| An assessment of the Sixers entering the 2019 playoffs, and outlining a road-map to the NBA Finals |
The Sixers are in the playoffs once again, collecting 50+ wins for the second consecutive season, again as the third seed in the newly-LeBron-less Eastern Conference. In the first round, Philadelphia will face off with their divisional foe the Brooklyn Nets.
Despite another successful year record wise, there is more uncertainty going into the playoffs compared to last year. In 2017-18, the Sixers won their final 16 regular season games to reach 52 wins on the backs of Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, and Marco Belinelli. Joel Embiid returned from a fractured bone in his face for the final three games of the team’s five game series win over the Heat. They lost to Boston in the next round.
This year they fell just shy of that win total, finishing with 51. It’s the first time the Sixers have had back to back seasons with 50+ wins since 1985-86. Even after a massive roster turnover around Embiid and Simmons, the Sixers once again enter the playoffs with their eyes on the NBA finals.
But the end of this regular season has been much less successful. Ugly losses to the Hawks, Magic, and Mavericks interrupted an otherwise strong stretch since the All Star Break (14-10 since then, and 17-11 since adding Tobias Harris via trade). The new lineup has struggled to gel into a cohesive unit, mostly due to lack of playing time. Because of scheduled rest with their seeding secured and some genuine injuries, the starting lineup of Simmons, Embiid, Redick, Jimmy Butler, and Harris has only appeared in 10 games since Harris was acquired 28 games ago. It’s hard to see the starters clicking right away in the playoffs with so little time together beforehand. This is especially problematic because the Sixers are relying on their top-end talent to carry them.
There are benefits to that strategy. Rotations do get shorter in the playoffs. If the Sixers get the best version of their best players every night, they can beat anyone. Unfortunately, if that doesn’t happen, their depth is in a very shaky place right now. James Ennis, one of the primary backup wings, was injured against the Bucks and will miss at least part of the first round. Shake Milton, a rookie who has show positives in recent playing time, is ineligible for the playoffs because he is on a two-way contract. The backup perimeter duties will fall on, TJ McConnell, Mike Scott, and rookie Zhaire Smith, who has played in just six NBA games.
The Sixers should not overlook the Nets in the first round, either. While they lack anyone who can slow down Embiid (who averaged 30 points, 14 rebounds, and 5 assist versus the Nets this season), they have a lot of guards and wings that the Sixers struggle to guard.
Philly and Brooklyn have only played once since the Harris trade, and the Sixers won that game handily. If Butler and Harris play at a high level, they can match the damage from the Nets supporting cast. It will be a closer series than most would think, but I see the Sixers wining in six games.
Looking past the first round, one of the Pacers and Celtics will eliminate the other. Neither will not be a possible opponent until the Conference Finals. The Pacers have not given the Sixers problems this year and are still without Victor Oladipo, their best player.
The true challenges will come in the second round, against Toronto or Milwaukee. Both are anchored by All-NBA talents in Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo, neither of which the Sixers have been able to stop. But they also feature depth that severely outmatches the Sixers. On the Raptors, Jeremy Lin and Fred VanVleet can both have their ways with TJ McConnell and whatever is left of the backcourt rotation. Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka both present problems for the Sixers backup big men (Boban Marjanovic cannot keep up with Ibaka nor Gasol if he is shooting from the outside, and Greg Monroe and Jonah Bolden lack the size to stop Gasol). Not to mention Kawhi Leonard, who forced Simmons into 24 turnovers in 3 games this year.
The Bucks present different challenges. They have a lineup full of shooters around Giannis, so perimeter defense is a key. The Sixers were not able to slow the Greek Freak down this season (to be fair, no one did). In the games between the two that were close, the Bucks struggled to shoot from the perimeter. Giannis carried them in those games, scoring 52 and 45 in the final two matchups of the season. Defeating Milwaukee will require the Sixers best players to be at their absolute best.
And of course, if they manage to get out of the East, the Golden State Warriors are most likely waiting in the finals. The Sixers did win in Oracle Arena earlier in the year, and did so without Embiid. Still, it simply may not be the Sixers’ year; a lack of time for a new roster to gel, coupled with untimely injuries and a multiple teams that have had better seasons. The Sixers loaded up on talent throughout the season. It’s time to see if they’ve found the right pieces.