are the last team to deal for a star at the trade deadline and reach the NBA Finals. The team acquired Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies en route to losing in the Finals in six games to the Boston Celtics.
Since that time, standouts Antawn Jamison (2010 to Cleveland Cavaliers), Carmelo Anthony (2011, New York Knicks), DeMarcus Cousins (2017, New Orleans Pelicans) and Blake Griffin (2018, Detroit Pistons) were all moved before the trade deadline. But none of those squads made it past the second round of the playoffs.
That’s not to say teams strike out after making trade deadline acquisitions. The Cavs won the 2016 title after acquiring Harris’ cousin, Channing Frye, from the Orlando Magic. But Frye was a backup post player not a piece expected to produce in a major way.
The 2003-04 Pistons team already had a solid core of veterans in Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, and Ben Wallace. Rasheed Wallace proved to be the missing piece for a squad that lost to the New Jersey Nets in the 2003 Eastern Conference finals. The team was coached by Hall of Famer Larry Brown, who also led the Sixers to the 2001 Finals appearance.
And Gasol came to a team that already had battle-tested multiple NBA title champion and future Hall of Famer in Kobe Bryant. The Lakers also had an eventual 11-time NBA champion coach in Hall of Famer Phil Jackson, not to mention a proven core of Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum (yes, that Andrew Bynum), Derek Fisher, Trevor Ariza, and Luke Walton.
No one will question the Sixers’ talent.
On paper, they have the best starting lineup outside of the Golden State Warriors. But, unlike the Pistons and Lakers, the Sixers didn’t just switch one key piece at the trade deadline. They overhauled the roster. Yet, the team still lacks depth and it lacks familiarity. That’s partly because five players in their 10-man rotation have been with the team for a little over two weeks.
As a result, everyone on the team is being asked to speed up a bonding process for a championship run.
Even if they do come together, there’s no one similar to Bryant on the roster.
That’s not a knock at Embiid, the unquestioned alpha dog.
The fact is that Bryant already had three titles in four NBA Finals appearances and lost in the Western Conference finals before Gasol came on board.
Embiid has played in just eight playoff games with all of them coming last season.
Redick is the only Sixers player with NBA Finals experience. He was a reserve on the 2009 Orlando Magic squad that lost to the Lakers in five games.
Reserve center Amir Johnson was a seldom-used forward on Pistons squads that reached the Eastern Conference finals (2006, 2007 and 2008) in his first three seasons. Scott was a third-year reserve on the Atlanta Hawks squad that lost in the 2015 conference finals.
Butler reached the second round twice in his career, while the Pistons were swept in the first round of Harris’ lone playoff appearance in 2016.
Ben Simmons, T.J. McConnell, and Furkan Korkmaz join Embiid, Redick, and Johnson as the only returnees from last season’s team that lost to the Boston Celtics in five games.
So this team must overcome a lack of postseason experience, lack of familiarity, and lack of depth in order live up to the hype.