Sixers seek vengeance and clarity against Atlanta Hawks

Philadelphia 76ers’ Tyrese Maxey drives against Atlanta Hawks’ De’Andre Hunter during the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Hakim Wright Sr.)

It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that the Philadelphia 76ers have been one of the most disappointing teams of the 2022-2023 NBA season thus far. While Eastern Conference powerhouses in the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics continue to assert their dominance on the league and new dark-horse contenders in the Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks join them atop the standings, the Sixers have faltered, dwelling much closer to the basement of the league than the ceiling.

Game Info for Sixers/Hawks

When: Saturday, November 12, 2022

Tipoff: 7:30 pm EST

Where: Philadelphia, PA | Wells Fargo Center

How to watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia

After a highly lauded offseason that saw General Manager Daryl Morey work his patented magic to surround his new superstar tandem of Joel Embiid and James Harden with theoretically perfect 3-and-D complements in P.J. Tucker and Danuel House, this team has not performed to the standards set by their roster talent.

While the roster does have some noticeable flaws that could rear their ugly heads if not addressed by the trade deadline — lack of playmaking and consistent 3-point shot-making being two of the most notable holes — the Sixers have more than enough depth and star power to dominate in the regular season.

So why haven’t they?

Injuries, as usual, have been a prominent caveat in the Sixers’ precarious standing this season. Embiid has already missed four games, and James Harden has been out the last three contests after straining a tendon in his right foot. The Beard’s expected to miss at least a month’s time with this ailment, though, so Head Coach Doc Rivers and his team have to find a way to win without Harden’s masterful offensive orchestration. So far, they’ve failed to do so, going 1-2 in the three games he’d been sidelined so far and 1-3 in their last four overall.

While this period seems dire — with the Sixers needing to climb out of a 5-7 hole with arguably their best player shelved for several weeks — it also offers Philly a unique opportunity.

Joel Embiid has gotten off to a slow start in his seventh-career campaign — at least to his standards — looking a little lost and out of rhythm as he learns to perfectly integrate his low-post dominance while allowing Harden to continue his renaissance season as a singular offensive engine.

With the Beard watching from the bench, Embiid can reinvigorate his MVP pitch and re-establish himself as the Sixers’ number one option, relegating Harden into a more secondary role by default which will be more beneficial to both players and the team as a whole come postseason.

This time is also a crucial test for Doc Rivers, whose seat grows hotter with each passing loss. The former champion play-caller can’t really be blamed for falling victim to the “Harden Paradox,” as it’s difficult to ask an all-time great conductor to relinquish control of the ball in lieu of set plays that will likely have a worse result than simply clearing out for the Beard or running a simple spread pick-and-roll for the former MVP.

At this point, Rivers has no choice but to be more creative with his sets and demand more effort from one of the more lackadaisical teams in the league so far, lest the Sixers continue their plunge down the standings and the coach accelerates the cracking of his own paper-thin ice.

It should have begun as soon as Harden was confirmed to be unavailable for an extended period, but their upcoming rematch against the Atlanta Hawks is paramount for the outlook of this team and Rivers’ future in Philadelphia. Toppling an 8-4 Hawks squad would be a huge step forward for the Sixers, who desperately need to build momentum and garner landmark wins that will establish this team’s identity.

On the other hand, dropping two games in a row to a new rival will only further cement the fact that Philadelphia is a tier below the true contenders in the East and could very well be the last game that Rivers coaches for the Sixers.