The next three months are an audition for anybody who doesn’t call himself The Process. If you don’t have size 17 feet, and three All-Star appearances, and an infant son named Arthur Elijah, you don’t have a guaranteed job with the Sixers beyond the March 25 trade deadline. Right now, the future belongs to Joel Embiid and a bunch of guys who need to prove that they can combine with him to form a championship team. This should not come as a surprise to those other guys, but it is apparently worth reiterating. Four games into the 2020-21 season, they have a long way to go.
The latest example was a 100-93 win over the Raptors in an empty Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday night. In the historical record, it will go down as an inconspicuous early-season victory, buried by the grind of an unprecedented season. But it will be much more than that if, three months from now, the Sixers turn out to be the team that many of us think that they are. In that case, we’ll be able to look back on this one as a microcosm, both of the Sixers’ strengths, and of the hurdle that has sat in front of them since their trade of Jimmy Butler in 2019.
Forget, for a moment, about the end result. This is still about process. The teams that have won championships in the past are almost exclusively teams with multiple players who can consistently get themselves buckets. Throughout the first half of Tuesday night’s game, the Sixers found themselves in spots where they needed a second player who could do so. And, once again, that player was nowhere to be found.
That it ended better than it should have should not distract from this simple fact. Basketball is not a complicated game. Yes, the Sixers rallied from a double-digit deficit to land two-and-a-half quarters of counterpunches to a worthy opponent’s jaw. But this came only after a quarter-and-a-half in which they made scoring look like a World War I offensive. Everything between the baseline and the three-point line was no-man’s land. Their attempts were an exposition of everything that has come to frustrate fans about this team.
We saw Ben Simmons pushing the ball ahead of the pack in transition, bulling his way toward an outsized defender in front of the rim, and then kicking out to the corner for a missed three-point shot. However good of a shooter the guy in the corner happens to be (he was Seth Curry, a good one), however well-positioned he is (he wasn’t very well positioned), the best chance at points in that situation should be Simmons at the rim. If it isn’t, that’s a problem. If it is, and Simmons exercises another option, that is a problem too.
We saw Tobias Harris outmuscled and uncoordinated in traffic, swatted by Pascal Siakam, stripped by Fred Van Vleet. He’s paid to be a guy who finishes in these moments. The Sixers can’t afford them to result in the ball going the other way.
In the second half, Harris emerged. That’s worth noting. It’s been tough going for him since signing that contract extension last summer. In the last two quarters of Tuesday night’s win, we saw the player the Sixers envisioned when they gave him that money. He scored 15 points, hit all six of his shots, finishing the night with 26 points on 11-of-20 shooting.
“I thought in the second half, he got very aggressive, on both ends,” Doc Rivers said.
Harris is an easy guy to root for. Really, he epitomizes the duality of this team. There is a lot to like here, a lot more than the version that inhabited the Wells Fargo Center a year ago. We saw all of it against the Raptors, as much as we did the shortcomings. The Sixers have the makings of suffocating defense, which we saw during their ugly but effective slog back from the 13-point deficit they faced midway through the second quarter. After falling behind 41-28 with 6:34 left in the first half, they held the Raptors to 35 points over the next 19 minutes of game clock, including a 20-point third quarter that ended with a 13-0 Sixers run.
It would have been difficult to envision the Sixers winning a game like this a year ago. That they won it going away says something about the identity of this team. It says something about the impact that Rivers is having on the bench, and it says something about the impact that Simmons has on every aspect of the game apart from his individual scoring.
On the one hand, scoring is what wins the majority of basketball games in the postseason. The Sixers’ goal is to become a dominant postseason team. It’s hard to see them doing that on nights where Simmons finishes with 11 points on 11 field-goal attempts.
On the other hand, Simmons brings so much to the court that it’s hard to even contemplate removing him from it. Watch him guard Pascal Siakam in isolation. Watch him help and recover. Watch the space he occupies in the middle of the court when guarding a ballhandler at the top of the key. The box score shows 3-of-11 shooting. It doesn’t show everything else.
Three months, then. That’s what they have to show who they can be. As crucial as Harris’ eventual performance was, the onus will remain almost exclusively on Simmons. As valuable as he is, as smart and versatile and impactful a player as he shows himself to be on nights like Tuesday, the question remains: Can the Sixers win a title if Simmons isn’t also a guy who can regularly create his own buckets?
We’ll find out. We know this: Embiid is playing like an MVP. Time will tell if that is enough.