Enjoy the ride as Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons enter their primes

Getty Images

Enjoy the ride as Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons enter their primes

When we were left without basketball amid the coronavirus pandemic, we all turned to different methods to entertain ourselves. Whether it was watching old games or picking up a new hobby, we were passing the time however we could.

When The Last Dance documentary aired, it gave us all something to look forward to. As you watched each episode, you were reminded of what Michael Jordan had to go through to get to his first championship.

When he broke his foot during his second season, his team wanted him to sit so they could get a better draft pick — Jordan, of course, defied that. He then struggled to get over the hump in the playoffs, losing to a Celtics dynasty and the “Bad Boy” Pistons. He faced scrutiny with doubters thinking he couldn’t get the Bulls to the promised land. Then, finally, at age 28, Jordan won the first of his six NBA titles.

Nothing can make up for experience. Kevin Durant was also 28 when he won his first championship. LeBron James was 27. Steph Curry was 26. Even for the most elite NBA players, the ride to that first ring can be bumpy.

For 26-year-old Joel Embiid and 24-year-old Ben Simmons, their young careers have taken a strange path. While the ultimate goal for any team should be a championship, it’s important to have perspective in where these players are. In reality, their ride together in Philadelphia is just getting started.

There is one basic fact that Embiid and Simmons’ detractors have to realize: The All-Star duo is authoring one of the best eras in franchise history. Since Simmons made his NBA debut, the Sixers have a record of 142-87 — that’s good for a .620 winning percentage — and have won 50 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1986. In the 16 seasons between the team’s 50-win season in Allen Iverson’s MVP campaign of 2000-01 and the first 50-win season of the Embiid-Simmons era in 2017-18, the team had a .411 winning percentage.

The bottom line is this pairing has provided the most exciting era of Sixers basketball since Iverson and the winningest era since Julius Erving. Simmons’ move to the four spot shouldn’t change much in that regard.

“If you look at the numbers since we’ve been playing together, they’ve been great,” Embiid said last week. “This year it’s kind of down — new roster, people are getting used to it the whole year. But you look at the ratings on and off the past few years, we were great. So I think [any position Simmons plays], really doesn’t matter, we’re going to be great. We’re going to do what we need to do to accomplish the goal that we set for ourselves and I’m excited. I don’t see any difference. I think it’s still going to be the same and we’re going to dominate.”

Their first two playoff runs ended in the second round. For a team that constantly talks about competing for a championship and a fan base that patiently sat through The Process, it feels like a disappointment.

These things don’t happen overnight. Jordan made his NBA debut in 1984 but didn’t make it to the Eastern Conference Finals until 1989 and didn’t make the NBA Finals until 1990. As The Last Dance revealed, Chicago fans and media got impatient with Jordan. Even in Sixers franchise history, Julius Erving didn’t win his first title until his seventh NBA season. There were people that doubted Dr. J could get the Sixers a ring with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in their primes.

It won’t be easy for the Sixers this season. With a global pandemic and issues with social injustice and racial inequality still in the foreground, the Sixers face an uphill battle.

Perhaps it will all galvanize a team that underachieved through 65 games.

“The guys have come in ready, mentally prepared and willing to sacrifice whatever someone needs to sacrifice in order for us to win,” Simmons said Friday. “I think this is the best the team’s been; we’ve been together collectively. The chemistry is much better than prior to early on in the season in a big way.”

It’s not to say you shouldn’t get frustrated every time Simmons passes up a shot or Embiid looks winded or the roster fit around the pair looks clunky. It’s just to say every star player has their own path. It could be bumpy along the way, but it’s entertaining. 

At least the documentary will be.

Subscribe and rate Sixers Talk: Apple Podcasts | Google Play | Spotify | Stitcher | Art19 | YouTube

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers

Sixers’ Kyle O’Quinn gets rare moment in spotlight, accepts apology from Furkan Korkmaz

Sixers’ Kyle O’Quinn gets rare moment in spotlight, accepts apology from Furkan Korkmaz

Though it wouldn’t be logical to glean much from a game in which none of the Sixers’ opening night starters were available, there was a storyline Tuesday night that stood out until the final seconds of the Sixers' 130-117 loss to the Suns.

With Josh Richardson resting and Joel Embiid (left ankle injury), Tobias Harris (right ankle soreness), Al Horford (left knee soreness) and Ben Simmons (left knee) all sidelined by injuries, Kyle O’Quinn came close to his first NBA triple-double in his 471st game.

He likely would’ve had a layup attempt to move from nine points to 11 if Furkan Korkmaz had found him under the rim late. 

O’Quinn would’ve enjoyed the achievement, though it sounds like he didn’t want to have his name be remotely associated with Ricky Davis. At the end of a 2003 blowout, the then-Cavs wing infuriated the Jazz by trying to claim a 10th “rebound” and his first career-triple through quickly shooting and missing on his own basket. O’Quinn wanted the milestone but didn’t want to look nearly that desperate in seeking it. 

"I don’t think that Furk knew,” he said. “I knew, but I didn’t want to look like I was trying to get it. I didn’t want to look like one of those guys running in to miss a layup just to get the rebound and put it back. Furk was playing the game, and I’d much rather us play in the flow. … He came to me after the game and said he apologized in the most sincere way. I guess me and him are good. Maybe we’ll talk about it later at dinner."

Brett Brown was effusive in his praise of O’Quinn’s attitude and diligence this year. 

“I can’t tell you how much respect I have for him and the way that he’s handled this whole season,” Brown said. “He hasn’t received a lot of minutes. And when I see him in a locker room and a team meeting, and just how he carries himself. … He talks, he communicates, he’s in great shape, he maintains that fitness base. 

“And lots of players don’t have the character to be able to professionally see a day-to-day challenge and grind through. And for me — forget being his coach, just from a human standpoint — I respect the heck out of that. To see him come in and be rewarded for his preparation, as he was tonight, I just think it’s exceptional. And his teammates feel all of what I just said. … He’s highly respected.”

However, Brown was clear that O’Quinn’s good night and Raul Neto’s 22-point effort did not persuade him to make any last-minute radical changes to his rotation. Those players remain, in all likelihood, insurance policies. 

Mike Scott, though, may have a larger role. He had 17 points and four rebounds vs. Phoenix, though the veteran forward only played 4:39 in the second half because the Sixers didn’t want to overextend him. Scott revealed Monday that his right knee had been swollen, but he said he was “feeling a lot better” after having it drained. He missed the team’s first three seeding games because of the injury.

“I think that it’s going to be contingent upon matchups,” Brown said of where Scott might fit in the postseason. “You know, like every coach in the NBA, you’re going to play whatever team they tell you you’re going to play. And immediately you’re going to go, ‘OK, who are the people that can guard X?’ 

“And there is a physicality and a toughness in Mike Scott that is undeniable. And he’s got a bounce, and I think that he’s not intimidated by the environment. And so what that looks like going forward, I don’t know. But I do know that he’s somebody who would not shy away from the moment.”

Glenn Robinson III was another bright spot in a loss that means little in the big picture, scoring 15 points and grabbing seven rebounds. He’s evidently healthy enough to play but, according to him, is still dealing with some issues related to the left hip pointer injury that he sustained in the Sixers’ second scrimmage. 

“It’s a unique injury, I’ll just say that,” he said. “Small things — talking, laughing — little things. I’m trying to work my way through it and every day it’s getting better. Just trying to do everything I can with the training staff. I’ve been trying to get my legs under me these last two games and I’m going to do the same things the next couple games we’ve got. 

“I’m not too concerned about it and hopefully we can just get to 100 percent. ... I feel it a little bit, still.”

Ahead of their penultimate seeding game Wednesday vs. the Raptors, the Sixers are a game behind the fifth-seeded Pacers. 

When asked whether he had a preference about who his team plays in the first round — a matchup with the No. 3 Celtics is looking more and more probable — Brown simply said, “No.”

Subscribe and rate Sixers Talk: 
Apple Podcasts / Google Play / Spotify | Stitcher | Art19 | YouTube

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers

Shorthanded Sixers lose scrappy effort vs. desperate Suns

Shorthanded Sixers lose scrappy effort vs. desperate Suns

In a game that felt like it was going to be reminiscent of The Process years, the shorthanded and scrappy Sixers gave the desperate Suns all they could handle.

Without arguably their five best players, the Sixers gave Phoenix a fight, but ultimately fell, 130-117, Tuesday night at Visa Athletic Center in Disney World.

The Suns remain unbeaten in the “bubble” and stay in the race for the West’s eighth seed. The Sixers, who drop to 42-29 on the season, take on the Raptors on Wednesday night for their penultimate seeding game.

Here are observations from the loss:

Short on players but not effort

The Sixers didn’t have a single member of the original starting five available Tuesday night. Joel Embiid (left ankle), Tobias Harris (right ankle soreness), Al Horford (left knee soreness) and Josh Richardson (rest) were all out. Ben Simmons had successful surgery to remove a loose body from his left knee Monday and is out indefinitely.

The starting five against the Suns was certainly different. Shake Milton, Alec Burks, Matisse Thybulle, Mike Scott and Kyle O’Quinn made up the starting unit.

Offensively, it was impressive to see the way the ball moved and how it was shared amongst players that don’t spend a lot of time playing together. They also took care of the basketball, committing just eight turnovers.

It should come as no surprise that a lot of the offense was run through Burks. The veteran has given the Sixers a much-needed scoring punch, posting his third straight 20-point performance. His ability to be used as a primary ball handler off the bench and his proficiency in the pick-and-roll could come in handy in the postseason.

Vets staying ready

Scott and O’Quinn are on the outside looking in at the team’s rotation. Early on in this one, they were two of the best players on the floor.

Scott, who missed the first three seeding games after having his knee drained, carried the momentum over from his strong play against Portland Sunday. He carried the load offensively for the Sixers early and continued to do the dirty work and show the toughness that made him an invaluable reserve during last year’s postseason.

Scott had a team-high 15 first-half points. He had just 17 for the game but didn't play much in the second half as it appeared Brett Brown didn't want to overextend him. Something tells me he might still be a factor in this year’s playoffs. This kind of performance will likely make an impression on Brown.

As for O’Quinn, he essentially became the team’s fourth-string center behind Embiid, Horford and Norvel Pelle this season. Teammates have lauded O’Quinn for his attitude and encouragement from the bench, but the veteran big man showed on Tuesday that he can still play. O’Quinn’s excellent passing ability was on display and he was on triple-double watch early in this one. He finished just shy with nine points, 10 rebounds and a career-high 11 assists.

The Sixers also got strong minutes from veteran point guard Raul Neto, who helped keep them in the game when it felt like the Suns were pulling away in the third. Neto had 22 points, four assists and two turnovers.

Defending Booker

Devin Booker came into this one averaging over 30 points a game in the “bubble.” He’s been one of the hottest players in Disney World and has the Suns on the precipice of a possible play-in tournament for the West’s eighth seed.

Early on, rookie Matisse Thybulle did well but it was a team effort in holding the red-hot Booker to 3 of 9 in the first half. The All-Star guard still managed to get to the line eight times to account for most of his 14 points. Thybulle uncharacteristically picked up a technical foul in the second quarter after he was whistled for back-to-back fouls on Booker. Just two minutes into the third quarter, Thybulle picked up two more fouls and had to sit with five.

It was then on Glenn Robinson III. The veteran wing did a solid job, keeping Booker from just completely taking the game over. Booker still got his with 35 points on 11 of 24.

Overall, the Sixers did a much better job as a team in containing Booker. It was a much better effort than we’d seen against T.J. Warren and Damian Lillard, who both went for 50-plus against them.

Burned by former Sixers

Former Sixer and fan favorite Dario Saric looked more like the player he was in Philadelphia. The time off appeared to do the Croatian forward good. He was active in collecting nine rebounds, and also showed off his skill with 18 points and four assists.

He was only a Sixer for 20 minutes or so, but Villanova product Mikal Bridges continued his strong play in Disney World Tuesday. He had 22 points and showed the strong two-way play that made him such a highly-touted prospect with a pair of steals and blocks. 

Subscribe and rate Sixers Talk: 
Apple Podcasts / Google Play / Spotify | Stitcher | Art19 | YouTube

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers