Flawed teams win championships.
Ultimately, this is why the Sixers’ renewed hope ahead of Saturday night's contest against the Indiana Pacers, their first meaningful game in over four months, isn't foolish or worthy of immediate dismissal.
General manager Elton Brand built the Sixers in a way that did not align with the modern NBA. Instead of valuing shooting and speed, he prioritized size and defense. The face of his philosophy was former teammate Al Horford, who he signed over a year ago to a four-year deal with $97 million guaranteed.
The Horford contract, though very exorbitant for a player who was 33 years old at the time, was not completely devoid of logic. He’d guarded Embiid effectively and played well against the Sixers as a Celtic. The Sixers’ poor depth behind Embiid was one of the main reasons they lost in seven games to the Raptors last season. Horford was a versatile veteran who’d shot 38.2 percent from three-point range in Boston.
Once the season started, though, the Horford-Embiid pairing cemented itself as the Sixers’ worst regular duo and most of the concerns about Horford’s fit were realized. Perhaps more than anything, we were left wondering how different a season characterized largely by disappointment, frustration and road woes would be going if the Sixers had spent the money they used on Horford elsewhere.
Now, as the NBA resumes its season during a pandemic, the Sixers’ collective confidence hasn’t wavered. Brand, Brett Brown, Embiid and Horford have all said the team is “built for the playoffs.” Horford, now the team’s sixth man, said he “probably wasn’t where I wanted to be” this year in terms of health — his left knee had been an issue at points during the last two seasons — and that the time off was beneficial. Shake Milton, the feel-good story of the season, is the new starting point guard. Ben Simmons is opening games as the nominal power forward, and Brown has seen a “paradigm shift” in his willingness to attempt jumpers. Player after player has noted the team’s chemistry improved during the time away from basketball and praised Tobias Harris’ leadership.
... Once everyone has that mindset, which everyone does now, it’s so much easier to have that chemistry and to build, and on the floor that translates," Simmons said Friday. "The guys have come in ready, mentally prepared and willing to sacrifice whatever someone needs to sacrifice in order for us to win. I think this is the best the team’s been; we’ve been together collectively. The chemistry is much better than ... early on in the season in a big way.
That all sounds positive, and yet many of the fundamental issues with the Sixers have not disappeared. Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III address deficiencies with shot creation and outside shooting, respectively, but it’s likely neither will have a massive impact in the playoffs. The plan to run more pick-and-rolls with Milton is promising but won’t solve all of the team’s offensive problems. Before the hiatus, the Sixers were 18th in offensive rating. Since Dec. 1, lineups with Horford and Embiid sport a 98.6 offensive rating, almost six points lower in that category than the Warriors this season.
Of course, we saw the worst of the Sixers on the road, where they were 10-24. The team had theories for why its home-road disparity was so stark — Harris in February thought the Sixers’ defensive energy and effort dropped away from home when their shots weren’t falling — but it seemed to escape a definitive explanation.
We have the pieces on this team and we will make it fit,” Brand said on Feb. 7. “It hasn't fit at times, but again, it's baffling to us all and we have a lot of work to do. To have the best record at home in the entire NBA and then to play how we've been playing on the road — we're not happy about that.
"I'm extremely disappointed. We're extremely disappointed. The players understand that they have to do better, (and the) coaching staff, myself, my staff, the whole organization knows we have to do better.
There’s opportunity to do better now, in highly unusual circumstances that won’t include any true home or road games. Embiid and Simmons have both had playoff games in their young careers where they’ve been the best player on the floor. When focused, the Sixers have proven they can be an excellent defensive team. Their 97.2 defensive rating in “clutch” situations is third in the NBA. And yes, flawed teams dependent on a star or stars, like the Kawhi Leonard-led 2019 Raptors, do win titles.
It’s not likely, but it’s still within the realm of possibility that Brand’s large, somewhat odd team redeems his vision.
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