Thirty-four games into the 2020-21 season, the 76ers are a mystery, an enigma, an unknown quantity. The fact that they are 22-12 and in first place in the Eastern Conference only deepens the intrigue. On paper, the Sixers are good. Very good. In Joel Embiid, they have one of the front-runners for league MVP. In Ben Simmons, they have a Defensive Player of the Year candidate who just got done shutting down another MVP hopeful, Dallas’s Luka Dončić. In Seth Curry, they have one of the most impactful shooters in the league. In Daryl Morey, they have a president who is one of the league’s most proactive dealmakers, and he currently has 25 days at his disposal to augment this team.
Yet the paper says something else, too. It says that we know next to nothing about what the next 38 games will bring. If it brings Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo and Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden and Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, then it will bring a long list of things that the Sixers have not been forced to reckon with in their first two-plus months of basketball.
As good as Embiid and Simmons and Curry have looked through the first half of the season, they’ve looked that way against a schedule that has been softer than elevator music. Of the 34 games the Sixers have played, only 13 have come against an opponent that entered Sunday with a record of .500 or better, with only five coming against an opponent at .600 or better. Their 111-97 win over the Mavericks on Thursday was only their sixth victory against a team .500 or better.
It’s difficult to know what to make of any of this, especially when you consider the parity that has engulfed the NBA in its COVID-ravaged season. As of Sunday, nine of the league’s 30 teams were within two games of .500, including seven of the 15 teams in the Eastern Conference. The eye test would tell you that the Raptors are more than two games better than the Hornets. The Sixers’ two wins against Toronto should count for more than their three wins against Charlotte. But even if they do, they stand largely alone, accompanied only by a 107-106 win over the Lakers as victories that one might consider to be defining.
The story of the first half of the season has been its lack of definition. The standings say that last year’s conference champs are mired in seventh place, a single game separating them from 10th. But the Heat are also 13-8 in games in which Butler starts, and that they are 10-5 since their star returned from a bout with COVID-19. Likewise, the Raptors are 15-9 in their last 24 games, a stretch that includes a win against the Nets and two against the Bucks in addition to their win over the Sixers.
The lack of these sorts of matchups is what makes the Sixers such a puzzle at the present moment. Both of their wins over the Heat came in games in which neither Butler nor Adebayo was active. Their two wins over the Celtics came in games that Jayson Tatum missed. They have yet to face more than one of the Nets’ new troika of superstars. And they have yet to face the Bucks at all.
None of this means we should doubt the Sixers. They’ve endured their fair share of absences, most recently the loss of Tobias Harris to a bruised knee. They are 3-4 in games without Curry and 1-5 in games without Embiid. No doubt, they have needs that will need to be addressed before they can be considered a complete championship team. But they are good team, and they have plenty of time to grow.
What the Sixers need most of all is an opportunity to convince us to believe. According to Basketball-Reference.com, they’ve played the fourth-easiest schedule in the NBA thus far. But that will soon change. Of their 38 remaining games, nine will feature an opponent that entered Sunday with a record of .600 or better. Eight other games will feature teams that were .500 or better. They have games against the Heat, Celtics, and Nets and three against the Bucks. Between March 21 and April 12, they will play 10 of 12 games on the road, including four straight against the Warriors, Lakers, Clippers, and Nuggets.
“It looks tiring, it looks exhausting,” veteran forward Danny Green said when the NBA unveiled the second-half schedule.
They’ll need to approach it with more vigor than they’ve handled the last couple of weeks. Heading into Monday night’s game against the Pacers, the Sixers have lost five of their last nine games, including a 112-109 overtime defeat at the hands of the lowly Cavaliers on Saturday. After Indiana, the Sixers finish the first half with a home game against the 27-7 Jazz, which should give us a real opportunity to take stock of where things stand.
A lot can change over the next four weeks, particularly if the Sixers make a much-speculated-upon run at acquiring Raptors star Kyle Lowry. By the March 25 trade deadline, they’ll have faced the Jazz, Spurs, Bucks, and Warriors, with games against the Lakers, Clippers, and Nuggets to follow.
Who are the Sixers? Check back in a month. We simply don’t know right now.