The 76ers have underachieved, considering their preseason hype.
How else can you explain an NBA Finals favorite being sixth in the Eastern Conference standings through 47 games?
It’s not time to bury them yet.
Joel Embiid being on pace to return sooner than expected and a favorable remaining schedule could help the Sixers ascend to second in the standings by season’s end. That would enable them to get a cherished home-court advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
The Sixers are 2 games behind second-place Miami Heat after Saturday night’s 108-91 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers at Wells Fargo Center.
Yet, Philly (30-17) has the NBA’s second-easiest remaining strength of schedule. Their remaining 35 games are against teams with a combined winning percentage of .468, according to Tankathon.
The Heat (31-14) have the fifth-easiest remaining schedule (.477) . However, the Toronto Raptors, who are tied for second with the Heat ; the fourth-place Boston Celtics; and fifth-place Indiana Pacers have the 9th (.488), 19th (.509), and 17th (.505) easiest schedules, respectively. The Sixers are 2 games behind the Raptors (31-14), 1 ½ behind the Celtics (30-14), and ½ behind the Pacers (30-16) in the conference standings.
Now some might argue it doesn’t matter how easy Philly’s remaining strength of schedule is. After all, this is the same squad that suffered bad road losses to the Phoenix Suns and Washington Wizards. It also lost six straight road games to the Orlando Magic, Heat, Pacers, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and Pacers, again -- all teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended Saturday. They lost the last four of those games by an average of 13 points. And folks will point out the Sixers’ 9-15 road mark.
Yet, the Sixers are tied for their best overall record through 47 games since going 35-12 during the 2000-01 season. That season’s squad went on to lose to the Lakers in the NBA Finals. The Sixers were 30-17 through 47 games last season.
The season’s record has to be put into perspective.
The Sixers’ ballyhooed starting lineup of Tobias Harris, Al Horford, Embiid, Josh Richardson, and Ben Simmons has only played together in 19 games. That’s only 40.4% of games.
On Saturday, they were without Embiid and Richardson.
Richardson suffered a left hamstring strain less than four minutes into Wednesday’s 107-95 loss at Toronto. He’ll be reevaluated in about two weeks. Meaning, the shooting guard could miss at least the next five games.
Saturday marked the ninth consecutive game Embiid missed since tearing a ligament in his left ring finger in Jan. 6′s 120-113 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Friday was the first time Embiid was a full-time participant at practice. The practice came one day after he was named an All-Star Game starter for the third consecutive season. However, the Cameroonian said he wasn’t “too concerned” about playing in the Feb. 16 game at the United Center in Chicago.
“Right now, were are sixth in the East,” Embiid said Friday. “Next week, I’m hoping to play.”
His presence at practice elevated the energy around the team.
“He’s obviously highly gifted and highly important to what we do,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said of arguably the league’s best center. “To get him into the group and have him be around is significant.”
It will be even more significant once Embiid is back to playing in a game. He and Horford can use the final three months of the regular season to develop much-needed chemistry. The Sixers are just 11-8 when all five starters play.
The Sixers are also expectedto upgrade their roster with sharpshooter/perimeter help leading up to the Feb. 6 3 p.m. trade deadline and/or the buyout market, which should follow.
Philly is tied with the Milwaukee Bucks with the best home record at 21-2. The home-court advantage could come into play in March and April with 11 of their final 18 games at home.
So while the Sixers haven’t lived up to the preseason hype, a coveted Top 2 seed is still very much realistic.