Amid ups and downs, Sixers still finding their way | Keith Pompey
How good are the 76ers? They have impressive wins against some of the better teams in the NBA, but they've yet to take down one of the best squads competing for the highest stakes.
How good are the 76ers?
At 13-9, they have the Eastern Conference's fifth-best record after Saturday's 108-103 victory at Wells Fargo Center over the 14-8 Detroit Pistons, who have the fourth-best mark.
They have split a pair of games with the Houston Rockets, who at 17-4 have the best record in the Western Conference. Yet they suffered a letdown against a Sacramento Kings squad that, at 7-16, is the NBA's fourth-worst team.
So how good are the Sixers?
We know that they are vastly improved from last season, when they went 4-17 through their first 21 games on the way to a 28-54 season.
According to Teamrankings.com, the Sixers easily have had the toughest schedule in the NBA so far. That bodes well for coach Brett Brown as he tries to guide his team to its first postseason appearance since the 2011-12 campaign.
There's no denying that the Sixers are pretty good. But it's hard to say just how good they are at this time.
The Sixers are just 1-2 when Joel Embiid doesn't play, including a 34-point loss in Toronto, and he hasn't been cleared to play on consecutive nights. Plus, we'll see how Ben Simmons responds if and when opponents utilize Hack-a-Ben like the Washington Wizards did Wednesday night.
But the Sixers already own a five-game winning streak. And they had won six out of eight games before Thursday's road loss to a Boston Celtics team with the league's best record. Some might even give that loss an asterisk since the Sixers were without Embiid, who was resting on the back end of a back-to-back.
Yet the Sixers have also shown that they're not quite ready to contend for an NBA title in three combined losses to the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Those teams are expected to meet in the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive season. The Warriors won the title last season and in 2014-15.
"Against the good teams, whatever it is, we seem to stop playing our basketball, which means we lose our defensive strategies," reserve center Amir Johnson said, "and we stop running our offense sometimes and we go [isolation].
"Against good teams, they'll counter you and beat you with that."
So the Sixers must find a way to stick to their game plan throughout the entire game, no matter the opponent. They also need to cut down on miscues.
Golden State and Cleveland were both able to take advantage of those mistakes while combining to beat the Sixers by an average of 17 points.
The freelancing and miscues are part of the growing pains of a young team.
The Sixers should win their upcoming home games against the struggling Phoenix Suns (Monday) and Los Angeles Lakers (Thursday). But two of the following three matchups — at Cleveland (Saturday) and at the Minnesota Timberwolves (Dec. 12) — will provide a better idea as to how good they actually are.
Three more games to pay attention to: a home-and-home against the Raptors (at home on Dec. 21 and at Toronto on Dec. 23) and Christmas Day at the New York Knicks.
The Raptors took a 128-94 victory over the Embiid-less Sixers on Oct. 21.
The Sixers will only get better once Embiid, their franchise player, gets cleared to play on consecutive nights. Embiid said during the shootaround Saturday morning that it's expected to happen in January or February.
"It depends also on how my training goes," Embiid said.
There's no denying that the Sixers are good.
They have victories over five teams — Pistons (twice), Rockets, Washington Wizards, Portland Trail Blazers, and Utah Jazz (twice) — ranked in the top eight of their respective conferences. But they also faced six teams with winning percentages of .391 or less in the Orlando Magic (9-14), Los Angeles Clippers (8-13), Lakers (8-13 as of Friday), Kings, Dallas Mavericks (6-17), and Atlanta Hawks (5-17).
But you can't overlook the dreadful loss to Sacramento.
So we'll have a better idea shortly as to where the Sixers stand in the NBA's pecking order.