Like many others, I’ve been frustrated with the 76ers this season. How could you not? It’s a strange juxtaposition. They’re nearly unbeatable at home. And they’re the 2007 Bobcats on the road. They’ve had their fair share of injuries, but that doesn’t explain their poor road play. In fact, Philadelphia has only one fewer win on the road without Joel Embiid than with him.
There’s a real chance this is it for Brett Brown. Anything short of a deep playoff run, and he’s gone. These murmurs of trading Embiid or Ben Simmons are downright laughable. For real. Stop trying to make it happen. It’s Brown who exits first. Possibly Al Horford and/or Tobias Harris before they even ever entertain trading either franchise cornerstone.
I’ve believed in Brown, at least in the idea him. Someone who put up with the intentional losing to help establish a place people want to play. He helped grow a culture. These past two playoff runs have been telling but they only paint a portion of the picture. There appeared to be real friction between Brown and Jimmy Butler last season. Brad Stevens woefully out-coached Brown two postseasons ago. But I believe it’s the players who matter, who need to perform at their highest level to win—the coach can only do so much. I find it hard to believe there’s this glaring switch to flip to unlock Embiid and Simmons even more. I mean there is. It’s Simmons making threes, but that’s a different story. Brown didn’t struggle from the field like Harris did during Game 7 against the Raptors (or Butler too). He doesn’t struggle like Embiid does against Marc Gasol. It comes down to the players.
But this season has been a major failure. Things become stagnant. Ownership won’t be complacent. They need to undergo a true change, which starts with their head coach. If it doesn’t turn around.
There’s optimism it will. A fairly easy schedule gives the 76ers a punchers’ chance at the three seed. Bringing Horford off the bench might be just what Philadelphia needs. The feeling surrounding the team after their win over the Clippers before the All-Star Break — the first game Brown brought Horford off the bench — appeared different. But the game happened in the Wells Fargo Center. A place where Philadelphia has beaten the Lakers, Clippers, Nuggets, Bucks, Heat, Jazz, Raptors, Pacers and the Celtics twice. Nobody doubts this team’s ability to win at home. It’s what happens on the road that will make or break their season.
Josh Richardson reportedly spoke up to the team after two pitiful, back-to-back road performances a couple weeks ago against Boston and Miami. It’s during that four-game losing streak, all away from Philadelphia, that Richardson missed with an injury. He’s back now, proving himself a difference maker down the stretch against the Clippers. His offense will be essential, just as his ability to guard opposing lead guards come the playoffs.
There’s an unknown about the impact newly acquired Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks will have on this team, in particular their roles come playoff time, which creates some excitement for the second half of the season. Robinson actually started the second half against the Clippers, but it’s more likely that Furkan Korkmaz will be the player to replace Horford in the starting lineup. Korkmaz has been unruly at home in the best possible way, shooting over 45 percent from three. It’s been a completely separate story on the road.
The postseason rotation looks much more stable with a higher floor than last year’s that featured Greg Monroe, even with the question marks surrounding Robinson and Burks—Embiid, Simmons, Harris, Richardson, Korkmaz, Horford and Matisse Thybulle form a formidable seven.
Three questions remain at the forefront during the final 27 games:
Can they figure out how to win on the road?
The second half begins at home, but my oh my is there a big game Saturday night in Milwaukee.
Can they avoid the 4 or 5 seed?
In an ideal world, Philadelphia snags the three seed. The 76ers have the tiebreaker over the Celtics.
What does Horford off the bench look like?
The 76ers passed their first test. Let’s see what happens now.
It comes down to Simmons and Embiid. Everything comes down to them. Simmons has been solid at the free throw line recently. Embiid will begin playing without that annoying brace he’s worn after dislocating his finger in January. They have to dominate. Simmons has to be a pest on defense like he’s been all year, ultra-aggressive on offense like he’s been since January began. Embiid has to be the freaking beast all over, at all times. It’s their team. They need to show it. Every night. It’ll be exciting to see if they can.
I think back to last year’s postseason run. How Philadelphia’s size swallowed Fred VanVleet at home. How if it wasn’t for Kawhi Leonard’s sheer absurdness, the 76ers would have faced the Bucks in the Conference Finals. Despite how disappointing this year has been, it’s hard to see a team that isn’t the Bucks beating the 76ers four times in seven games in the Eastern Conference. For some reason.
It’s weird to feel optimistic about their chances. But here we are.