On a scale of 1-10, how shocked would you be if the Philadelphia 76ers circled the wagons and wound up in the NBA Finals this season? When I posed this question in our NBA chat room on Tuesday night, our Chris Barnewall was quick to respond with a 10. Playoff experience matters, he wrote, while also pointing out that we have no idea how the Sixers will fare when teams are designing specific schemes to exploit their weaknesses.
These are solid points.
I found myself wanting to agree with Chris.
But then our James Herbert chimed in, saying his shock-level would only register as a three if the Sixers were to make the Finals. "The East is wide open," he reasoned. And this, too, is impossible to argue with. For the first time in as long as I can remember, there is no clear Finals favorite in the Eastern Conference. Toronto has the best stats and has been the most consistent team. Boston has been the best team at its peak and has every right to believe it can beat anyone should Kyrie Irving get back healthy. And the Cavs, well, they have LeBron James.
For me, the Sixers aren't in that top tier, but they're lurking in the shadows. They're an elite defensive and rebounding team, and have been all season. They play with great pace. They have two players in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid who can generate offense on their own, which is a big deal in playoff basketball when offensive "systems" only go as far as the heavily scouted defensive schemes designed specifically to stop them.
The Simmons factor
To this point, you can bet that Simmons' jumper, or lack thereof, is going to be a big problem at some point in these playoffs. It may be too much to overcome, frankly. Consider this: The Sixers rank as the second-worst fourth-quarter offense in the league, only better than the Grizzlies, who hardly register as an actual NBA team most nights. Regular-season fourth quarters are at least a reasonable comparison to the conditions of playoff basketball -- the pace slows down, matchups become paramount, weaknesses are exploited mercilessly.
Simmons not being able to shoot from anywhere outside 10 feet is the kind of thing that can decide the two or three possessions that ultimately decide a close game. That said, the Sixers' front office has done an incredible job of surrounding Simmons with shooters to offset this glaring hole in his game. JJ Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, midseason additions Marco Bellinelli and Ersan Ilyasova -- all these guys are threats from deep, and coach Brett Brown is mindful of keeping the right shooting balance in his lineups whenever Simmons is on the floor.
Also, Simmons is just a freak to which normal basketball rules largely don't apply. In today's game, winning at an elite level with an exploitably bad shooter as your lead guard is a nearly impossible task. But when I've asked people across the league how this applies to the Sixers, they've all said the same thing: Ben Simmons is the exception. Shaun Livingston has told me this. Pistons assistant and former All-Star point guard Tim Hardaway has told me this. Multiple scouts have told me this.
Simmons, indeed, is largely incomparable. He's maybe the closest thing we've seen to Magic Johnson, or a far bigger, far more powerful version of Rajon Rondo in his prime Celtics days, which is a terrifying thought. Much like Rondo, the conventional wisdom when it comes to guarding Simmons is to give him space, because he can't shoot, but the issue with that is when he has a live dribble, all you're doing is giving him a 10-foot runway to get a head of steam going to the basket, or a 10-foot cushion with which he can pick you apart as a passer with unimpeded vision. So you push up on him, and then he uses his size and strength to get where he wants in the lane.
Still, that dreadful fourth-quarter Sixers offense doesn't lie, and Simmons' inability to shoot is surely part of the issue. This is where a fully functional Markelle Fultz would be a major difference maker. In fact, I'd go as far as to say if Fultz was the player we all thought he was going to be when the Sixers selected him No. 1 overall, which is to say if he wasn't re-learning how to shoot a basketball while remaining largely incapable of making anything outside of maybe 16 feet, Philly might well be the favorite to come out of the East.
But Fultz isn't that player yet. He may never be. We'll have to wait and see on that. But for now, he is back and making a contribution off the bench. Simmons and Fultz did see some minutes together in Philly's win over Brooklyn Tuesday night -- their 11th straight if you're counting. Fultz has shown an ability to attack and finish strong at the rim, which puts defenders on their heels when he goes into that smooth hesitation dribble of his, and when this happens he is able to stop on a dime and hit that 15-foot pull-up pretty naturally.
So that's another one-on-one weapon emerging for the Sixers that could, if only for a few crucial possessions, carry them through the rough stretches of Simmons being bogged down in the half-court.
The Embiid factor
Then, of course, there's the Joel Embiid factor, which is the most important factor of all. If Embiid doesn't make it back healthy and ready to dominate, you can forget this entire article. The Sixers aren't going anywhere without him.
The good news is Embiid's on a two-to-four week recovery timeline, and if he makes the front end of that, he'll be back in the first round. Also, he has facial injury. It's not a knee or an ankle, where even if he comes back you still don't know if he'll be able to be his same self in terms of mobility. When Embiid comes back, he'll presumably be ready to go 100 percent -- maybe with a face mask Rip Hamilton style, but he'll be ready.
Philly has the talent to challenge Toronto
So let's lay out a scenario: The Sixers indeed end up in the No. 4 seed, Embiid makes it back for the first round and Philly takes out Indiana in the 4-5 matchup. I think we can all agree that is very reasonable. From there, if current seeds were to hold, they would face Toronto in the second round. Even accounting for Toronto's past playoff issues, surely the Raptors would be favored in that series, but ask yourself: Who is going to match up with Simmons?
If you put Kyle Lowry on Simmons, he's going straight to the post, meaning the Raptors are going to be cross-matched from the start as Lowry shuffles over to Redick. Simmons' shooting is an issue, but his size against other point guards is the counter. So the cross-matching starts and mismatches show up, a little miscommunication here, a little Simmons magic there, and the Sixers go to work.
Meanwhile, Jonas Valanciunas would be no match for Embiid, who could single-handedly win a few games in that series. Toronto's bench is the best in the league, Philly's is just OK (though it's become more dangerous with Belinelli and Illyasova aboard), but we know that in the playoffs rotations shrink and Brown would be likely going all in on Simmons and Embiid for somewhere close to 40 minutes per game.
That's what this really comes down to: How far can Simmons and Embiid take the Sixers? Prior to this season, Embiid had only played 31 NBA games and Simmons was an NBA red shirt. To Barnewall's initial point, experience does tend to matter in the playoffs.
Until it doesn't.
The bottom line is talent costs for a lot, to state the obvious, and Simmons and Embiid have talent coming out of their pores. Getting back to that hypothetical playoff scenario, if those two were to play at peak level for an entire series, no, it is absolutely not out of the question that the Sixers could beat the Raptors in a seven-game series. Would it be an upset? Yes. But it's not unreasonable.
How Sixers stack up against Cavs, Celtics
So that would leave them with the winner of Boston-Cleveland -- again, if current seeds were to hold. It's hard to see the young Sixers besting LeBron James in the conference finals, but again, there are a lot of matchups that would favor the Sixers in a potential Cavs series.
Cleveland likes to play Kevin Love at the five, but he would have no chance to defense Embiid. You'd likely have to put LeBron on Simmons when it counts, which would keep him from playing that free safety spot where he's so dangerous as a helper. On the other end, Embiid is more than capable of staying with Love on the perimeter (usually the advantage that offsets Love's lacking defense) while still recovering on the back side. Just look at this clip below, in which Embiid starts by defending Nikola Jokic on the perimeter and finishes by cutting off two different drivers and blocking a shot on the back side:
That, my friends, is what an NBA difference-maker looks like. Embiid single-handedly won that entire possession. Not many teams can say they have a player who can do that, let alone on both ends, and that's what makes the Sixers a viable threat, even to a team like the Cavs. Also, there's no guarantee the Cavs even make it past the Celtics in the second round. If Kyrie Irving is back healthy, Boston can easily win that series, and yes, the Sixers can beat Boston, even tough the Celtics are 3-1 vs. Philly this year.
The Celtics, at 100 percent, are probably a tougher matchup for the Sixers than the Cavs. All of Boston's length on the perimeter poses a problem not only in terms of switching all over Philly's shooters, but simply from the standpoint of more reasonably matching up with Simmons with a Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum, or a healthy Marcus Smart -- if the Celtics are lucky enough to get him back. That doesn't mean Boston isn't beatable. Again, Philly is capable of smothering a sometimes stagnant Boston offense, too, and we don't know about Kyrie. Two of Boston's wins over Philly were early in the year, and Philly is a different team now.
East remains wide open
In the end, the East is too jumbled to start predicting matchups right now. Philly is only percentage points behind the Cavs for the No. 3 seed entering Wednesday. The 76ers could get that spot and see Boston in the second round. Maybe Boston can't hack it without Kyrie in the first round and gets upset by Milwaukee. It's not out of the question. Nothing is. That's the point in this Eastern Conference race. It is, to Herbert's point, wide open. Anyone can win. Anyone can lose. That includes the Sixers.
On a scale of 1-10, how shocked would I be if Philly came out of the scrum as the lone Eastern Conference team standing? I'll say five, which is to say I would be surprised but not shocked. To be honest, they're probably already ahead of schedule. Coming into this year, most people thought a playoff berth would constitute a successful season. Now they're in line for a top-three seed, and according to Brett Brown, there's not a team in the East that scares them. When you really think about it, why would there be?