CHARLOTTE — It’s hard to grasp how good the 76ers are.
Back in August, I wrote that the Sixers’ offseason moves didn’t exactly inspire confidence in their ability to remain one of the Eastern Conference’s top teams. Their lack of significant moves appeared to drop them to the bottom half of the top eight teams in the conference.
Sure, they added center Andre Drummond at a bargain price in free agency to serve as Joel Embiid’s backup. They also made an upgrade at backup power forward by signing Georges Niang. And the Sixers re-signed small forward Danny Green and reserve swingman Furkan Korkmaz.
But at the time, those transactions were underwhelming when compared with those of conference foes such as the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, and Boston Celtics, who all made significant changes.
The Sixers appeared set to fight the Knicks and Bulls for the conference’s sixth seed, which would’ve been a major drop-off for a squad that had the conference’s best record last season.
Four months later, they have a 12-11 record and sit in ninth place. While their record isn’t ideal, the Sixers were only two games out of third place in the jam-packed East.
But that record still doesn’t necessarily indicate where this Sixers team will land when the final buzzer sounds on this season.
That’s because they had a league-best 8-2 record before finally coming undone because of a COVID-19 outbreak. They went on to lose nine of their next 12 games before Friday night’s 98-96 come-from-behind road win over the Atlanta Hawks.
Their odds to extend their winning streak just increased, even though Tobias Harris is battling a bad cold and Ben Simmons still has yet to play after requesting a trade. The Charlotte Hornets’ LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, Jalen McDaniels, and Mason Plumlee have entered the COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Ball (20 points per game) and Rozier (17.7) are Charlotte’s starting backcourt and two of its three leading scorers.
The Sixers have also historically dominated the Hornets, and will likely continue to do so when the teams meet in a two-game series on Monday and Wednesday in Charlotte. Philly has won the last 14 meetings against Charlotte.
Two victories over the undermanned Hornets (13-11) would propel the Sixers in the standings. This current group wants more than a few wins though, as the players are out to prove critics wrong by showing they can compete with the conference’s elite teams.
“Not all of us have had a sexy name for all of our career,” Niang said. “I think guys are willing to come in every day and put in the work and continue to work at it and watch film and realize what they have to get better at and continue to grow.
“I think that’s definitely something that’s important for our team.”
Even though he’s an NBA household name and four-time All-Star, Embiid considers himself one of the guys on a team full of unheralded players, and he loves playing with them.
“We have a bunch of good guys on this team,” Embiid said. “I would probably say that’s probably the first time since I got drafted here that I will say that everyone on the team is likable and that [I] actually want to spend time with them off the court.”
His comment wasn’t meant as a knock on former teammates. However, it’s well-documented that the chemistry among this current group is much better than that of past Sixers teams.
“It just makes it easier when you got guys like that,” Embiid said “They care about winning. When we lose, you look at the Boston game, you know we were all pissed off.”
They were also upset because Wednesday’s 88-87 defeat setback was still a winnable game despite their horrid play.
Missing 13 of 23 shots, Embiid didn’t think he had a good game in the 98-96 victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Friday. He also noted that Tyrese Maxey still has to get his flow back. But the Sixers moved the ball, and Seth Curry produced in the clutch.
“But we’re right there,” he said. “We got to keep getting better every single day.”
Having played just 23 games, the Sixers still have a lot of time left in the season. And questions remain about when the Sixers will trade Ben Simmons and acquire valuable pieces to help the them make a deep postseason push.
But chemistry and grit alone won’t elevate the Sixers back to the top of the conference standings.
This team has shown it just might be better than expected. But how much better? That remains to be seen.