Back before the season, I predicted the Sixers would go 47-35, finish as the six seed in the Eastern Conference, and maybe win a playoff series. After a 52-30 season, the Sixers were third in the conference. They took down Miami in the first round. They’ve exceeded all of my expectations.
Back before game one of the Eastern Conference semi-final series in Boston, I said the Sixers would win the series convincingly in six games. I said Boston lacked a star on par with Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons. I thought Boston was simply too banged up by the injury bug to compete with a far more athletic club. I looked at Rozier and Smart as the worst back court of the eight teams left and expected to exploit them. Clearly this series has met none of the expectations.
Depending on how you want to view those two paragraphs, that pretty much dictates your view of this team now.
You have to give Boston a lot of credit, they have exceeded expectations. Al Horford is showing himself as possibly the most valuable player on that roster, healthy or hurt. While I still see Jayson Tatum as the 2017-2018 answer to the NFL’s 2016 Dak Prescott, it’s very clear that he is an excellent player, and arguably the most matured player to come out of last year’s draft. Smart and Rozier are proving they are more than rotational players. Jaylen Brown is playing effectively through injury. Brad Stephens game plan to effectively deal with Ben Simmons has worked perfectly. It’s not just Philly playing badly, Boston plays great team basketball, and it’s shown up in getting them through the last two games. Up 3-0 now, they’re probably going to be hosting LeBron for game one next week.
This series has been really disappointing though for a Philadelphia fan. The team’s ability to light up the scoreboard against Miami is gone. Simmons lack of a jumper is finally hurting. Joel Embiid has actually been really good, but he can’t seem to buy a foul call (God, the NBA loves Boston.). Markelle Fultz is back in the abyss, not even appearing in these games. Dario Saric finally looks tired. Belinelli, Ilyasova, and the rest of the bench cast that was so good for the last two months just hasn’t decimated Boston as hoped. Brett Brown seems overwhelmed finally. He’s been questionable in using his bench. He’s been questionable in not using his bench, like the gritty Justin Anderson, at times. He’s let the team jack up threes even when ice cold (looking at you, Robert Covington), despite the fact that they aren’t built to live that way. And of course, he’s refused to use his timeouts to stop Boston runs, even with a very young team. Things have gone bad.
Despite all that, I will tend to judge the 2017-2018 Philadelphia 76’ers by the first paragraph I wrote here. This team exceeded every reasonable expectation I had for them. They won 52 games and a playoff series. Two years ago they won 10 games, last year it was 28. Ben Simmons played a full season and would get my Rookie-of-the-Year vote. Joel Embiid went from playing about one college season’s worth of games in his first three years to having an All-Star season that he got through with only modest injury issues. Dario Saric showed you his rookie year was real. Brett Brown showed you he can manage and motivate his young squad. In short, they accomplished most of the missions.
Unfortunately, or fortunately if you want, the Sixers future faces a far higher bar now, due to their success. The Sixers were third in their division, and must drastically improve to pass Boston or Toronto. They face major issues ahead. Ben Simmons has to learn how to shoot. Can they re-sign J.J. Redick, and to a contract that doesn’t restrict their ability to spend. After a very troubling rookie season, what is Markelle Fultz? As great as Joel Embiid is, can he take the next step, and dominate the paint like a Hakeem Olajuwon for years to come? Can Robert Covington gain consistency? What are the future roles of bench pieces like T.J. McConnell, Justin Anderson, and Richaun Holmes? Can Brett Brown get the team to cut the turnovers and take better shots? Can Brown manage his timeouts better?
The Sixers need to be honest about where they are now. The fans will expect this team to quickly become real contenders. They probably need to obtain a real star piece this Summer- whether it’s LeBron or someone else. They need to answer the questions about the team they have. They have to realize that while this season was a lot of fun, the Sixers aren’t really all that close to where they need to be yet, and Boston isn’t going away. We traded them another high pick in swapping the Fultz and Tatum picks, they get their best two players back next year, they have a solid roster now, and they have a great coach. The Boston mountain in front of the Sixers is quite tall, and not going away soon. It’d be nice if they started scaling it a little by winning a game or two now to extend this series, if only to show everyone they aren’t so far away now.