A couple of hours before tip off, somebody asked Doc Rivers if the Sixers were a better basketball team now than they were two weeks ago. The veteran coach cracked a wry smile and offered a qualified yes, noting that a perpetual cycle of player absences had complicated the rendering of a definitive judgment. Then, he qualified the qualifier.
“Honestly, it’s every night for every team,” said Rivers, who learned earlier in the day that Ben Simmons was battling an illness and would be unavailable to play in Wednesday’s game against the Rockets.
» READ MORE: Ben Simmons was out due to a stomach flu
Historians are going to have their hands full when they attempt to distill the events of the past year for the benefit of future generations. With any luck, the volume and magnitude of the times will allow us sports writers to avoid hindsight’s white-hot glare, at least with regard to the field of play. Even here in the present, though, I sometimes wonder whether we’re doing these games justice if we aren’t constantly couching our coverage in equivocal terms.
Take Rivers’ evaluation of the Sixers’ performance of their recent trip to the West Coast. By standard measures, their four-game swing through the Pacific time zone would qualify as a failure. After all, they lost three, surrendering more points in each game than they had in the previous one, topping out with a 134-123 loss to the Jazz. It can be argued, rather convincingly, that this was the first stretch of the schedule that offered the Sixers a chance to establish themselves as legitimate title contenders. Before the Blazers, Suns and Jazz, the Sixers had played just one game against a team with a winning percentage over .600 (as of Wednesday). They had an opportunity, and they did not take advantage.
At least, by standard measures.
Question is, what kind of measures do you use in a season that is almost comically below standards? The more you look at the circumstances, the more you wonder if people will look back and laugh at our attempts to fit these games into their preexisting framework. In a span of seven days, the Sixers played four games in four states separated four flights that each pushed two hours in length. In one of those games, there were 1,600 fans in the stands. In another, there were close to 4,000. In the other two, there were none. An hour and a half before their game against the 23-5 Jazz, the Sixers thought that Joel Embiid would be on the court. Turns out, he wouldn’t.
“I loved how we finished the game with Utah even without Joel,” Rivers said. “I thought we found some things that we should be doing and that we could do. You’re always looking for things, and I thought a light went off for a lot of our guys.”
None of this is meant to suggest that we should not believe what our eyes have seen. At the end of the day, basketball is still basketball, whether it is played in a rec center or a park or an empty arena. We’ve seen enough of the Sixers to know that they are a much better team than we could have anticipated at the end of last season. We saw flashes of it throughout the road trip, and an extended dose on Wednesday night, when the Sixers rolled to a 118-113 win over the Rockets despite playing without Simmons. We saw Seth Curry light up the scoreboard with the type of shooting that can single-handedly alter the outcome of a playoff game, his trio of first-half threes helping the Sixers enter the locker room with a 29-point lead (Curry finished with a season-high 25 points on 8 of 13 shooting). We saw Embiid burnish his MVP case with a ho-hum 31-point, 11-rebound, nine-assist line. We saw the continuation of Tobias Harris’ resurgence (the veteran forward finished with 24 points).
Still, it’d be nice to see more than a handful of games when the gang is intact and together. Heading into Wednesday night’s action, the Sixers’ first unit had the best net rating in the Eastern Conference, outscoring opponents by an average of 11.4 points per 100 possessions. The only teams that had more productive five-man lineups were the Clippers, Jazz, Kings, and Lakers (minimum 100 minutes played). Yet the Sixers have had their full starting lineup in just 16 of their 29 games. In those games, they are 14-2.
Even if we can convince ourselves that we know who the Sixers are, it is nearly impossible to know how that evaluation stacks up with the rest of the league. As Rivers noted, the Sixers aren’t the only team that has played much of the season shorthanded. In fact, they might qualify as fortunate relative to the rest of the league. Only two starting units in the NBA have spent more time on the court together than the Sixers and their 333 minutes. Neither of those teams − the Knicks and the Pelicans – will have much of an impact on the road to the Finals.
With a 19-10 record that puts them at the top of the Eastern Conference, the Sixers have just seven games remaining on the portion of the schedule that the NBA has released. If we’re going to get a look at where they truly stand, it doesn’t look like it will happen until after the All-Star Game. If we’re fortunate, the competitive landscape will begin to coalesce as the postseason draws nearer, and teams like the Heat and the Nets take the court with something approximating their full teams. Until then, I suppose we can fall back on one last qualifier. Given their circumstances, we’re just fortunate they’re playing.