Philadelphia 76ers, a Top Seed

Over eight months ago, Boston swept Philadelphia in the first round of the NBA playoffs. A fitting end to a miserable season.

The chatter grew loud. Trade Ben Simmons. Even louder. Trade Joel Embiid. They can’t work together.

When the NBA playoffs begin this time around, for the first time in 20 years, the Eastern Conference goes through Philadelphia.

Since Simmons’ rookie season, only the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors have won more regular season games than Philadelphia. It’s been the best stretch of 76ers basketball since the 1980s. As the pressure mounts this postseason, it’s important to remember that. With sky high expectations, anything short of a Finals berth will be inexcusable, especially knowing Miami won’t be waiting for the 76ers in the second round. Even though Brooklyn and Milwaukee are incredible, the expectations should be this high. It’s why you’re a fan—for opportunities to cheer for a postseason like this.

In terms of preparedness for the postseason, it’s hard to gauge the 76ers. Philadelphia’s best wins of the season—the Jazz and Lakers—happened months ago. Simmons missed both games in Milwaukee, while Embiid missed one, too. Denver destroyed the 76ers without Embiid. The 76ers lost to Phoenix at relatively full strength back in February. It’s a mess trying to decipher how this team matches up. In fact, last year’s version of the 76ers—where the coach was fired, two starters traded away, and fans wish could be removed from our collective memories—had more impressive wins (beating Milwaukee by double-figures on Christmas Day; walloping the Heat the first time they met; beating the Lakers without Embiid; winning the season series over the Celtics and beating the Clippers). This year is different, of course. The team feels more complete on the court, even if we’ve yet to see how they matchup against quality opponents (let’s ignore that Heat blow-out last week for a second).

The beauty, depending on how you look at it, of the NBA playoffs is typically the best team wins each series. You’ll see a player carry his teammates, showcasing just how dominant he’s capable of being over the course of a series. Kawhi Leonard did just that two years ago against the 76ers. This postseason, Embiid will be asked to carry the team. Unlike last year, there’s cohesion. There’s health, too. Philadelphia has at least nine guys you feel comfortable playing. A team picks on Seth Curry? Sub in George Hill. They matchup better this time around.

Having home court advantage cannot be overrated, either. This team has been special at home ever since Simmons’ rookie year, losing only 29 times at Wells Fargo Center. In games Embiid plays during that, Philadelphia is 101-20. With the crowd expected to be at 50 percent capacity, and only growing as the postseason continues, this could be major for the 76ers chances.

I’ve taken a wait and see approach with Simmons this year. He didn’t look 100 percent as the season began. He had some shaky moments mixed in between. He excelled as a scorer during a strange two-week stretch near the middle of the season, scoring a career-high 42 against Utah. Overall, he’s been wonderful defensively, and straight up average offensively. How he compliments Embiid is everything. Will he be passive? Will it feel like 4-on-5 while Philly is on offense down the stretch?

People love criticizing Simmons. It’s often warranted. He struggled the past two times Philadelphia made the second round, but he was tremendous in the first round each of those postseason runs—stifling D’Angelo Russell in 2019, while doing a little bit of everything in the 4-1 win over the Heat his rookie season. We know he’ll bring it defensively, which could be enough against lesser opponents, but Philadelphia needs his aggressiveness, especially in the moments where teams have an even more heightened focus on Embiid. How he plays off ball during those situations will be telling as will be his ability to make the right read, to take care of the ball and to really make his defender work.

I remember, as best as an eight-year-old child can, the 2001 postseason. My family spray-painted SIXERS ROCK on an old bed sheet, hanging it on 84 Ardmore Avenue’s façade as Allen Iverson led a lackluster group to the NBA Finals as a one seed. After losing to Toronto two postseasons ago, many expected Philadelphia to be right back in contention. But then last year happened and everybody lost their minds.

Here they are again—back in contention. They’re not the favorites, but that’s fine.

It’s why you become a fan. For moments like this.

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