It’s astonishing that not only are people unanimously picking the Philadelphia 76ers to win the first round of the playoffs, but some pundits are even claiming they deserve the East. This blind yet understandable faith in the fledgling team only serves to illustrate the combined public appeal, social media value, and basketball savagery of perhaps the Eastern Conference’s most exciting team. “The Process” has been collectively known to be the Sixers’ road to recovery, but nowadays most have moved on past that midway point and have since looked towards the road to supremacy.
Sam Hinkie, Nerlens Noel, Evan Turner, Michael Carter-Williams, and Jahlil Okafor all died for the Sixers’ proverbial sins—and yet they still managed to snag the right pieces necessary to rise up and initiate The Process 2.0 with snarky confidence and the shot-making to back it up.
Sixer fixer upper
The Sixers entered a supposed defensive slugfest with the feisty Miami Heat like a steamroller on a fifth gear it didn’t even know it had. Miami was Top 10 in defensive stats pertaining to points, FGM, offensive rebounds, and assists—and was thoroughly obliterated by Philadelphia in those exact same statistics.
Heat Regular Season Defense vs Sixers Postseason Offense
Miami - 4th in points, 4th in field goals made, 6th in offensive rebounds, 3rd in assists
Philadelphia - 2nd in points, 5th in field goals made, 1st in offensive rebounds, 2nd in assists
Miami’s defense, which was anchored by Hassan Whiteside, was rendered moot by Philly’s offensive versatility. Whiteside simply couldn’t match up to Philly’s pace and versatility—and he certainly couldn’t handle Joel Embiid’s post-ups, drop steps, and perimeter shots. The Sixers’ otherworldly playmaking gave Whiteside fits on offense, and was limited to 15 minutes a game on each of his assignments as a result of his inability to adapt. Boston’s Shane Larkin, undrafted Warrior Quinn Cook, and Toronto Supersub Pascal Siakam averaged more minutes in the postseason than Whiteside.
Embiid’s stats weren’t completely off the rails as this postseason’s breakout star Anthony Davis. His 18.7 ppg, 10.3 rpg, and 3 bpg are as solid as one can ever expect from a postseason center—but the way he collects them changes the game for the Sixers in ways their opponents can’t quite solve quickly.
NBA Unicorn Watch 2018 (First Round)
Joel Embiid - 18.7 ppg 10.3 rpg 2.0 apg 3.0 bpg .375 3p%
Karl-Anthony Towns - 15.2 ppg 13.4 rpg 2.2 apg 1 bpg .273 3p%
Anthony Davis - 30.6 ppg 11.4 rpg 1 apg 2.6 bpg .273 3p%
Giannis Antetokounmpo - 25.7 ppg 9.6 rpg 6.3 apg 1.4 bpg .286 3p%
LeBron James - 34.4 ppg 10.1 rpg 7.7 apg 1 bpg .353 3p%
Embiid is by far the best defensive anchor amongst the basketball unicorns, with 10.3 ppg, a superior 3 bpg (second only to John Henson’s 3.5 bpg), and a solid 1.3 spg. Rihanna’s arch engages on both ends of the floor and rarely slacks off despite coming from a significant injury.
Embiid is also the best shooter among the unicorn squad, though this stat needs to be taken with a grain of salt (after all, as of today, Derrick Rose is the postseason’s best long-range shooter at .700 3p%)—it’s worth noting that Embiid is the last option among an elite cadre of shooters that are quietly becoming this decade’s superior version of Dwight Howard’s 2009 Eastern Conference Finals team. Every player who shot more than five 3pt field goals have shot better than .300, with six out of those seven players shooting better than .350. JJ Redick, Marco Belinelli, Dario Saric, and Robert Covington are all shooting with the surety of veterans, and quite appropriately, are being led by the league’s biggest and most brash upcoming star.
Simmons in motion
Ben Simmons’ 10.6 rpg is about the only traditional stat you will see from a Sixer “Power Forward,” and yet, Simmons runs like a gazelle, passes like a point guard (9 apg), and uses both hands skillfully like a natural born scorer.
Simmons not only reinvents the position as a 6’8” point guard, but he also reinvents conventional NBA lineups by touting a starting five, with four players standing above 6’9”. Ben Simmons plays like Draymond Green without a perimeter shot, but also without the height deficit of the Warriors when they’re on the field. In short, the Sixers’ “big ball” lineup plays very much like a “small ball” lineup for other less talented rosters. Miami tried throwing many defenders at Simmons, but not even the combined wits of Tyler Johnson, Justice Winslow, and James Johnson could slow down the prodigy. This means that the Simmons-Embiid tandem sees no apparent drop-offs on both offensive and defensive ends of the floor.
As a rookie, Simmons could have easily faltered to the law of averages and a more punishing defense in the posteason. And yet, similar to how LeBron reinvented the forward position, the NBA is still figuring out how to fully seal a giant ambidextrous point guard surrounded by competent shooters and a generational center. Simmons arrogantly (and vocally) defies the norm and has already proclaimed himself the Rookie of the Year with his graceful basketball, quietly violent panache, and mental edge that is proving to be extremely contagious to the rest of the team.
Second round acid test
The Sixers will soon face a team very similar to Miami’s: a team that has no marquee names, has nothing to lose, and is led by a brilliant coach. This time, however, Embiid will find himself face-to-face against the NBA’s consummate professional Al Horford, and Ben Simmons will be thrown into the defensive gauntlet of Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Marcus Smart, most of which have the size and mindset to lock down targets for 36+ minutes a game.
Embiid’s “our time is now” proclamation is more indicative of their overall confidence in themselves and each other, and perhaps not as much of their championship caliber. The Sixers get timely contributions from the explosive Richaun Holmes and veteran Ersan Ilyasova, but they still need a second unit leader and creator to help add stability to their shrinking postseason lineups. Right now Belinelli is lending a hot hand, but is not a multi-talented creator that can bring them to the next level. Oft-maligned project Markelle Fultz may fit the bill—but he still seems incredibly far off from where he needs to be in this postseason, and his shooting percentages won’t help his chances to break into the starting lineup.
As their lone loss to Miami shows, Simmons is vulnerable when he tries too hard to score rather than create for the rest of the team—they lose their versatility when Simmons becomes nothing more than the first scoring option. The Sixers’ shooters need to stay confident, and above all, consistent.
While we debate on how high the Sixers can reach in the postseason (and no mistake, they can reach the finals if you squint hard enough), it is more exciting to see how much more they can improve year on year: a fit and healthy Joel Embiid, a full season with Markelle Fultz, and another high first round pick can certainly make Philly next year’s East favorite.
But make no mistake, the Process has definitely changed since you last read about it—it’s aiming higher and shouting louder, and it’s catching up with the best of the NBA with terrifying speed and clarity.