There’s a disclaimer that we should probably attach to all forthcoming discussion of the Sixers and the NBA’s ambitious plan to socially distance itself inside the Magic Kingdom. And that is this: Anything that anybody can say about the basketball that is scheduled to be played is contingent upon a variable that nobody can predict or control.
The one thing that all of us have learned about novel pandemics is that they are difficult to forecast on a macro scale and impossible to forecast on a micro scale. Thus, the two biggest questions facing the Sixers as they ease back into action are ones that every NBA team will confront.
1) Can the country, as a whole, avoid a dramatic resurgence in cases/hospitalizations/fatalities between now and the middle of October, when the NBA Finals are scheduled to begin?
2) Can the NBA avoid the sort of high profile infections that might alter the competitive balance of the season or threaten the league’s ability to see its plan through?
For the sake of the current discussion, as well as all future ones, let’s assume that the answer to both of these questions is yes. The point isn’t to minimize the disease or the risks or the variety of unknowns that all of us will continue to confront for the foreseeable future, but to allow for some sort of framework within which basketball can be discussed. I’ve said this often and I will say it again: Society is going to struggle to maintain its collective sanity if we are unable to get to a place where we can focus on something other than the specter of death that has hovered above our heads for the last three months. That’s not to say that we should ignore the realities of the situation, but that we should accept that they are indeed realities, and that our only choice is to adapt our lives to them as best we can.
That being said ...
Roughly four days have passed since the NBA and its players agreed on the framework for the resumption of their season. Beginning in late July, the Sixers and 21 other teams will play an eight-game “regular-season” schedule and then embark on a traditionally structured playoff tournament featuring a 16-team field split along conference lines. While we still do not know who the Sixers will play in those first eight games, we do know that the stakes will be as high for them as they are for any team in the league.
Their first order of business will be winning enough games to avoid facing the Celtics in the first round. This might seem like a counter-intuitive place to start, given that the Sixers have won three of their four meetings against Boston this season while losing five of seven to the Heat and Pacers combined. But even without the prospect of home-court advantage, the ability to move up to the fourth or fifth seed will be a significant carrot once play resumes. In short, these aren’t last year’s Celtics. Heading into the shutdown, they’d won 17 of 23 games. During that stretch, they were 8-1 against Eastern Conference opponents and 3-0 against the Heat, Sixers, and Pacers. They also beat the Lakers, Clippers, Thunder, Trail Blazers and Jazz. Five of their seven losses came against Western Conference playoff teams.
Compare that to the Heat, who went 7-9 in their last 16 games before the break, or the Pacers, who went 9-10. Take away the Celtics’ three losses to the Sixers and they are 6-3 against the East’s Top 6. There’s an argument to be made that they are the greatest threat to the Bucks. Avoiding them in the first round should be a priority.
Accomplishing this will require winning one more game than the Pacers or three more games than the Heat, or five games more than the Celtics themselves. Their ability to do it will hinge on a player who we will not have seen in nearly half a calendar year.
Ben Simmons is going to be the story of the restart, at least from the Sixers’ perspective. Until his back injury, he’d been as electric as anybody could have hoped, even when accounting for the continued absence of an outside shot. With Embiid battling through an assortment of mental and physical baggage, Simmons made a strong case that the Sixers are destined to become a team that operates in his image.
In his first three seasons, his field goal percentage has risen from .545 to .563 to .585. His free throw percentage has risen from .560 to .600 to .627. His minutes per game have risen from 33.7 to 34.2 to 35.7. His defense has reached a point where he needs to be mentioned as one of the best all-around stoppers in the league. Anybody who claims that he has not improved is somebody who isn't watching close enough.
But what impact will his back injury and resulting layoff have on his performance moving forward? By the time the season resumes, more than five months will have passed since he played in a competitive game. That’s longer than a normal NBA offseason. The Sixers say he has been in the gym throughout the shutdown, having received special approval from the NBA to rehab his back. It’s wild to think about, but we should be thinking about Simmons’ return the same way we have after each of his first three summers. The Sixers aren’t going to win a championship this year if Simmons isn’t the player he was in the first part of the season. Is there a chance he is even better?