I want to believe that I’m wrong.
I want to believe that the 76ers are something that every rational bone in my body says that they aren’t.
I want to believe that Elton Brand was right when he reasserted his belief in his roster after the trade deadline.
I want to believe that Brett Brown is sincere when he points out all of the positives his team will take into the playoffs.
I want to believe the Sixers will look like a team that at least belongs on the same court as the Celtics.
“Now is our time to be recognized,” Brown said on Friday, as the Sixers turned their attention to their first-round playoff matchup against Boston. “And I think the group has the ability to do that.”
I want to believe him, because the alternative is believing that the past three seasons have all been an exercise in chasing one’s tail. And, because we’ll have to spent the next year indulging the organization’s what-ifs. What if Ben Simmons had been healthy? What if we’d had the opportunity to play at home? What if we’d had 17 games to avoid the No. 6 seed instead of eight in a bubble?
But there are always what-ifs. The only team that doesn’t ask them is the one with the trophy. Sometimes, they include worthy questions. What if Kawhi Leonard’s shot had bounced out instead of in? Would the Sixers have done to the Bucks what the Raptors did to them? Would the trajectory of this last year have changed with another five or 12 or 14 games?
These are valid things to wonder. Yet their validity is a product of the team that we saw with our own two eyes. That makes them different from the current hypotheticals, which ask us to imagine that the Sixers might yet play a brand of basketball that is fundamentally different from the one that they’ve shown thus far. All year, they’ve asked us to believe that we will eventually see a team that looks somewhat similar to the one that they sold us. And all year, we’ve watched the mile markers pass without a championship team in tow.
From July through the middle of March, we were told that this vaunted Sixers team would eventually arrive in time for the playoffs. While that stance understandably softened after the NBA went on hiatus, the league’s bubble environment has more or less yielded basketball as usual. Likewise, the Sixers have progressed more or less as usual, with a few flashes of brilliance failing to distract you from the overwhelming inability to pinpoint what this team is.
On Friday, after the Sixers followed up a spirited performance against the Raptors with a convincing win over the Rockets, Brown again laid out his vision of the team that the playoffs will bring.
“Defensively, we are starting to understand how to play with each other,” the coach said. “We are starting to understand switch groups. We clearly need a healthy Joel Embiid. Nobody denies that. You can’t dismiss that. You need a healthy Joel Embiid to make the run that we need to make. And I think that defensively there’s a spirit, there’s a connection amongst our group that makes me say that. I feel like offensively, there is a path. It’s a different path than it used to be with Ben, but there is a path.”
And he’s right. There is a path. At least, there should be. If, that is, the Sixers were ever the team that their architects thought they were constructing.
Therein lies the dramatic tension of this upcoming series. It has little to do with the end result, and everything to do with the Sixers’ ability to look like a team that belongs. Given the absence of Simmons, who remains a borderline elite defender and provides an irreplaceable offensive element despite his obvious limitations, it’s hard to argue that they are the more talented team. But the disparity shouldn’t be nearly what the Vegas odds suggest it is, given each player’s billing.
Joel Embiid is supposed to be one of the league’s most elite players at one of its most premium positions, a two-way big man that the Celtics will counter with Daniel Theis and Robert Williams.
In theory, the gap between Embiid and Theis should be big enough to compensate for the deficits the Sixers will face at other positions. They do not have a playmaker like Kemba Walker. They do not have a scorer like Jayson Tatum. But they traded a heck of a lot of value to acquire Tobias Harris, and they re-signed him to a contract that says he should be a go-to scorer. Meanwhile, they said goodbye to Jimmy Butler, and they signed Al Horford to an elite-level deal. In the process, they acquired Josh Richardson, and ostensibly built themselves a level of depth capable of mitigating an injury.
Yet here we are. I suspect I am like a lot of people in thinking that the Sixers do not have a chance at advancing out of the first round. At this point, the bigger question involves the direction they will pivot if our assumption proves correct. For the time being, that puts the onus squarely on Brown. Forget winning the series outright -- he needs to give the bosses and the customers some reason to believe that he can get the most out of the talent at his disposal. The bar is low in that regard. Just make it a competitive series.