TAMPA, Fla. — So how good are the 76ers?
They have the Eastern Conference’s best record at 20-10, and a league MVP candidate in Joel Embiid. Ben Simmons is starting to play like, well, Ben Simmons when he’s available. And Tobias Harris is having a career season.
Yet, this team has some holes.
Danny Green and Seth Curry, the Sixers’ ballyhooed offseason acquisitions, have been inconsistent. The Sixers lack depth, and can’t seem to contain opposing guards who can create their own shot.
But Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey said last month, “I think we’re pretty championship or bust.”
If that’s the case, the weight of the Sixers rests on Embiid’s shoulders. As good as Harris and Simmons are, Embiid, who was voted an All-Star starter for the fourth straight season, must play at a Hall of Fame level and remain healthy for Philly to win its first NBA title since 1983.
The big man’s dominance was on display Friday night, finishing with a career-high 50 points to go with 17 rebounds, five assists, four blocks, and two steals in a 112-105 victory over the Chicago Bulls at the Wells Fargo Center. It marked the third time that he’s scored at least 42 points this season and 13th time with 31 or more points.
“It just feels like he’s unstoppable,” Sixers guard Matisse Thybulle said. “It’s hard to really know, because we are not trying to stop him. We’re just trying to feed the beast.”
Thybulle knows opposing teams go into games trying to prevent Embiid from scoring 30-plus points.
“But night-in and night-out, he does,” he said. “You start to think that maybe there’s no answer for him.”
Embiid is second in the league in scoring at 30.5 points per game in addition to averaging 11.0 rebounds, 1.3 steals, and 1.3 blocks. He is also shooting a career-best 40% on three-pointers.
“When you look at a guy like that, how dominant he is on the floor, and just his ability to make plays and score out there,” Harris said, “I’ll tell my kids one day I was playing with Joel Embiid. When they ask who’s the best player you played with, I’ll say Joel Embiid.
“It’s a honor to be out there with him on the floor.”
Embiid will tell you that he’s simply just playing to win, doing whatever it takes to elevate the Sixers.
“If it takes me having to set screens and get guys open and passing the ball and running the offense like I did [Wednesday against the Houston Rockets] when I had nine assists, that’s what I’m going to do,” he said. “If it’s just dominate and scoring, that’s what I’m going to do.”
However, Embiid said he cares more about the defensive end. His goal is to become the defensive player of the year.
His immediate goal is to help the Sixers extend their winning streak to three games when they face the Toronto Raptors Sunday night at Amalie Arena here in Tampa.
Simmons and sixth man Shake Milton are listed as probable for the game. Simmons missed the last two games with an illness, while Milton was sidelined the last five with a sprained left ankle.
But the Sixers aren’t favored to reach the NBA Finals despite Embiid’s MVP caliber campaign and being atop the conference standings.
The oddsmakers like the Brooklyn Nets, who at 19-12, are 1 ½ games behind Philly. The Nets have two players, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, who were voted Eastern Conference All-Star Game starters. Another player, James Harden, is expected to be named an All-Star reserve on Tuesday.
The trio has played only seven games together due to injuries, COVID-19 contract tracing, and personal reasons since Harden was acquired from the Houston Rockets on Jan. 13. But the expectation is that they’ll find a rhythm in the second half of the season en route to contending for the NBA title.
The Sixers, who missed out on acquiring Harden, must shore up their bench before the trade deadline or via the buyout market. And has been mentioned repeatedly, they could use a standout perimeter player that can get bucket, finish isolation plays, take opponents off the dribble, and bury a three-pointer to pair with Embiid.
Right now, though, one could argue that the Sixers benefitted from having the NBA’s sixth easiest schedule as of Friday night. They have played nine teams that had winning records as of Saturday morning. The Sixers are 5-7 against those squads.
To be fair, the Sixers only had seven players in their Jan. 9 loss to the Denver Nuggets due to injuries and COVID-19 health and safety protocols. They were also without Embiid in road losses to Memphis (Jan. 19) and Utah (Monday). But on the same note, the Nets, Trail Blazers, and Celtics were all undermanned during their two matchups apiece with the Sixers.
Portland still managed to sweep its two games, the Nets split their two games, while Boston lost both.
So how good are the Sixers?
It all depends on Embiid.