The Philadelphia 76ers are one of the league’s best feel good stories of the 2017-18 NBA season. The franchise spent the better part of the past decade wallowing in the league’s basement and bathing in the annual draft lottery. With just over two weeks remaining in the regular season the Sixers recently clinched their first playoff berth since 2012. After a five-season playoff drought, trusting the process has paid off for the franchise.
But trusting the youth process come playoff time might not be the best bet.
The Sixers (43-30) are undoubtedly one of the hottest teams in the league, winners of eight straight contests, and currently hold the Eastern Conference’s fourth seed. With nine games remaining, the club has a legitimate shot to reach 50 victories and can make a run for the third seed as they’re only a half-game behind the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But once again, trusting the youth process come playoff time might not be the best bet.
Measuring expectations of this Sixers squad come playoff time has nothing to do with talent on the roster. Philadelphia has an abundance of talent that hasn’t come close to reaching its potential. At the head, center Joel Embiid is averaging 23.2 points and 11.1 rebounds in 62 appearances this season. For perspective, Embiid played just 31 games in his first three seasons due to an assortment of injuries. Embiid has the tools to eventually emerge in MVP voting during his prime years and celebrated his first All-Star appearance last month.
The club also features potential Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons, who has appeared in 72 contests after missing the entire 2016-17 season due to injury. Simmons is currently averaging 15.8 points, eight rebounds and eight assists per night on 54 percent shooting from this field. Assuming good health, the Embiid-Simmons tandem will light up the league for years to come.
However, there are warning signs the Sixers haven’t yet fully arrived, especially when you’re talking about playoff basketball.
Young teams rarely make significant postseason runs in their first appearance. The postseason is a veteran’s game. Rotations get shorter. Experience down the stretch matters. Late game clock management is essential. Playing through adversity is a requirement.
Philadelphia boasts an 11-3 record in March, with seven consecutive wins. But looking closer at their recent dominance and a different picture emerges. Only one victory (versus Minnesota) during the current winning streak was against a playoff-caliber team. The Timberwolves currently sit eighth in the Western Conference but are jus7 4-7 in March as they limp down the stretch.
The 76ers’ other victories during this streak came against New York, Brooklyn, Charlotte, Memphis, Orlando and Denver. Out of this group, Denver (40-35) is the only team with a record above .500.
Philadelphia has done a marvelous job all season beating teams they should, evidenced by their 21-7 record versus teams below .500. However, against teams with a .500 record or better the 76ers are just 22-23. Come playoff time, there won’t be any sub .500 teams to run roughshod over.
Another thing to consider is how teams perform in tight games, as most playoff contests at some point will boil down to late game execution. The 76ers are just 3-7 in games decided by three points or less.
Another area where the Sixers have thrived is maintaining leads. Philadelphia boasts a 33-11 record in games where they are ahead at the half. The team is 35-9 when they lead after three quarters. These are strong characteristics for a team. The ability to hold on to leads will bode well for future iterations of the Sixers. But the Sixers are just 10-19 when they’re behind at the half and a paltry 6-21 when behind after three quarters.
For perspective, the top four teams in the league (Houston, Golden State, Toronto and Boston) all boast winning records when behind at the half. It’s a small distinction, but this is the type of veteran laden nuance that separates title contenders from up and coming teams.
NBA history is littered with young teams being humbled in the playoffs as they pay their respective dues. The Sixers are a team on the rise and the future is very bright. But before you go all-in on this year’s process, it’s important to understand the NBA playoffs are where veteran teams annually take young lions out into deep waters.
We’ll see if Philadelphia can become the exception to the rule shortly.
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