Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and is now writing for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
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For a team that currently has the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, the Philadelphia 76ers have only just recently been able to get their head above water. They were barely a .500 team for the season’s first couple weeks, then they were a winning team that only beat lousy teams, a winning team with a negative point differential, a winning team that always looked like they were struggling, a winning team that had three of the top 25 players in the NBA -- RTRS-certified -- but still never managed to exert their will on an entire game.
But now, the Sixers are coming off a 3-0 week in which they won the three games by a combined 59 points. They were home games, and they weren’t against the finest competition, but they won two of the games in a rout and one with convincingly superior play down the stretch -- both types of wins having come at a heavy premium for Philly through their first 22 games, and both coming when the Sixers didn’t necessarily play their best. They’re currently 17-8 on the season, a 56-win pace, with a solidly if unspectacularly positive point differential. They’ve gone 8-2 since trading for Jimmy Butler, and they have one of the most effective starting units in the league, anchored by a legitimate MVP candidate in the middle. They are, by essentially every metric that matters, a Normal Good Team.
How good, though? That’s tougher to say: they haven’t faced many other Normal Good Teams over this stretch besides the Grizzlies, who might’ve overachieved to this point, or the Jazz and Pelicans, who have decidedly underachieved -- all of whom they beat, but at home and not by much. They’ll get a vaunted Real Test tomorrow night in Toronto against the Raptors, and I was sort of surprised at myself when talking to Friend of the Podcast Jason Lipshutz and dismissing the game as a near-certain Philly loss. Why? Well, Toronto is probably better: They’re deeper, they have greater year-over-year-consistency, and their top-flight players are at least playing on par with ours. They beat us once already in Toronto this year, chances are they’ll do it again.
I arrived at this conclusion so casually that it didn’t strike me until well later that the Sixers not being as good as the Raptors this year might actually be something of a problem.
When the season began with Toronto rampaging out of the gate and the Sixers struggling to put together a Wawa order without risking catastrophe, it seemed fair enough that Philly would be underdogs against Toronto. They were still trying to integrate the Then-Starting Point Guard as he flirted with and then completely abandoned a new jumper form, they were trying to bust Dario Saric out of a brutal shooting slump, they were trying to make up for a brutal lack of depth with Wilson Chandler sidelined, Nemanja Bjelica enacting the Vladfather’s Revenge and Zhaire Smith recovering from the alien from Alien bursting out of his chest. More importantly, they were still -- at least for many of us -- ahead of schedule as a team, with plenty of time to figure things out as they congealed as a core. It didn’t have to be this year.
But as many have accurately pointed out, the Jimmy Butler trade changes things. Joel Embiid playing at a consistently MVP-worthy level -- while playing big minutes in every game at near-ideal health -- arguably changes things. The Now-Backup Point Guard being officially relegated to a bench role (and now possibly being removed from the team’s long-term plans altogether), definitely changes things. This year is no longer about sacrificing some short-term fluency in order to maximize a long-term ceiling. This year is now about winning games, and lots of them. It kinda has to be this year now.
That might not even be fair to say about a team with two foundational players who have played a combined 224 games of pro ball -- less than three full NBA seasons between them. But the downside of trading for a player like Butler is that it does start the clock on any kind of feel-good grace period. A 29-year-old Tom Thibodeau workhorse who might be as close to the end of his prime as its beginning, Jimmy wants to win ASAP, and as a free agent in the offseason, he has leverage over the team to ensure they share his priorities.
And it’s not just Butler leaving that’s at risk -- it’s him getting soured on taking a more complementary role on the team, him no longer being willing to take a back seat to Embiid or even Simmons, and the entire team unraveling from there. Star players can be talked into giving the ball up when the team is winning 80 percent of their games, but if the Sixers lose their second or third tough one and Jimmy looks at the box score to see he only got 11 shots in 35 minutes, he might start having some thoughts about the team’s natural pecking order. Winning is pretty much the only thing that ensures harmony in the fragile ecosystem of an NBA team where not everyone is on the same page, and so -- for seemingly the first time in a decade for Philly -- it’s finally in the Sixers’ best interest to win as many games as possible, particularly once they get to the postseason.
It’s hard for me to calibrate the baseline of acceptability for exactly what’s enough, though. It can’t be championship or bust, even at this point -- as long as the Warriors are the Warriors, there’s only one team that gets to have those kinds of expectations -- and even just getting to the Finals would be a pretty big ask of the team in a year where the East could have as many as four elite-caliber teams. Besides, it’s not like championships are the only thing that keep big-name free agents hanging around -- Paul George re-inked in OKC after a first-round loss last summer, and whatever attracted LeBron to L.A. had little to do with the team’s on-court product in the months leading up to his signing.
But is getting to the conference finals enough to keep this team united on the righteous path? How about 55+ wins and a losing seven-game semis against the Celtics or Raptors? And how does the equation get altered if, Hinkie forbid, one of our new Big Three goes down for an extended period, or even the season? How much disappointment can we weather this season before it turns to outright calamity? I don’t know, and the Sixers have had to so much adjusting on the fly since the beginning of last season that I wonder if they do either.
In a way, it’s been something of a blessing for this team to always be having some on- or off-court drama keeping the focus small-picture. As long as they have a crisis directly in front of them that needs immediate addressing, we never have to ask the bigger questions: Is this a championship-caliber roster yet? If not, how far away is it from being one? Do the Sixers have the means to close that gap? How long do they have to figure it out before it becomes a moot point? Or are they so far behind that it’s already too late?
The good thing about trading for Jimmy Butler as early in the season as Elton & friends did is that we get a good number of months to figure out the answers to some of these questions -- rather than just getting 30 games after the trade deadline against largely half-hearted competition, and having to go into the postseason and then the summer with a lot of incomplete information and half-baked assumptions. This is what games like Wednesday against the Raptors should be for -- reality checks that help Philly’s front office and management honestly assess where they are as a contender, and allow them to set goals and manage expectations for the near- and long-term.
That’s not to say that if they get busted by Toronto this week that it’s time to pull the ripcord on the entire season, or worse. But we’re past the point where the team can take it on the chin from the East elite and just shrug it off as “Well, we’re not there yet.” If we’re not that there yet, then we need to proactively figure out why we’re not there yet, what we need to do to get there, and how we pull off getting there relatively quickly. The Sixers were very good at being bad for a long while, now it’s actually time to see if they’re any good at being good.