The Time For the Sixers to Win a Title Is Right Now
Fuck that noise, the Sixers are going to win it all this year.
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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The East does not fear the Sixers right now. At least that's what is to be believed from SixersAdam's recent Eastern Conference roundtable, with bloggers from the five other top seeds in the East. (OK, the five top seeds period, with the Sixers still technically No. 6 in the restart standings.) When asked about the team they were most wary of their squad facing in the playoffs -- besides the Bucks -- the Raptors, Celtics and even the Heat all got mentions. But the closest the Sixers got was from Ben Rauman of Behind the Buck Pass. "Earlier this season, I might have said Philly with their defensive tandem of Horford and Embiid clogging up the lane for Giannis," Rauman offered. "However, their flaws have become more and more apparent as the season wore on."
It's understandable. The flaws of this team did get more and more apparent as the season wore on. The spacing was congested. The consistency was absent. The mojo was far from deee-groovy. If SixersAdam himself had hopped on as Blogger No. 6 for his own column on a Sixers publication, he also probably would've shrugged at the possibility of the Sixers being a real playoff threat -- something ultimately borne out by their hard-fought second-round out in the J.J. Redick timeline. It's all fair: The team we've watched this season was not really a championship-caliber team.
And of course, I say all of that to say this: Fuck that noise, the Sixers are going to win it all this year.
At the very least, they have as good a chance as anyone to come out of the East and play for the Bubble Ball trophy. Yes, including Milwaukee and their 53-12 record, yes, including Boston with Jayson Tatum ascending into a hybrid of Kevin Durant and Steven Tyler, yes including the Raptors and their season-long charade of insisting that The Office could still be a championship-caliber show without Steve Carrell. I care as much about all of that as Snoop Dogg and DMX cared about their own last 15 years of recorded music during Wednesday night's Verzuz battle.
This season has been unmistakably disappointing for the Sixers. But this season is no longer this season. Let's not act like this was just a particularly long All-Star break we're coming back from: Four months have passed since this team last played basketball. That's an entire offseason, and not a short one -- even before you consider how those four months marked one of the most globally disruptive periods anyone involved has ever lived through. Those 65 games we played aren't totally meaningless - we all learned some things, and we all take our record with us into this last eight-game stretch -- but just because they told us a lot about what those teams were doesn't mean that they tell us a ton about what these teams are.
So even if the Sixers aren't the same team that they were when they went 39-26, why should we consider this team more of a championship-caliber threat? Well, let's start with the most obvious and most important reason: They're all there, and they're all healthy. Yes, Zhaire Smith took one for the team for the 37th time with his bruised and likely straight-up haunted left knee, but the chance of him actually playing any kind of meaningful role in the Sixers' late-season or post-season fate was infinitesimal. Everyone else? Presented, accounted for, and looking damn fine.
Don't underestimate how huge that is for these Sixers. Of course, it means that Ben Simmons got to put any will-he-or-won't-he questions about his postseason availability over his very frightening back issues to rest, and instead he's simply back in full shooting-and-looting effect. But don't forget that Joel Embiid's own health was also still something of a day-to-day proposition at the time, JoJo having just missed two weeks with a shoulder sprain in Cleveland (which got all of us checking ticket prices on the Flyers bandwagon), and only playing one game back before Rudy Gobert shut the world down.
And don't forget Al Horford, either. You could explain Horf's season in one of two ways: Either he aged a half-decade in between early November and mid December, or he suffered a knee injury around the latter time that hampered his athleticism and scoring and dropped his two-way productivity from "acceptable" to "Okafor." Big Al would have you believe it's the latter, telling reporters earlier this month: "I probably wasn’t where I wanted to be [health-wise earlier this season]... I’m not going to make excuses but right now I’m in a much better place. The time off for me was beneficial." We'll see how real that is, but a four-month respite for Horf to spend catching up on his Audible queue and watching the Baby-Sitters Club reboot with his kids can basically only be a good thing. He doesn't even have to be as good as 2018 Al Horford for this team to win with him -- as FOTB Jason Lipshutz aptly put it, he just has to be better than 2019 Greg Monroe.
Chuck Klosterman showed up to the podcast with two Miller High Lifes in hand, ready to talk about whatever we wanted.
Of course, speaking of Al: Brett Brown seems to actually know what to do with him now, and what not to do. It's also worth remembering that the 39-26 version of the Sixers was consistently trotting trying to win with a version of the roster that had at least one appendage tied behind their back at all times, in starting Horford alongside SImmons and Embiid -- a balance that maybe possibly could have worked if...., but certainly definitely did not work because.... The final form of this team was probably going to feature those three guys getting minutes together -- particularly not with any of them at less than 100% -- and now Brett seems to understand that, moving him to the bench and likely staggering his minutes in between units with one but not both of the Sixers' stars.
Swapping a five-time All-Star in the starting lineup for a guy who basically doubled his career point total in the nine games before the season was shelved is certainly a curious Step 1 towards an eventual Step 3: Championship. And true, we don't really know exactly how good Shake is yet; the potential of him either melting or freezing in the playoffs is absolutely there. But the relief, the sheer pressure-release, of replacing a version of this team that didn't make sense (two centers, two wings and a point guard that won't shoot) with one that does (a center, two wings, a combo lead guard and a point forward) is going to be so huge. We haven't really even seen this version -- the ideal version -- of this team yet, since at least one of the team's stars was always injured by the time that Shake really started to rattle and roll. But the fact that Brett Brown already seems to be willing to commit to it anyway shows you how overdue it was in the first place.
And look: What it ultimately comes down to is that like no other NBA playoff team, the Philadelphia 76ers just really, really, really needed a restart. They needed time to heal up, to let the Fire Brett Brown cacophony get distracted by the NFL draft or whatever, to open a window and clear out the funk from their locker room, to remember why they loved one another and forget why they got so sick of each other. If you had asked any Sixers fan in early March how we'd feel about stopping time on the NBA season for four months without offering us any other context, the only question we'd have asked would have been, "Any chance you could make it five?" The circumstances were extremely far from ideal, but talking strictly in terms of postseason potential, getting to not play basketball for four months was an absolute blessing for this team.
I don't know if the Sixers are actually favorites to win the East. Maybe writers from those other teams are as gassed up as I am right now, and are also currently focused on nothing but all the reasons why their Disney squad is the "Me at the beginning of 2020" version of themselves. Possible, but for once, the Sixers seem to be the team who actually knows what they have and what they are: While Eric Bledsoe is just showing up in Orlando after testing positive for COVID-19, while Kemba Walker still hasn't been cleared to scrimmage, while Kawhi Leonard continues to suffer from a season-long case of signing with another team, Brett's crew has been all together, toasting marshmallows and having Lil Baby singalongs. For once -- for now -- they're the team that seems to have their shit together.
And that's why I say that now is the time for the Sixers to go out there and win the damn thing. The Sixers took a turbulent path here, but they're here, with all their important players healthy, motivated and in shape, their coach in good spirits and feeling loose, and home court advantage not meaning shit anyway. None of that may be true again. There's no guarantee Simmons and Embiid are ever both healthy at the end of the season again (or that guys around them won't get jettisoned to help save our owners Mets money), while Brett Brown very well might not be around late next year, and the Sixers might just not be the sort of team that ever cakewalks through the regular season and hosts three or four playoff rounds' worth of Game 1s in their building.
I don't mean to suggest it's definitely now or never for these Sixers. Embiid and Simmons are both still young for foundational stars, which means Philly should be be relevant as long as they're playing and productive. But the history of the NBA is littered with "well, we'll be back next year" teams who definitely weren't back next year, and the Sixers have already let a couple pretty solid opportunities slip through their playoff fingers. Meanwhile, new superteams spring up unexpectedly in both conferences every summer. This is an impossibly weird way for an NBA season to end, but the Sixers were born in the weirdness, and they should embrace this strange restart like it's their best, last chance to win it all. Because it really could be both.
If you still need to see it to believe it, fine. If you want to point out we’re still a Simmons back tweak or Embiid delivery order from being back where we started, fair enough. But if we believed these guys were good enough to win the East before the year started (which most of us, SixersAdam again aside, did believe), we should still believe that now. It's a Christmas Carol-like second chance for Our Sixers to actually be the team they wanted to be: an athletic, super-sized defensive juggernaut pushes the ball in transition and doesn't get all goofy about scoring in the halfcourt. It's a brand new eight-game season, and while Philly will have questions to answer, so does literally every other squad, none of whom can be sure the team they're picking up with is the same as the one they left off with. These Sixers have every chance to be the best version of themselves. There's no yesterday, and who knows if there's a tomorrow. This season isn't this season, but it is the season. Time to go fucking win it.