After finishing with the best record in the Eastern Conference last season, the Philadelphia 76ers got off to a strong start again this year. The Sixers sat at the top of the East with an 8-2 record through 10 games, and they boasted the NBA's best offense. But then Joel Embiid was forced to miss nearly three weeks of action due to COVID-19, and the Sixers predictably struggled in his absence. After that 8-2 start, the team lost eight of its next 10 games and slid down the East standings in the process.
Embiid's return to action wasn't an immediate cure-all for Philadelphia, as the Sixers lost two of his first three games back -- both by one point. However, the Sixers were able to pull off an impressive road win over the Atlanta Hawks on Friday night -- the team that unceremoniously bounced them from the playoffs last season.
With the win, the Sixers avoided falling below .500 and instead moved to 12-11 on the season, which puts them in the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference standings. The Sixers outscored the Hawks 20-9 in the fourth quarter of the contest, and Embiid hit several big shots down the stretch of the game, including what proved to be the winning basket with under a minute remaining.
The big man finished the game with 28 points, 12 rebounds, and four assists, and he was visibly excited after the Sixers were able to come away with the victory.
Sometimes all it takes is one good win for a struggling team to get back on track, and perhaps the win in Atlanta could be that for Philadelphia. At the very least, the win should be a confidence-builder, and the fact that it was over the Hawks made it especially sweet for Embiid.
"We lost to that team," Embiid said of Atlanta. "I'm still pissed off about what happened last year. So it means a lot to me. Anytime you can get this type of win, especially against them, I think is great. And obviously our situation. We got about $400 million worth of contracts [in Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons] not playing. So anytime you can get a win undermanned, missing two or three keys for this team, I think it's great. And it's great confidence for our guys."
Fresh off of the win, Embiid expressed optimism regarding the state of the Sixers, despite the team's recent struggles. "We play hard. We have each other's backs," Embiid said of the Sixers. "We have a bunch of guys that care about winning. We all play hard every single night. We're right there."
Embiid's optimism isn't misguided. After all, virtually every key contributor on the team, outside of Tyrese Maxey, has had to miss at least a few games already, so it has been hard for the team to foster consistent chemistry. They were the healthiest they've been over the first few weeks of the season, and that's when they went 8-2. When they're at, or near, full strength, the Sixers should resemble the team that started 8-2 much more than the team that dropped eight of their next 10.
Plus, the Sixers are 9-4 when Embiid plays. That equates to a winning percentage of 69, which would be second in the East behind only the Brooklyn Nets. In other words, as long as Embiid is on the floor the Sixers are still a very good team, as has been the case throughout his career. If the supporting cast around him is good enough for Philadelphia to make a deep playoff run this season is another question, but the Sixers also have an ace up their sleeve that most other contenders don't have -- a potential Ben Simmons trade that could yield a talent infusion for Philly.
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The Sixers have moved on and done their best to compete without Simmons so far this season, and trading him could supplement the current active roster in a major way. A couple of additional offensively-inclined pieces could be enough to give the Sixers a leg-up in a competitive conference.
When a Simmons trade will happen is anybody's guess, but it remains a looming, tantalizing possibility. In the meantime, Philadelphia's focus should be on getting healthy and playing like they were to start the season. The win over Atlanta was a solid start.