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Reintroducing the Contenders: Philadelphia 76ers

Can Philadelphia’s star-studded roster finally realize its potential in the postseason? Or will its usual medley of problems flare up once again? We’re looking back and ahead for the 76ers going into the NBA’s restart.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Four months is a long time. So we’re getting reacquainted with the title race by looking at the nine NBA teams with at least a 1 percent chance of winning the title, according to our in-house playoff odds (a.k.a. Zach Kram), plus the 76ers, who defy all math and logic, leading up to reopening night on July 30.

The Basics

Team: Philadelphia 76ers
Record: 39-26 (6th in Eastern Conference)
Numbers: 109.7 offensive rating (18th in NBA), 107.6 defensive rating (6th), 2.1 net rating (12th)
Seeding opponents (in order of schedule): Pacers, Spurs, Wizards, Magic, Trail Blazers, Suns, Raptors, Rockets

Last Time, on the 76ers …

Philadelphia was running in place when the season stopped. Ben Simmons had been sidelined since February with nerve issues in his lower back; it looked like he’d miss the start of the playoffs, if not the entire postseason. Or, as Brett Brown said when reporters asked whether there was a timeline for return, “I don’t know. And it really is like, how long is a piece of string? Who knows?”

The last game the Sixers played before the season was suspended—a home win against Detroit—was Joel Embiid’s first back after missing the previous five with a sprained left shoulder. Under a microscope, the win was encouraging for a Philadelphia team bracing for a playoff run potentially without Simmons. Embiid dropped 30 points and grabbed 14 rebounds; Al Horford polished off his best three-game streak since November, hitting four 3s and adding 20 points. But the Sixers had been indestructible at home all season with an NBA-best 29-2 record (and the fifth-worst away record at 10-24). It’d be premature to assume Horford, now 34, had returned to form after a season of looking out of place, or that Embiid was suddenly healthy enough to carry a team for an extended period of time, or that even if Simmons were to return, the three would finally coexist to their full potential. As The Ringer’s Dan Devine wrote last week, the Sixers seem like “the NBA’s most volatile playoff team, with any outcome from total flameout shitshow to NBA champion seeming plausible.”

How They’ve Spent Their Quarantine

Outside of the many photoshoots with Simmons and his dog Bane, the most pressing quarantine updates from the Sixers were about fitness. By July, Simmons said he was fully recovered. Brown said he expected Embiid to “come in as good a shape as he has been in since I have coached him.” (Considering Embiid’s past conditioning status, this could mean anything from very impressive to marginally impressive.) Three people in the team’s traveling party—composed of players, coaches, and basketball operations staff—tested positive for the coronavirus in March during the first round of NBA testing; no names were leaked.

It was lovely getting to know Matisse Thybulle’s inner self under the duress that is self-isolation, too. Here’s Thybulle making friends with his Roomba, just your typical bond between man and vacuum:

By himself, Thybulle made TikToks that typically require two people, like dances (he did it with the mirror) and pretending another woman called while his girlfriend was in the room (he played both himself and his girlfriend in this production). My favorite Thybulle quarantine moment wasn’t a video, but a quote. When he was asked how Simmons was handling isolation, Thybulle said, “I actually don’t know. He’s probably just killing people in Call of Duty.”

Seeding-Games Goal: Match Up Against the Pacers

Indiana and Philly are both two games back of the no. 4-seeded Miami Heat. The Sixers have one of the easier schedules of the 22 invited teams, but half of this goal is out of their control. Matching up against the Pacers is their best shot of advancing to the second round. At first Victor Oladipo opted out of the bubble. Now he’s trying to decide while practicing with his team inside the bubble. Even if Oladipo returns, there’s no guarantee he’ll be the same on-court presence he was before his injury. (See the 13 games he’s played in 2019-20 for reference.)

Biggest On-Court Bubble Question: Will Simmons Work at the 4?

The starting five that Brown throws out in the Sixers’ first seeding game could be a combination that’s never been used before. He’s played Simmons exclusively at the 4 in practice since arriving in Disney, deferring ballhandling responsibilities to Shake Milton, who was filling in for Simmons before the shutdown. Moving Simmons to the 4 could solve two problems: his fit with Embiid and Horford’s fit with the team. The latter was moved to the bench in February for three games before it became clear that Simmons would be out indefinitely. It was the first time Horford wasn’t in the starting lineup since his rookie season.

The new lineup could also create new tension. If Milton and Simmons share the ball, it could cut into Embiid’s supply of touches. Simmons, who’s used to more responsibility, might demand more. (Though even suggesting that should come with the reminder that he is averaging the fifth-most assists per game in 2019-20 with 8.2.) With his quickness and agility, there’s no telling what Simmons’s off-ball potential is. “There’s nobody faster in the NBA,” Brown said. “So to always have the ball and dribble it up against five guys … to do that dilutes some of his potent weapons.”

Brown, who’s been on the hot seat for around three years now, needed to change something. Another short playoff run (with another iteration of role players) would be a waste of another year of Simmons’s and Embiid’s youth. The past two postseasons, Philadelphia has been eliminated in the second round, and there’s been little indication until now that this year’s will go any different. Switching up the starting lineup with eight games remaining is a dangerous gamble, but considering how underwhelming the Sixers had been before the break, it might be riskier to stay the same.

Player in the Spotlight: Shake Milton

Assuming he does start, Milton could be the biggest X factor for the Sixers. When the second-year guard was inserted into the starting lineup, it was interpreted as more of a new low for the team than an opportunity for a budding point guard. Milton hadn’t logged more than 17 minutes or scored more than 10 points in a game all season. Inserting a floor general who can shoot from distance helps Philadelphia’s perpetual perimeter shooting problem. In the 20 straight games Milton played before the break, he shot 51.2 percent on 4.2 3-point attempts per game. His best showing came against the Clippers (all of the Clippers; this was not a game lacking Kawhi Leonard or Paul George) in March: 39 points, 7-for-9 from 3, five assists, three rebounds, and a steal. More of that from him at the point guard position with Simmons’s skill set elsewhere gives the 76ers another dimension.

On a Scale From Wizards to 10, Where 10 Is the Best Shot at a Title, What Are the Sixers’ Odds of Winning the 2020 Title?

The Sixers’ Vegas odds are 27-1. With the Lakers, Clippers, and Bucks fully healthy, that might translate to a 4. There are so many unknowns—how the Sixers will deal with their home games not actually being home games, how the new lineup will work, how their opponents are coping with the bubble, and the question of the last six years, whether Embiid and Simmons can stay healthy—that it’s impossible to know where Philadelphia truly stands.