It feels like the Sixers’ season opener was a decade ago, but it was on Oct. 16, 2018.
That version of the Sixers, which featured Dario Saric, Robert Covington and Markelle Fultz in the starting lineup, got smoked by the Celtics. What a difference almost six months and a couple blockbuster trades make.
The Sixers clinched the third seed and 50 wins for the second straight season. They took two very different paths to get there.
They may have closed out the regular season on a 16-game winning streak in 2017-18, but they’re better set up for postseason success heading into the playoffs now.
In the NBA, more so than any other professional sport, the regular season means almost nothing. Would it be nice to be the Milwaukee Bucks and be guaranteed home-court advantage throughout? Sure. How’d that work out for the Raptors last year? How about the Celtics the year before?
Both of those teams ran into LeBron James in the playoffs. While James may be out West and out of the postseason this year, what his dominance over the Eastern Conference proves is that talent wins in this league.
Speaking of LeBron, remember when the Warriors won a record-setting 73 games only to lose to James and the Cavs in 2016? Golden State may be the best example for the regular season not mattering. Since reaching the 73-win plateau, the Warriors have won 67, 58 and 57 games (with one more meaningless game against the Grizzlies pending). Are you planning to bet against them this season?
After being eliminated in five games by Boston in the second round last year, the Sixers knew they needed more. This summer, while acting as the interim president of basketball operations post-Collargate, Brett Brown made his infamous “star hunting” quote.
When the Sixers failed to land James or any star free agent, that quote took on a life of its own and was widely mocked. Brown and Elton Brand got the last laugh when the team acquired Jimmy Butler and then Tobias Harris.
Make no mistake, the starting five playing only 10 games together ahead of the postseason is not ideal, but what was the alternative? Joel Embiid is one of, if not the most indispensable player in the league. There’s no chance Embiid wins the MVP, but anyone trying to build a case would just not need to watch the Sixers playing without him.
Considering his importance and his injury history, nothing means more than Embiid’s health. He’s one of the top five players in the league and the Sixers ask so much of him on the defensive end. Without a healthy Embiid, the Sixers stand no chance against the likes of Milwaukee and Toronto.
There's been some conjecture that perhaps the Sixers would've been better off not going after Butler and Harris, but bringing back the same starting five as last season likely would've yielded the same result. It's possible that a second-round exit could happen again, but at least with Butler and Harris you have the firepower to combat how the Bucks and Raptors will defend Embiid and Ben Simmons.
With Embiid, Butler, Harris, Simmons and JJ Redick, the Sixers have the talent to reach the NBA Finals. Do they have the chemistry? Do they have the right mix of talent? Are Milwaukee and Toronto simply too deep? Has Brown learned enough from last year’s playoff disappointment?
These are all questions that’ll be answered in the postseason and make whatever happened in the regular season irrelevant.
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