The Top 5 Priorities For a Successful (Non-Championship) Sixers Postseason Run
The Sixers are probably not going to win the championship.
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 Sixers are probably not going to win the NBA championship this year.
That's not a referendum on anything -- Joel Embiid's ability to be a late-game closer, Ben Simmons' offensive utility in postseason matchups, the increasingly "Sweet Georgia Brown"-worthy proficiency of the Brooklyn Nets -- except the unforgiving judgment of basic math. Vegas Insider considers the Sixers quasi-longshots to win the title at 15 to 2, but even the most-favored Nets are +225, still falling well short of even 50/50 probability. There are 20 teams still vying for the title, and while the Sixers have better odds of taking the thing than most, no team is more likely than not to win it. There's a chance, and it's not an inconsiderable one -- which is more than we could say for nearly any other Sixers team since 2001 -- but it's not one anyone but Howard Ratner would want to bet too heavily on. In most versions of this year's playoffs, the Sixers go home without the trophy.
Don't know about you, but personally, I'd rather not go into the playoffs with 15 to 2 odds of experiencing anything but total heartbreak. I've already written about how foolish I view the Championship-or-Bust mentality to be -- whole lotta bustin' going on this postseason if that's the only acceptable standard for success -- and while I'm still capable of mostly rational thought (before transitioning to a permanent Sixers-in-6 mentality), I can brace the concept of a playoff run that doesn't end in a ring but still ends with something close to personal satisfaction. Here are the five things that are most important to me that the Sixers accomplish this postseason, in roughly descending order of importance.
Priority No. 1: Joel Embiid staying healthy and dominant
It's not going to end with him receiving the [shudder] Maurice Podoloff Trophy at this point, but Joel Embiid's career season ending with him still undeniably being one of the baddest motherfuckers on the planet remains the most important thing to me about this Sixers season. If Embiid tears his way through the playoffs, posting video game numbers and making huge plays in the final minutes of the biggest games of his career, then that's absolutely something we can build upon, even if the team arounds him ultimately falls short. As great as the Sixers have been this season, there's definitely still significant issues with the roster construction -- but nothing that can't be fixed as long as Embiid is still definitely That Dude.
He certainly was that the first half of the season, and he's still been at times in the second half -- but those games have been a little fewer and further between, with maybe 15% less magic than he had pre-injury when he was the clear MVP frontrunner. Whether he was still recovering from the nasty knee injury, tired from carrying the team all season, and/or just kinda picking his spots with the team's top-seeded fate all but locked, it hasn't been quite the same Jo since that Friday night in Washington. Getting that guy back, and getting him through the entirety of the playoffs unscathed, is the biggest factor not only in how far the Sixers can go this postseason, but how good we'll feel about this team when planning for next year and beyond.
Priority No. 2: Making it to the Eastern Conference Finals
This is basically the Save point for the Sixers this year: No matter what else happens, you absolutely gotta make it at least this far, or else it's all the way back to the start screen. They've gotten the easiest path there they could possibly ask for -- and that's the entire point of showing up like they did all regular season, so no need to make apologies for that -- but now it means that if you don't get there, it's a problem. Yes, maybe Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart eat us alive in round one like they've done their entire careers; yes, maybe the Hawks shoot the lights out in round two and we start throwing things at the TV whenever Kevin Huerter squares up from beyond the arc. Doesn't matter: Failing catastrophic injury losses, not even I will be able to find room in my heart to make "OK, but..."s for the Sixers if they don't get through the first two rounds this year. Anything less than the ECFs this year is an abject failure.
That's the bad news. The good news is, if they make it that far, they've already done most of what they really need to do this postseason. Talk all you want about championship aspirations, but please let's not forget that the Sixers have literally not made the Eastern Conference Finals in 20 years. This isn't just a hump for the Process-era Sixers to get over; the last time Philly was in the ECFs, Raja Bell and Rodney Buford were involved, while somewhere in Orlando, Paul Reed was raring to enter his terrible twos. Just getting out to Round Three will be a huge weight off the backs of these Sixers -- soon to be replaced by another even bigger weight, natch, but still -- and coming one postseason after a first-round exist so bad that national commentators were roasting us for ever giving a damn in the first place, a true accomplishment. I'd still rather have a disastrous semifinals out with Embiid repeatedly putting Clint Capela through the rim than an ECFs L with a hobbled and ineffective Jo limping through all three rounds, but if they can get him healthy and asskicking to round three, I'm basically fine declaring victory at that point.
Priority No. 3: Figuring out what the hell to do with Ben Simmons
This is of course a sort of two-fold concern. One is figuring out what to do with Ben on the court: Do you have him as a primary offensive initiator in closing time of the biggest games? Do you have him walk the ball up, flip it to Seth Curry or Tobias Harris, and then station him in the dunker's spot to await further instructions? Do you sub him out altogether or find a way to generally toggle offense/defense in games where we desperately need buckets and it just doesn't seem like he's helping? It's perhaps the biggest of the many tactical questions that await Doc Rivers this postseason -- one whose answer will likely not be simple, or maybe even consistent -- but it's one that he desperately needs to find some sort of path through, so we don't spend every fourth quarter yelling at Ben to Do Something Already while Celtics fans gleefully pull up box score stat lines from 2018.
And then... it's the other discussion. If Ben Simmons still doesn't totally work on this team in his current role, even after improved shooting and iso scoring around him, does that mean we have to go all-in on acquiring a Kyle Lowry type before next season to officially slide him into more of a power forward role? Or does it mean we have to reopen the books on trading Ben himself for an available superstar -- maybe Damian Lillard if things do go as nuclear as implied in that megawild Chris Haynes column a few weeks ago -- and rebuilding the defense around Embiid and Matisse Thybulle? Tough categories of questions, ones which we've spent the better part of four years trying to figure out, but a conclusive and satisfactory answer to the first one -- and then possibly the second one, depending -- is something we kinda have to come away from this postseason with, to figure out how to get this team from where it is now to where we want it to go next.
Priority No. 4: Putting up a real fight in the ECFs
The Sixers can make the finals, absolutely. There's a world in which the Sixers' stifling perimeter defense and bruising post game overwhelms the Nets, and wears them down over the course of six or seven games to the point where all their bad habits and lack of developed on-court chemistry come oozing to the surface. And you better believe there's a world in which Embiid and Simmons combine to stifle Giannis and knock Milwaukee's supporting cast out of their comfort zone, resulting in them coming up short for the third straight year while Jrue Holiday doesn't quite make up the difference. There's no doubt in my mind that either of those are possible, but there's a lot of doubt in my mind that either is probable: There's just as many, if not more, universes in which the Nets' shot-making simply proves unmatchable, or where the Bucks' interior defense requires the Sixers to make their bread from their perimeter to an extent that they're just not set up for.
If one of those latter scenarios happens, it's disappointing, but I don't think it's tragic. The Sixers just being legitimately in the mix with these teams was beyond what we hoped for at season's beginning, and while the NBA is unpredictable and you always want to take advantage of the opportunities in front of you, our team is both young enough and has enough of a path to improvement that there's no reason to believe this is definitively their last, best chance. But man, you'd hate to see them go out like suckers, and get summarily dismissed like LeBron would do to Atlanta or Toronto back in the day, or like Miami did to Milwaukee last year. You can live with a tough six- or seven-game exit -- maybe even a five-gamer where the gap between the teams is still isolatable and potentially closeable. But if the entire operation goes to shit and we just look like we clearly don't belong in the same weight class, that's a taste no amount of Rita's Water Ice is washing out the rest of the summer. Getting there is still the bare minimum, but really showing up and showing out once in the ECFs will make it a season to really be proud of.
Priority No. 5: Tobias Harris finishing the job
It's barely been worth pointing out, because none of the games have mattered much anyway and the rest of the team has been on cruise control too -- but Tobias Harris has slowly, quietly petered to the finish line in May, posting 16.8 PPG on 53.5% True Shooting over eight games, both easily his lowest numbers for any month this season. It's almost certainly not meaningful, especially given how much of a rock he was across his first 54 games of the season and how low stakes this regular season wound up being down the stretch. But we're gonna need a fully revved-up Tobi back pretty shortly, and we're gonna need that guy for the whole playoffs, punishing mismatches down low, ripping the nets without hesitation on catch-and-shoot threes, and closing games in isolation late when Jo needs a break or the matchups don't seem to be going his way.
Short of Embiid's jump to true MVP candidacy (and Simmons' season-ending Bubble injury), that version of Tobias is still the biggest thing separating this year's team from the one that ultimately proved fraudulent last season, and the biggest reason to expect that the Sixers have a higher playoff ceiling than they did in years past. If he continues to thrive in these playoffs, then I'll officially have to take back every last bit of my anti-Tobias trade/extension talk, and even return my 2020 Rights to Ricky Sanchez Take of the Year trophy in a shameful public ceremony like Milli Vanilli with their Best New Artist Grammy. But if he reverts to the ineffective clunker of the Sixers' last two playoff series losses -- the guy who hasn't scored more than 20 in any of his past 12 playoff games -- than the contract is still at least something of an albatross, and the Spirit of Should Of Kept Shamet lives to ride another season.