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NBA PM: Are The 76ers Ready To Contend?

After a strong first half, the Philadelphia 76ers are looking to prove themselves as championship contenders for the first time since they began trusting the process almost a decade ago.

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As the season comes back into full swing following the All-Star break, the Philadelphia 76ers are ready to defend the No. 1 seed they currently hold. Since the dismissal of former head coach Brett Brown and the addition of a well-respected coach in Doc Rivers, the 76ers have seemingly changed their entire philosophy. While the days of Trusting The Process are long gone, the franchise has entrenched itself as a solid contender in the Eastern Conference – but with that comes higher, loftier expectations. 

After a disappointing playoff run in the bubble where they could not get past the Boston Celtics and were swept in the first round, the 76ers have dominated thus far. The Doc Rivers bump was real and it has been on full display in Philadelphia, sitting at 24-12 at the halfway point.

Heading into the stoppage, the 76ers even put an overtime win on the NBA-best. Utah Jazz. Led by Joel Embiid with 40 points and 19 rebounds, they dominated the extra period by a tally of 13-5 – with the obvious caveat that the Jazz lost their star, Donovan Mitchell, to a questionable ejection. Tobias Harris was also a huge factor in the comeback victory as he added 22 points and 10 rebounds of his own. With the 131-123 win, they confirmed that they deserve to be leaders in the contending conversation.

But Embiid has taken his game to a completely different level under Rivers and has improved his numbers from last season in almost every single category. The talented center had averaged 30.2 points, 11.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. All of these are improvements from last year, besides his rebounds per game which has remained the same. Best of all, Embiid has taken much fewer three-pointers, but raised his three-point percentage over eight percent, up to a blistering 41.6 percent. 

Embiid has attempted 15.3 two-pointers a game – a career-high – while shooting 3.1 three-pointers per game – a career-low – per Basketball-Reference. Under Rivers, Embiid has also gotten to the free-throw line much more often, notching 11.6 free throw attempts per game while also raising his free-throw percentage to 85.6 percent, another career-high. To say that Embiid is an early MVP contender would be a vast understatement.

Rivers isn’t just helping his star either: enter Harris, a crafty forward that is awful familiar with his new head coach. During his time with Rivers in Los Angeles, Harris established himself as a strong scorer and a more well-known name in the league. Needless to say, the reunion has been great for Harris. Over 31 games, he’s averaged 20.2 points and 7.6 rebounds per game to go along with a 40.2 three-point percentage. But don’t sleep on his defensive impact either, as Harris is eighth in defensive win shares with 0.132, per NBA Advanced Stats

The defense in 2020-21 has been dominant, to say the least. Fifth in team defensive rating with a 108.6 rating, per NBA Advanced Stats, the big three of Embiid, Harris and Ben Simmons all rank in the top 15 for defensive win shares, essential to their successes. 

The addition of Seth Curry has flown under the radar and he’s lethally shooting 44.8 percent from deep – an excellent piece to place around multiple stars. With Curry on the floor, the opens up for Simmons to operate and better utilize his elite playmaking skills. 

Looking ahead, the 76ers have a tough test against the Milwaukee Bucks on Mar. 17 in Philadelphia. If the Sixers can pull off a victory against the Bucks on primetime television, perhaps, finally, with the end of the regular season creeping toward us, they’ll get more league-wide top-billing. To end the month, Philadelphia will play four in a row against the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets – all of them on the road. 

Of course, the 76ers need to worry about the new-look Brooklyn Nets and their recent surge, despite a missing Kevin Durant.

If matched up with the Nets, the 76ers have favorable defensive matchups all-around. They have Harris to guard Kevin Durant, Simmons on James Harden and Matisse Thybulle to guard Kyrie Irving, not to mention Embiid holding down the paint – the latter of which Brooklyn will have no answer for. 

But the fate of Philly ultimately relies on the shoulder of its superstar, Embiid. He has shown throughout his career, that he is capable of taking a game over completely and this season has exemplified that. If he can replicate performances like his 50-point, 17-rebound back in February, but in the playoffs, then the franchise is a real threat to win the league, let alone the Eastern Conference.

Now armed with a championship-winning head coach and higher-than-ever aspirations for his new squad, Embiid is a strong favorite to take home some pludits this awards season. His play, combined with elite playmaking and defense from Simmons, a consistent scoring threat and lockdown defense from Harris and shooting from Curry and Danny Green, certainly means that the 76ers are bigger contenders than ever before.

Ahead of the Mar. 25 trade deadline, Daryl Morey, president of basketball operations, is no stranger to making small trades that can impact a team’s outlook. If the team were to reunite with JJ Redick, he could bring another impact scoring presence off the bench. They’ve been in the mix for both Larry Nance Jr. and Nemanja Bjelica as well, reportedly. Either of them would add more length and an ability to shoot off the bench. Bolstering the supporting cast, and developing the young players around the team’s nucleus as they make a playoff run, should be the goal during the second half of the campaign.

No longer a squad that can be easily pushed around or neutralized, Philadelphia will be in the NBA Finals mix for the first time since they started this long journey nearly a decade ago.

Dylan Thayer is a Contributing Writer for Basketball Insiders, and a Sport Management student in the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst.

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