When you sit down at night and say your prayers, send one up for Sixers fans and the city of Philadelphia in general. I’m not sure their hearts and minds will survive these next couple of months with all of their faculties intact.
On Tuesday morning, the airwaves and newspaper pages and Twitter streams crackled with the heart-wrenching lamentations of a lover who had arrived at the end of the road. Joel Embiid was quoting Batman and flirting with Jimmy Butler and gearing up for a return to the court in which the raucous reception that had greeted him since his rookie season would be dampened with the intermingling of more than a section’s worth of boos. Somewhere in the lower bowl would be a Sixers fan who’d put masking tape over the last three letters of his No. 21 jersey and artfully replaced them with the letters “UM."
Emb-UM. Get it?
The night would end with Embiid walking toward the Sixers bench while beckoning to the crowd like an orchestra conductor — or a marionetteer — after his latest run-in with longtime nemesis Marcus Morris. Embiid waved his hands above his head and shook his midsection in a gleeful shimmy and as the arena roared and danced en route to a 110-103 win, it was impossible not to wonder whether everyone involved had what it would take to make it through another 27 games of regular-season basketball. The Sixers had beaten the presumptive title favorites. This time, their legions swore, they had finally turned a corner.
One of the few things that anybody can say for sure about this Sixers team is that, to quote another super villain, nobody has any idea what it is actually capable of. But, on that note, here are three factors that will play a major role in determining their postseason fate.
1) The schedule
At 34-21, the Sixers would need to finish the season 26-1 to reach the 60-win threshold that we’d been told was their end goal. That’s a dicey proposition, despite what you might have heard on talk radio after the win over the Clippers. But it’s well within the realm of possibility that the Sixers eclipse last year’s win total of 51. They are on pace for 50, but they also have the easiest schedule remaining among the Eastern Conference contenders, and the second-easiest in the entire NBA. In fact, if the Sixers maintain their current winning percentage against winning and losing teams, they’ll finish with 52 wins.
They have 19 games remaining against teams currently on pace to finish with losing records. To date, they are 19-5 against such teams. An identical win percentage from here on would give them 15 wins and leave them with 49 overall. Meanwhile, they are 15-17 against .500+ teams. An identical win percentage from here on would see them go around 4-4 against the Bucks (twice), Clippers, Lakers, Pacers, Raptors, Rockets, and Grizzlies.
Again, that’s if their win percentage remains as it is right now. Steal a couple of games against the winning teams and avoid one of the bad losses against the losing teams, and the Sixers are suddenly sitting at 55 wins. In other words, home-court advantage in the first round is hardly out of the question.
2) Josh Richardson
Al Horford has taken the brunt of the criticism for his lack of fit with the starting five, but his fellow newcomer could be just as big of an X-factor down the stretch. The Sixers actually have a better winning percentage in the 14 games that Richardson has missed with a hamstring injury (9-5, .643) than in the 41 games that he has played (25-16, .610).
By no means does that suggest that they are better off without him. Without his 17 points in the fourth quarter Tuesday, the win over the Clippers could have turned out differently. But he has plenty of room to improve, particularly from three-point range, where his .339 shooting percentage is nearly 30 points lower than what it was in the first four seasons of his career.
3) Tobias Harris
Like Richardson, it is hard to know what to make of Harris’ season. He’s given the Sixers much more scoring than he did last season, when he often seemed like an afterthought in an offense that increasingly centered around Jimmy Butler as the season wore on. Through 55 games, Harris is averaging 26.9 points per 100 possessions, compared with 24.6 last year.
On the other hand, I can’t shake the feeling that we have yet to see Harris at his best. He’s shooting .363 from three-point range, which is better than his .326 mark with the Sixers last season, but still significantly worse than the .405 he shot overall in his two full seasons before this one.
In the end, much of the uncertainty in projecting these next couple of months lies in the lack of a consistent baseline we have out of Embiid and Ben Simmons. Against the Clippers, they combined for 52 points and looked as symbiotic as we’ve seen them over the last couple of seasons. Is it a coincidence that this occurred on the night that Brown decided to shake up his starting lineup and bring Horford off the bench? How about the fact that it also coincided with a game in which Harris scored 11 points in the first quarter, and Richardson scored 17 in the fourth?
There’s a legitimate chance that, 55 games into the season, we have still not seen the optimal whole that the Sixers’ curious collection of parts can form. After the win over the Clippers, Brown was reluctant to commit to any set rotation moving forward. From my vantage point, though, a starting lineup that includes Glenn Robinson III and a bench that features Horford, Alec Burks, Furkan Korkmaz, Matisse Thybulle, and Mike Scott look like the way to go.
A single win in the last game before the All-Star break probably shouldn’t persuade you to decline your June wedding invitations. But given the way the schedule sets up, and the ripple effect that Horford’s new role could have on the abilities of Harris and Richardson to complement Simmons and Embiid, it is well within the realm of possibility that the Sixers’ best is yet to come.