As I am sure is the case with many of you, my sports-withdrawal is at an all-time high. There is now under 2 weeks before NBA basketball will resume and teams are in full swing at the Orlando bubble. As excitement grows around the return of basketball, there has not been enough buzz surrounding the rejuvenated 76ers team. The time off has served the Sixers extremely well and they are ready to compete in a way that the league does not seem to expect when play resumes.
Prior to the shutdown, the Sixers season could be labeled as a major disappointment. Sitting at the 6th spot in the East with a 39-26 record and an abysmal 10-24 road record there was not much hope heading toward the playoffs. It was never known what version of the team would show up on gameday and there were games that they looked flat and out-of-synch.
It was clear to anyone that watched that there were chemistry issues on the team. Al Horford never found a fit with the other starters and Joel Embiid publicly questioned his usage in the offense earlier this year. The Sixers were considered one of the favorites to win the Eastern Conference by many at the beginning of the season and still have the talent to back that up. Yet lineup issues have prevented the team from reaching its potential and a deep playoff run was not looking likely when the season was forced to stop.
But after the time off, the tides seem to have shifted in the lockerroom. Tobias Harris has grown into his role as a leader and hosted team meetings and happy hours through Zoom on a regular basis during the break. He has kept everyone in touch and also connected the team with some guest speakers to learn more about the social issues in the country. Matisse Thybulle has provided a unique behind the scenes look at things in the bubble through his vlog and it is clear how close the guys on the team are.
On the court the team is also in a much better state than when the season was put on hold. The emergence of Shake Milton has been crucial in settling in the lineup and Shake will now have the reigns to the offense as the starting PG. Al Horford will slide to the bench and we will see Simmons at the power forward position which screams potential for running the fast-break. Practices have been intense and competitive, which is a great sign considering the team struggled to flip the switch at times this year. Josh Richardson said things even got a little chippy at practice on Friday all in the spirit of competition.
Brett Brown recently told the media that he is “very quietly confident” about the state of the team. He also said the team has found an identity with “maniacal competitiveness.” Despite all this, the Sixers are very much flying under the national radar for this return. Here are ESPN’s latest odds to win the championship:
While this has not been anywhere close to the season that was expected out of the Sixers this year, it really does not matter. The slate has been wiped clean and there is a second chance that is on the table that has never happened (and probably will never happen again) in NBA history. The Sixers have a chance to peak at the right time and make some waves in the playoffs. Embiid and Simmons are legitimate NBA stars who can match up against just about anyone. The biggest on-court issue has been spacing and adding Shake Milton to the starting line-up should help to fix this issue in a large way.
In typical Philadelphia fashion, the Sixers appear to be embracing the underdog role. The typically outspoken Joel Embiid has stayed out of headlines of late and avoided giving any quotable material. Throughout the quarantine, Joel stuck to a strict workout plan and arrived at Orlando in terrific shape. He has appeared quick in practice and Josh Richardson stated that Joel looks skinnier than he was in the regular season. The team seems set on letting their play do the talking and continue to work hard. While the circumstances are unfortunate, the Sixers have a real opportunity ahead of them and it will be seen just how hungry they are.
Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports