Should the Sixers be considered legitimate title threats?

76ers Tobias Harris
LOS ANGELES, CA – JANUARY 17: Philadelphia 76ers Center Joel Embiid (21), Philadelphia 76ers Guard James Harden (1), Philadelphia 76ers Forward P.J. Tucker (17) and Philadelphia 76ers Forward Tobias Harris (12) huddle during a NBA game between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Clippers on January 17, 2023 at Arena in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)

The Philadelphia 76ers are the only team in the NBA to have swept their first-round opponent. This is the first playoff sweep the Sixers have produced since 1990-91 and the first four-game sweep the franchise has completed since the 1984-85 season.

Yes, the Brooklyn Nets were likely the worst team in the playoffs and likely would not have even made the postseason if the first half of the season was not spent with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on the roster. However, you can only beat the teams in front of you, and the Sixers did exactly this, taking down the Nets in all four games by a combined margin of 45 points.

Whether you are a believer or skeptic in the Sixers, there is plenty of evidence to support your argument either way after the opening round. The injury to Joel Embiid and the struggles of James Harden to finish around the rim have stolen headlines for concerns surrounding the team. However, there also is an undeniable vibe and belief within the team that is being brought to the surface that should give fans hope.

What do the odds say?

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers, right, talks to James Harden during the second half of Game 4 in an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets, Saturday, April 22, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

One of the main reasons for pessimism surrounding the Sixers is that the team will have to go through the two biggest title contenders, the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, before even making the Conference Finals. The second-round hurdle that the franchise has failed to clear since 2001 is looking steeper than ever, with the Celtics just one win away from becoming the Sixers’ official opponent.

The Sixers hold +750 odds of winning the championship. They trail the Bucks and Celtics in the Eastern Conference as well as the Phoenix Suns out West. This number has some improvement after opening at +900.

Reasons for Optimism for the Sixers

Philadelphia 76ers’ Tyrese Maxey (0) reacts after scoring during the second half of Game 4 in an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets, Saturday, April 22, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

While the talent level of the Nets may not be the measuring stick the Sixers will need to reach, it was still a solid round to warm up with. Brooklyn is loaded with versatile, athletic wings such as Mikal Bridges, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Cam Johnson. While each player had their moments where they shined, this was a great way to prepare for players like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, whom the Sixers must put a stop to the next round.

While James Harden and Joel Embiid had some concerns pop up (which we will soon discuss), there have been some intriguing signs of life from the supporting cast.

Tyrese Maxey has given the Sixers some bursts of production that have changed the game. Tobias Harris has stepped up and averaged 20.3 points and 8.8 rebounds while showing a willingness to step into center stage. Paul Reed has answered the call as the best backup center during the Joel Embiid era, and P.J. Tucker has flashed the hustle plays that have helped make him a champion in years past. For all the complaints about Doc Rivers that have been tossed around, he also is coming off arguably his most impressive coaching series during his time with the Sixers.

The phrase “It’s a We team” and “It’s a We season” have been uttered in the Sixers locker room throughout the season. This team-first mindset has translated on the floor, and this shift in mindset may be more impactful than any on-court adjustment.

Concerns with the Sixers

Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid reacts after being hurt during the second half against the Brooklyn Nets in Game 3 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Thursday, April 20, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Unfortunately, the greatest concerns with the Sixers sit at the top of their pecking order. After one of the healthiest seasons of Embiid’s career, it took just three games for the likely MVP to find himself on the injury report. The Sixers got the job done in his absence, but the franchise will need their superstar at his best if they are to have a chance at taking down the reigning Eastern Conference champs.

It should be noted that there looks to be an increasing likelihood that Embiid will suit up for the opening game of the next round, but the level at which he will play is more of the storyline. The Celtics currently hold a 3-1 series lead over the Atlanta Hawks. If the series wraps up in five games, Game 1 of the Sixers vs. Celtics will take place on Saturday. If the Hawks can win at least another game, the opening game of the second round will take place on May 1st. Embiid last played on April 20th, so will have a minimum of eight days of rest if the series is slated for a Saturday start.

It also was not the most encouraging performance from Embiid when he was on the court. He had his usual level of dominance on the defensive end and did a solid job controlling the glass. However, the Nets had a clear game plan not to allow Embiid to beat them and doubled (or sometimes tripled) the superstar the second he touched the ball.

While Embiid deserves credit for making the right basketball play and not allowing this to get him off his game, he was not able to control things the way that is typically the case. In years past, this style of defense could have taken Embiid out of the game, so he deserves credit for doing whatever is necessary to win. However, it will be interesting to see how the Celtics attempt to match up with Embiid and the Sixers.

Perhaps more concerning was the signs James Harden showed finishing around the basket. Through the opening four games, Harden has averaged 17.3 points, 8.8 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.5 steals per game. However, he is shooting just 34.3% from the field despite connecting on 42.4% of their three-point attempts. While Harden has flashed the ability to create separation once again, he struggled to capitalize on these opportunities that he created.

What version of James Harden shows up in round two may have an even larger role in the Sixers’ barometer of success. Simply put, if he cannot shoot better than 28.1% from inside the arc, this team does not have much of a chance. However, if he can look more like the version of himself that has been the case for most of the season, don’t count this team out.

So now, one round into the NBA playoffs, we basically still have no idea what the Philadelphia 76ers team is. At their best, they can play with anyone. However, the likelihood of them being at their best is not nearly as high as most desire.

It is the stage in the postseason in which all teams are good, and there is no dodging. It is unfortunate the Sixers vs. Celtics clash appears destined for the second round, but if they want to become true title contenders, this is a matchup they must step up for. There is no more poetic way for the Sixers to get the best of their playoff demons than by Joel Embiid dominating Al Horford, but if this does not materialize, then there could be some massive changes coming within the Sixers organization.