76ers: There's a lot on the line now
Can they? It remains to be seen.
With 22 games remaining, starting with Sunday afternoon’s contest against the Clippers that begins a four-game Western Conference trip, the 76ers are still capable of securing homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. They are 37-23 and in a virtual tie with the Heat for fourth place in the East, though Miami owns the tiebreaker via a 3-1 head-to-head edge.
But let’s be honest — it seems more likely the Sixers will lose in the opening round than advance to the conference finals, especially if they don’t get a top-4 seed and have to win at least one game of a best-of-seven series on the road.
There are no clear victories on the trip for a team that is 9-21 on the road, where it has dropped its last seven and are coming off of a double-digit drubbing by the woeful Cavaliers. After the Clippers, the Sixers face LeBron James and the Lakers on Tuesday night, the Kings on Thursday evening and the Warriors, who could have Steph Curry back, next Saturday night.
And the Sixers won’t have star Ben Simmons (pinched nerve, lower back) on the trip and probably will be without fellow all-star Joel Embiid (sprained shoulder) for the entire time, too.
From a big-picture perspective, it’d be almost impossible to refer to this as a successful season if the Sixers don’t get beyond the Eastern Conference semifinals again, given the great expectations and a payroll that puts them just under the luxury tax threshold of $132.6 million but will require them to pay the tax in 2020-21. They’ve already committed $147 million to nine players next year — $27.5 million to Al Horford, $29.3 million to Simmons, $29.5 million to Embiid, and $33.5 million to Tobias Harris.
As for the five-year, $180 million contract general manager Elton Brand gave Harris, yes, that’s above market value for a very good player who has never been an all-star. Harris benefited from the Sixers’ ability to exceed the salary cap to re-sign him and that Philly couldn’t use all of that money to sign somebody from outside the organization. If Harris went elsewhere, unless it was a sign-and-trade, the Sixers would’ve been in a bind so they overpaid to keep him.
The Sixers’ best option is to make it work with this roster, if possible, because it might be difficult to trade the 34-year-old Horford and, perhaps, Harris for quality players if management and Brand want to alter the core around Embiid and Simmons.
If the Sixers don’t reach the conference finals, management would have to determine if the problem is roster construction or if they aren’t producing the way they should. To me, it appears to be a combination of the two.
If it’s deemed the primary issue is these players don’t fit well, that’d fall primarily on Brand, whose most questionable move is agreeing to Horford’s four-year, $97 million guaranteed contract. If management believes the group is underperforming, that’d be more Brett Brown.
Brown could end up taking the bulk of the blame. If the Sixers change coaches and don’t overhaul the roster, Brand would have to hope the next coach is more successful or he could — and should — wind up feeling some heat.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.
Perhaps Joel Embiid won’t allow his conditioning to drop off considerably when he returns from a strained shoulder as soon as March 11 against the Pistons, dominates inside and is healthy for the first time in the postseason. Then Ben Simmons comes back from the pinched nerve in his lower back in time to fill up the stat sheet like he’s playing pinball.
While those two are a huge part of the Sixers’ offense, they’re even more important at the defensive end. That could be quite apparent on the trip.
We’ll see if Embiid and Simmons will be enough to get the Sixers back on track.
No matter how you slice it, there’s a great deal at stake for this team during the rest of the regular season and playoffs.
Tom Moore: firstname.lastname@example.org; @TomMoorePhilly