There are so few certainties in life, let alone in sports. Would-be dynasties collapse with one bad move, players flee for greener pastures any chance they get, and poor ownership can erase an optimistic future before fans can even see the returns on their patience. There remains, however, one constant: the #JanuarySixers.
It started back in 2017, which feels like 15 years ago in Sixers world, before Ben Simmons took the floor, before the Colangelo family’s Twitter accounts, before The Curious Case of Markelle Fultz. Jahlil Okafor’s father was threatening to slap me. It was a strange time. They entered the new year at 8-24 on their way to what seemed like another bottom-three finish in the league, but something happened: Joel Embiid happened.
The rookie, battling injuries and the back-to-back restrictions placed upon him, averaged 23.4 points, 9.1 boards and 2.6 blocks with a true shooting percentage of 60.2 percent in nine games. They were 7-2 with Embiid in that stretch (10-5 overall for the month), highlighted by a monster 26-point, 9-rebound performance in a home win over the Raptors, who went on to win 51 games in 2017. A meniscus tear in his left knee cut his season short, but it was a glimpse into the limitless future of a Sixers team with Embiid.
The 2018 Sixers weathered a brutal early-season schedule to enter January with a record of 17-19. Even factoring in the exhausting travel of a game in London against the Celtics on Jan. 11, the first month of the year was yet again a spark for the Sixers. They went 7-5, closing January at 24-24. Embiid averaged 23.5 points and 11.1 rebounds over the course of the month while Ben Simmons put up 17.1 points per contest with a true shooting percentage of 61.0 percent.
You know the rest of the story. Sixteen-game win streak. Third place in the Eastern Conference. 52 wins. As Embiid and Simmons gelled with JJ Redick and the gone, but not forgotten, duo of Robert Covington and Dario Saric, fans could see the chemistry that propelled them into that unforgettable late-season run starting to build throughout that month.
That takes us to this month. Some of the faces and names have changed, but the #JanuarySixers have been just as lively as ever. The Sixers are 9-3 in 2019 so far even in the midst of their dreaded 12-game stretch that sees them playing a murderer’s row of talented playoff contenders from coast to coast. There was the 24-point road win over a Pacers team that they’re primed to jump in the Eastern Conference standings and a 24-point, Corey Brewer-ignited victory over reigning (and future?) MVP James Harden and the Rockets. A team with championship aspirations can’t ever have a moral victory, but the exhilarating two-point loss last Saturday against the Thunder was as fun of a regular season game as I’ve ever attended.
Add in Wilson Chandler’s game-saving swat against DeMar DeRozan and the Spurs during Wednesday’s nationally televised game and you’re left with a Sixers team that’s playing its best basketball of the season even with Jimmy Butler’s absence in the past two contests. They have eight games left on this stretch. Sixers fans optimistically hoped from them to just break even, but at 3-1 already, I’m looking into Brooklyn Airbnbs for late April in anticipation of a 2 vs. 7 or 3 vs. 6 playoff series against the Nets.
While Embiid’s presence is central to these runs, Brett Brown deserves credit too. Brown has had an absurd amount of roster turnover each of the last three seasons. From the has-been and never-was rotation players of 2017, to adding Simmons and Redick in 2018, as well as the franchise-altering Butler trade back in November, it has taken Brown a couple of months each year to get these new players acclimated to his program. Having those guys find their groove for the stretch run has been monumental and speaks to the culture Brown has cultivated in Philadelphia.
Between loses to the omg-I-hate-them-so-much Celtics on Christmas Day, the Raptors in Toronto and the Pacers at home, it was a long December for this team. But the #JanuarySixers have struck again, and there’s a reason to believe that this season will be better than the last.
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