Are the 2023 Sixers championship bound? It might be time to start believing

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Philadelphia 76ers’ James Harden (1) dribbles against Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, March 4, 2023, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)

There has been skepticism surrounding this Sixers team from the moment the season tipped off. An 0-3 start to kick off the season, including losses to the Bucks and Celtics, only made the concerns of fans grow.

With the success of other Philadelphia sports teams casting a shadow over the Sixers’ expectations, there has not been the usual investment this year. The emotional scars of past playoff losses are still fresh in fans’ minds- and for good reason. But the fact of the matter is if you look at the on-court play and what the team has got going for them there is plenty of reason for optimism.

The Sixers hold a record of 43-22 on the season. This is the third-best record in the Eastern Conference and fourth in the entire NBA. They are led by a perennial MVP candidate in Joel Embiid, who led the NBA in scoring last season with 30.6 points per game before further raising this bar this year. James Harden has flawlessly embraced his role as the team’s proper co-star and walks an impressive balance as a scorer and playmaker.

Philadelphia is coming off a five-game road trip in which they went 4-1 against tough competition and battled through a pair of back-to-backs. If not for a historic shooting night by the Dallas Mavericks, in which they shot 25-48 (52.1%) on three-point attempts while Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving each added 40+ points, the Sixers very well may have returned home 5-0. Perhaps the most notable change within this Sixers team is this newfound (and welcomed) ability to just find ways to win games.

This seeming mentality shift within this Sixers team should be the biggest reason for belief.

Sixers Shift in Mindset

While there are plenty of stats to dive into on why this season could be different, none are more important than the will-to-win than has been put on display.

This was seen on national television during the Sixers’ recent victory over the Eastern Conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks. Led by their strong shooting, Milwaukee jumped out to a lead in the first half and pushed it to as many as 18 points in the third quarter. They also held a four-point advantage over the Sixers with under 1:30 remaining.

Then comes Harden and Embiid who each knock down a three-pointer in the final two possessions to overtake the lead. Despite the grim outlook as the game winded down, there was an air of confidence on the court that has not existed in years past. The Sixers outscored the Bucks 48-31 in the fourth quarter which marks the most points they have tallied in any quarter all season. It proved to be just enough as Philadelphia pulled off the 133-130 victory on the road.

Another display of this mentality came just two nights later as they beat the Pacers by a score of 147-143. While the Sixers are a notably more talented team than the 29-37 Pacers, Indiana simply could not miss throughout the matchup. Sandwiched between a pair of back-to-back matchups with Tobias Harris and P.J. Tucker each out with injury, this had all the making of a scheduled loss. Despite the poor defense and the overall frustrating play, the Sixers did just enough to get the win.

Or flash back to the first game back after the All-Star break when the Sixers picked up a scrappy victory over the Memphis Grizzlies. The Sixers trailed by as many as 17 and it took a complete team effort to fight their way back in.

Miami Heat’s Jimmy Butler, right, goes up for a shot against Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Feb. 27, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Spearheaded by a huge corner three-pointer from James Harden, Joel Embiid meeting Ja Morant at the rim on a dunk attempt, and Tobias Harris hitting the go-ahead three-pointer just a few plays after air balling the same shot, the fourth-quarter comeback was successful. Harden even showed the willingness to dive across the floor for a loose ball which led to Embiid putting home a statement dunk for the 110-105 victory.

Sure it is not always pretty and there are things to nitpick about their execution.

But it has been a theme all year of the Sixers winning games that in past years it feels like they wouldn’t. As much as there have been fingers pointed at the floor spacing, role players, or the million other factors why the Sixers haven’t reached their postseason goals– there has always been a mindset issue where the team just doesn’t always bring it. If this is fixed it could make more of an impact than any personnel addition for the franchise.

Sixers On-Court Play

As great as the vibes may be, it takes an effective on-court product for the Sixers to be successful. The Sixers rank third in the NBA in offensive efficiency by holding an offensive rating of 116.6 on the year. They rank first in the NBA since James Harden returned to the court from the foot injury which kept him out for a month near the beginning of the season.

Philadelphia also ranks eighth in the NBA in defensive efficiency by producing a 112.4 defensive rating. The Boston Celtics, who are regarded as the NBA Title Favorites, are the only other team to rank in the top 10 in both of these categories.

While role players and team construction certainly make a difference, the NBA is still a star-driven league. With that said, I challenge you to look around the NBA and find a pair of stars playing more effective basketball than James Harden and Joel Embiid.

For the third consecutive season, Embiid finds himself in the MVP race, and for good reason. He is leading the league in scoring at 33.3 points per game while also adding 10.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.6 blocks, and 1.1 steals. He is shooting a career-high from the field (53.7%), at the free-throw line (85.8%), and his effective field-goal percentage (56.4%) while making just as significant of an impact on the defensive end.

There were some concerns about the outlook for James Harden heading into this season after lingering hamstring issues bothered him for the past two years. He has checked every box fans could possibly be asking for this season and has been the motor that makes this Sixers team go all season. Harden leads the league in passing at 10.8 assists per game oftentimes creating looks for teammates out of seemingly thin air.

Philadelphia 76ers’ James Harden (1) advances the ball against the Dallas Mavericks in the first half of an NBA basketball game, Thursday, March 2, 2023, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

While his primary focus is as a playmaker at this stage in his career, it should not be overlooked that he is still averaging 21.9 points along with 6.3 rebounds. The efficiency has taken the most significant step forward as Harden is shooting a career-high 40.1% on three-pointers and has an effective field goal percentage better than he ever recorded in a Rockets jersey. His ability to explode past guys off the dribble has returned and helped to open up everything in his game. Harden has not been afraid to step up and deliver in some big moments this year and the Sixers will need this to continue to be the case.

Perhaps most notable is the strides the duo has taken together. The pick-and-roll looks unstoppable for stretches at a time and they have developed an impressive feel for where they want each other to be. While there is some frustration over the lack of movement and involvement of others in the offense at times, it will be up to this duo to decide the team’s ceiling.

Surrounding the two stars is a group of hard-nosed role players that have each shown their worth at various points in the season. For all the frustrations about P.J. Tucker, he has shown up for big games and this is exactly why the Sixers brought him in. His 16 rebounds in the most recent matchup with the Celtics made a massive impact and he is connecting on 40.2% of his three-point attempts on the season. Tucker has stepped up on the defensive side of the floor during a number of huge matchups and will swing a playoff game at some point this postseason.

The addition of Jalen McDaniels is notable and he is already making his presence felt on the team. The stringy 6-foot-9 forward has a balanced game and his athleticism and effort on the boards make a massive impact. De’Anthony Melton also has been a perfect addition and another more complete player than has been the norm in the Sixers rotation. Doc Rivers also looks to have finally given into the Paul Reed experiment as the backup center. While Reed is still a work in progress, he deserves credit for taking strides to cut out some of the nonsense in his game, improving his activity on offense, and even taking to Twitter when he feels he is wronged.

This all goes without mentioning Tyrese Maxey who very well may be the X-Factor on this team. The 22-year-old has gotten back to the high-level player he has proven to be since being re-introduced to the starting lineup. The sixth-man experiment was worth trying, but it seems clear he looks more comfortable with the starters and alongside the Sixers stars. His season averages of 20.2 points, 3.5 assists, 2.7 rebounds, and shooting 40.9% on three-point attempts have more than earned him this opportunity to start.

This is not to say that the season could not still end up a failure. Falling short of the Conference Finals would be a massive disappointment and this is surely still on the table. The poor defensive backcourt and perimeter defense could be the downfall of the team. While Paul Reed has looked solid and going small-ball with Tucker at center will surely be played, it is fair not to have 100% confidence in the backup center output. There also are some serious playoff demons that Harden, Embiid, and Doc Rivers each have to face in the postseason, and plenty of reasons to be skeptical if you look hard enough.

However, if this was the same exact team and production with a different uniform there would be a greater buzz about the legitimacy of the team’s chances. It is time to give this Sixers team a fair chance and have some optimism about what this unit can do. The Sixers have a grueling stretch to end the season and cannot ask for a better way to get battle-tested but wipe the slate clean of past failures and let’s see what this team can do.

AP Photo/Aaron Gash