As we begin the year with what will likely be remembered as one of the darkest days in American History of the past 20 years, writing about the Sixers seems trivial at best. However, if 2020 taught us anything (I know, it taught us a lot…), it was to prioritize self-care. For many of us, sports are that escape. So, while I acknowledge that we have far greater topics we need to discuss, issues to sort out, and problems that need resolution, I am hoping sharing some thoughts on the Sixers start to the 2020-2021 campaign can be an escape not only for you, but for myself as well.
As the Sixers hold off a ferocious Wizards comeback attempt to keep themselves atop the NBA at 7-1, I cannot help but think this game was a perfect example of the best and the worst sides of this team. The Sixers lead by as many as 21, yet this game was tied at 131 at the four minute mark of the fourth quarter. We went from Seth Curry hitting his first six three’s, to an Embiid poster, to then waiting to see if Beal would set a new career high (he did) and break the franchise record (he tied it). My friend Uncle Randy really captured the emotional roller coaster that this game became.
Today on Twitter I engaged in a discussion with a few fans regarding a tongue-in-cheek picture I posted from last season of a graphic stating the Sixers were the last unbeaten team in the NBA, as they had started last year 5-0 behind incredible play from Al Horford. When Elton Brand acquired Al Horford, there were so many reasons to be excited; an elite defender, one of the top three Embiid defenders, taking an asset from Boston, and praying we had solved the backup center position. Everybody knew the high probability of there being issues of the fit alongside Ben, Embiid, and Harris (who had just been signed to a max deal), but when your team makes a splash that big after coming four bounces away from at the very least an Eastern Conference Finals appearance, you must talk yourself into it to some degree.
Then you come out 5-0 and all your fears are vanquished. Horford averaged 16.2 points per game through those first five games and fans were ready to figure out where they wanted to spot up on Broad Street. Anyone who knows my Furkan Korkmaz agenda (get well soon King) may remember the Korkmaz winner in Portland to get that fifth win, I was riding as high as anyone. It is a fond memory even in hindsight of what the rest of the season entailed…
Several Embiid injuries, Ben Simmons back and knee injuries, Tobias Harris’ struggles, Matisse hitting the rookie wall, the demise of Al Horford, a bubble, and a first-round sweep at the hands of Boston. This all lead to a quick divorce between Philadelphia and Horford, the firing of Brett Brown, and yet another summer of discussion on if Embiid and Simmons can co-exist on a legitimate contender.
While it is both easy and accurate to look back and say it was obvious it was not going to work, few were saying it at the time. If those who fully maintained that stance want their credit, then there it is. You were right. I love being right just as much as anybody. However, when the Sixers were 5-0, anyone who was “right” was probably not having a very good time nor did they receive a trophy or a plaque when the Sixers were eliminated.
There is a distinct difference between fandom and analysis. The evolution of blogs, social media, the fact that everybody has a podcast (@ProcessPotables) blurs those lines significantly. People tend to switch back and forth between fandom and analysis, and it is often hard to interpret when one is happening as opposed to the other. When I write or record, I am doing my best to be grounded, impartial (to a degree), and provide the best insight I can as to what is happening on the court. When I tweet however, it is often a mix of that and explaining how I will (pillow) fight every Tobias and Furkan detractor there is.
My point ultimately is: It’s okay to enjoy things. It’s okay to get caught up in a 5-0, or in this year’s case, a 7-1 start. It’s okay to recognize Joel Embiid looks like his conditioning is much better coming into this season than last. It’s okay to think Tobias Harris is playing incredibly well and still acknowledge that his contract is not friendly whatsoever. It’s okay to be happy you have the best record in the NBA while playing a pretty easy schedule so far.
Just because you acknowledge these things as being accurate as of today, it does not always have to be taken as a lack of understanding that change is almost assuredly coming. Tonight was a great example of many issues that could end up hurting the Sixers down the line. 18 turnovers, gave up nine offensive rebounds while only grabbing one, allowing Bradley Beal to score 60 on over 57% from the field and 70% from three, allowing the Wizards as a team to shoot over 43% from three.
Then you factor in other things that impact every team and always influence the outcome of a season significantly: injuries, trades, COVID, etc. Maybe it’s just me, but I frequently see Ben being injured left out of the discussion on being swept by Boston. Would Ben playing have caused the Sixers to win the series? Honestly? Probably not. It does increase the probability though, and at the very least maybe allows the Sixers to avoid being swept. Every little things changes percentage points; you can dispute by how much, but not the fact that it does.
One of the hottest words in sports right now is “variance”. Again, tonight is a prime example on both ends for the Sixers. They are not going to shoot 62.1% from three every night. They likely don’t do it again this season if we’re being honest. They also likely don’t allow a 60-point scorer (I’m sorry in advance if Kyrie does it Friday).
My biggest takeaway through eight games for this team is the idea of variance. Kevin Rice (@TheKevinRice) has been doing great Sixers analysis videos on Twitter this season, and one of the things I love is that he routinely highlights plays that are not necessarily successful on that attempt, but are well executed and create a positive result. This team more than any other team since “The Process” ended (after 24 years) seems like they are consistently getting great looks on offense. They move without the ball, such as Doc’s designs to get Ben the ball while already heading downhill to the rim, or getting guys like Green, Curry, and Harris to the corners with a screener in front of them to impede any rotating help defenders. Not every shot is going to go in of course, but everything looks less forced, less stressed, and less panicked.
On defense, rotations look good for this early and learning a new defense. Beal went off tonight, but for all his easy looks, he made plenty of difficult contested shots as well. He is one of the best scorers and shooters in the league, and Doc Rivers also made it a point NOT to use Ben Simmons on him tonight. When asked after the game about it, Rivers went on to say that they liked Ben as a floater off Westbrook tonight, and they wanted him to be free to rebound and push the pace, which we saw both early and late be successful for Ben to get easy buckets at the rim the other way. This essentially came down to: Do we think Beal dealing with the combination of Green and Thybulle can be a better full game offensive scheme than allowing Ben to drive an up-tempo offense for the Sixers. It may not have been pretty, but clearly the Sixers offense was up to the task.
So while you don’t get an award for 7-1, it’s okay to enjoy the hot start. If history has taught us anything, it’s that this may be the best it gets. Make your memes, bully other fans online (in a nice way), buy all the shirts (@DSGNTree), and enjoy the moment. Let yourself enjoy something in a world that day by day seems to try to take away any semblance of joy, even if it’s just an article on your NBA leading Sixers from your friend Dan.