Philadelphia 76ers are on a Roll

What has caused the Sixers to be off to their best start in 20 years, and can their success continue after the all-star break?


Will Jack, Staff Writer

The Philadelphia 76ers have an MVP candidate in Joel Embiid and are at the top of the Eastern Conference Standings heading into the all-star break. Twenty years ago, the Sixers were in a nearly identical spot, with Allen Iverson winning MVP as he led the top-seeded Sixers to the NBA Finals. What has caused the Sixers to be off to their best start in 20 years, and can their success continue after the all-star break? 

Two of the biggest changes involved their coach and their front office. After a sweep in the first round by the rival Celtics, the Sixers decided it was time to move on from their coach who had been there since the dark days of “The Process.” He was replaced by another coach who had fallen short of expectations in the playoffs, Doc Rivers. Rivers’ Clippers fell short last year, but Rivers has a history of success. He brought a championship to Boston in 2008 and is looking to do the same for Philly. He helped Tobias Harris emerge as a borderline all-star. Harris has always done his best work with Rivers as his coach. His game planning has allowed Embiid and Simmons to coexist, something that people had questioned for years. And not only are they coexisting, they are thriving.

Another big change was in the front office. Daryl Morey was hired in the offseason to assist Elton Brand. He quickly got to work, making moves which have resulted in a great team that fits well together on the court. He quickly traded Al Horford’s monster contract for Danny Green. This replaced poor spacing and weak perimeter defense with an above average shooter that defends well. Josh Richardson helped Philly’s perimeter defense last year but was swapped for Seth Curry to fill the Sixers’ need for shooting. Sharpshooter Isaiah Joe and reliable bench scorer Tyrese Maxey were the final two additions to the Sixers roster. Morey has assembled the best roster to fit Embiid and Simmons together since they were surrounded by sharpshooters in the 2017-2018 season.  

The on-court success is due to the players having great chemistry and being utilized properly. Embiid no longer has to sit on the perimeter and start his scoring attempts from there. He can get the ball for a post-up and has been dominant in the post all year. His midrange jumper has improved greatly as he shoots north of 50% from midrange. His 3-point percentage has skyrocketed to 42%. His success as a dominant scorer from all areas, from the floor as well as his still-fantastic paint defense, has led to the NBA putting him at the top of their MVP ladder heading into the all-star break. 

Other players have contributed to the team’s success as well. Ben Simmons may be the most versatile defender in the NBA, as he can guard any position. He has locked down some of the best offensive players in the league, including Luka Doncic and Donovan Mitchell recently. He had a scoring slump to start the season but dropped a career-high 42 points against the Utah Jazz, and his points per game has been steadily rising throughout the year. He is once again near the top of the league on three pointers assisted on, as he has taken full advantage of the shooters that are around him. He’s been rewarded for his play with another all-star selection this year. 

Tobias Harris has picked up where he left off with Doc Rivers as his head coach. After nearly having 50/40/90 shooting splits with the Los Angeles Clippers, his shooting percentages dropped in Philadelphia. His large contract meant Philly would be in a salary cap nightmare if he didn’t show why he got a 5-year $180 million contract. But his play has drastically improved with Rivers once again being his head coach, as well as shifting back to the power forward spot. His efficiency has gone up, and he is heavily relied upon to provide points for Philly. His increase in 3-point shooting has made a huge difference for him and the team. 

The Sixers are looking great right now, but what is the rest of the East looking like? Pretty weak, since the New York Knicks are actual playoff contenders. Their rival Celtics have looked poor this season. They lack a big man that can play significant minutes, and their centers are all on the shorter side. This provides Embiid with a very favorable matchup. He averaged big numbers against Boston’s centers in the playoffs last year, despite being swept. Score-first guard Kemba Walker returned from injury and has been inefficient and inconsistent. His play style has meshed poorly with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. They are currently struggling to stay above .500. A big move may be made to get a better center or a point guard that meshes well with Tatum and Brown could be made, but Celtics GM Danny Ainge always seems to pull out of trades because he views the asking price as a little too high.  

The Milwaukee Bucks made a significant move trading for Jrue Holiday. They replaced Eric Bledsoe with Holiday, which provided a huge boost to their team. Bledsoe had consistently become a liability in the playoffs, while Holiday has elevated his game. He provided stellar defense against Damian Lillard in a sweep of the Trail Blazers in 2018. Giannis has started to put up MVP numbers as the season has progressed, and Khris Middleton remains an efficient second option. Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer is highly committed to his paint defense, which could result in a challenge for Philly’s high paint-scoring offense. The key to beating the Bucks in the playoffs is 3-point shooting. Budenholzer lives and dies by his paint defense, which led to the sharpshooting Miami Heat making quick work of them in last year’s playoffs. Philly’s new shooters will have to hit their shots and Embiid must overcome the Bucks’ stiff paint defense to win a series. 

The Miami Heat are the reigning champs in the Eastern Conference, but have been lost in the shuffle due to COVID issues. Despite that, they are still a threat and should be respected. Bam Adebayo has improved his offensive ability, and they have been a much better team with Jimmy Butler. Butler’s unselfishness in the playoffs and the quick adjustments made by Erik Spoelstra made the Heat a difficult team to beat last year. They may not be the best regular season team, but Butler’s ability to elevate his game in the playoffs, along with Miami’s shooters getting hot easily, make them a matchup that anyone would prefer to avoid. They could make a big trade to boost their team before the playoffs, as well.

The final team to worry about is the heavy favorite to win the East, the Brooklyn Nets. Once a bottom feeder along with the Sixers, they now have the most talented Big 3 in league history. Harden has shown off his playmaking ability to fit alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Harden’s unselfishness has made Brooklyn nearly unbeatable in recent weeks, even with Durant sidelined with an injury. Joel Embiid will have to take advantage of Brooklyn’s poor paint defense. The Nets lack center depth and Deandre Jordan’s defense has been questionable at times. The Nets’ defense as a whole has been shaky at times, so Philly’s primary scorers in Harris and Embiid would have to go to work. Brooklyn has too many scoring threats to be shut down, but the Sixers have a defensive player of the year candidate in Ben Simmons, along with plenty of other capable defenders. If Philly can slow them down and overwhelm Brooklyn’s poor defense, they could have a shot at winning a seven-game series against them. 

The Sixers have some of the best odds to make it out of the East, but do they even have a chance to beat Brooklyn? Are there any moves that could be made to make their team better? As of right now they could give Brooklyn a fight, but I’d be very nervous about that series. A realistic move that could be made is a trade for PJ Tucker. He is a great defender and provides solid 3-point shooting. He would be a big upgrade over Mike Scott and could be acquired for only second round picks. An even bigger but riskier move would be a trade for Philly native Kyle Lowry. The Sixers would likely have to give up one of their three young players: Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle, or Tyrese Maxey. Milton is Philly’s main bench scorer and Thybulle has played a big role in Philly’s defensive line-ups. Losing them would be felt in the playoffs. Maxey plays limited minutes but has shown good scoring ability and could be a quality scorer in a few years. The Sixers would feel the impact of losing one of their players eventually, but Kyle Lowry will provide a big impact in their place. 

He has experience winning championships before, when he got a ring in 2019. He can be a great playmaker, as evident by his recent 19 assist game. He also can generate his own offense which Philly could use. He shoots well from beyond the arc, which automatically makes him useful for Philly. He could be a great veteran for the playoffs if he were to be acquired for the right price. Toronto’s desire to send him to his preferred location could work in the Sixers’ favor as he currently has interest in coming home to Philly. He is on an expiring deal, so he could sign a final contract to end his career with Philly or he could end up being a half a season rental. His shooting ability and defense give Philly what they need to improve their chances against the East’s elite teams. 

Philly is off to a great start after a successful offseason that resulted in success on the court. They have a team that appears ready to contend, but could take risks to make it even better if they choose to. The Sixers have Philly excited, as the Process may finally be reaching its end goal with an NBA Finals victory.