- Matt Slocum/AP
After three years of tanking, accumulating a 47-199 record, the Philadelphia 76ers’ “process” appears to be in the rearview mirror.
While the merits of that process – intentionally building a non-competitive team in hopes of acquiring high draft picks and drafting a superstar – can be debated, the 76ers did not try hard to hide their intentions.
Now, after three miserable years with little actual gains, the Sixers have wowed the NBA world with their sudden turnaround, not just into actual competitiveness, but into the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
After a surprising 121-110 win over the Los Angeles Clippers Tuesday night, the 76ers are now 16-27, a mere five games out of a playoff spot (such is the state of the Eastern Conference). They’ve won seven of their last 10 games and have gone 9-3 since December 30, with impressive wins over the Clippers, Raptors, Bucks, and Hornets.
It’s impossible to talk about the Sixers’ sudden turnaround with talking about Joel Embiid. The 22-year-old center has far exceeded expectations after missing the first two years of his career with foot injuries. In 30 games, even with a minutes restriction, Embiid is averaging nearly 20 points per game on 46% shooting, 34% from downtown, with nearly eight rebounds, two assists, and two blocks per game.
With Embiid on the floor, the 76ers aren’t just competitive – they’re a playoff team. The Sixers are outscoring teams by 3 points per 100 possessions, making him the only player on the team with a positive point-differential. When he’s off the court, the 76ers are being outscored by nearly 11 points per 100 possessions.
This makes the 76ers’ Tuesday win over the Clippers all the more intriguing, as Embiid sat out with a knee injury. In his place, it was reserve big man Nerlens Noel who stepped up, scoring 19 points with eight rebounds, five assists, and three blocks.
In overcoming a 19-point second-half deficit, the 76ers showed that they’re now, well, an NBA team.
The 76ers are still the NBA’s least efficient offense, but behind Embiid’s debut, the presence of some actual NBA veterans like Gerald Henderson, Irsan Ilyasova, and Sergio Rodriguez, and brilliant coaching by Brett Brown, the Sixers are hanging around.
And there’s still reason for optimism. The 76ers are awaiting the debut of Ben Simmons, last year’s No. 1 pick, who’s been out with a fracture in his foot. The team is being cautious with his rehab, but it seems, at his current, pace he will play this year. If Simmons lives up to his ceiling, he could immediately improve the team’s offense with his court vision and ability to get to the basket.
There are still steps to take, of course, to continue the rebuilding process, despite appearing to be finished with tanking. Hanging over the team is the impending decision about how to deal with the big-man threesome of Embiid, Noel, and last year’s No. 3 pick Jahlil Okafor. Pairing two of the big men at a time hasn’t proven fruitful, and there simply aren’t enough minutes to give all three players meaningful playing time.
Still, the 76ers have merged the contrasting plans of Sam Hinkie and Jerry Colangelo, who took over for Hinkie last year to begin moving the team forward. The 76ers’ asset collection is paying off, as several of these young players have grown into actual on-court talent. And this season, the 76ers are moving toward respectability, just as Colangelo planned.
The playoffs may be a long shot, still, but for the first time in years, the 76ers are actually relevant.