Sixers

Embiid, Harden Have No Excuses for Playoff Failure Anymore

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At long last, it’s (finally) time to put the Sixers on the inside track of this year’s race to an NBA championship.

This time, it’s hard for Philly to come up with an excuse of any kind.

Coming off a bizarre 2021-2022 campaign, the Sixers find themselves at their best chance to make a deep playoff run since the Jimmy Butler-led 2019 team whose hearts were ripped to pieces by Kawhi Leonard‘s quadruple-bounce game-winner.

Philly sits tied with Denver for the third-most wins in the NBA (49), sitting just 3.0 games behind Milwaukee for first place in the East. Joel Embiid continues to clearly play himself into the MVP conversation, emerging as the new favorite to win. James Harden‘s resurgence potentially gives the Sixers two of the top-15-or-so players in the entire league.

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Coupled with a productive summer, there are no excuses for Philly.

Postseason shortcomings are nothing new for the City of Brotherly Love. Remember, the Eastern Conference Semifinals mark the furthest the Sixers have advanced in the postseason since 2001. Philly is just 25-25 in the playoffs since Embiid’s first All-Star season in 2018, including recent postseason flameouts to Atlanta in 2021 and Miami in 2022.

But with the Sixers’ 9-1 record in their last 10 games and all arrows pointing upward, now marks the best chance for Philly to get into the Finals.

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Peak Embiid and Harden production

All things regarding Philly’s title prospects begin and end with Embiid’s on-court play. The good news for the Sixers is that he’s produced one of the best seasons for a center, ever.

As of Mar. 23, Embiid sits at 33.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. Only Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar reached those statistical benchmarks. Embiid projects to be the first player with those season-long averages since Kareem’s 1972 season.

Unreal.

(Even crazier: Embiid is shooting over 54% from the field this season. Only Wilt in ’66 and Kareem in ’72 also shot at least that percentage from the field. Reminder, Embiid is playing just 34.9 minutes per game. Wilt and Kareem both played north of 44 (!!!) minutes per game.)

Embiid’s statistical tear pushed him into the odds-on favorite to win MVP. Per FanDuel, Embiid projects as a -150 to win MVP compared to Nikola Jokic (+180) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (+550).

Embiid’s success is a rarity. Harden’s resurgence adds more fuel to the Sixers’ fire.

Yes, Harden’s scoring is down to his lowest points per game since 2011-2012. And of course, this isn’t the same offensive machine from his Rocket days. But compared to last season, Harden’s bounceback season jumps out when you look at the stat sheet.

Harden’s 2022 versus 2023 seasons by the numbers

  • 2021-2022 (age-32 season; 21 games): 21.0 points, 7.1 rebounds, 10.5 assists per game, 40% shooting on 13.6 attempts/game, 33% from three on 6.7 attempts/game, 89% from the foul line on 8.9 attempts/game
  • 2022-2023 (age-33 season; 53 games): 21.4 points, 6.3 rebounds, 10.8 assists per game, 44% shooting on 14.1 attempts/game, 38% from three on 7.3 attempts/game, 87% from the foul line on 6.5 attempts/game

While Harden’s attacking-the-rim numbers are down, it’s made up by the improvement as a playmaker and outside shooter compared to 2022. He’s shooting five percent higher from three on slightly-higher volume, and ditto for his overall shooting. The assist numbers don’t change much from 2022 to 2023, but the chemistry between Harden and the rest of the team looks more refined.

Philly possesses a legitimate one-two combo.

From the top, down

Unlike past rosters, the Sixers have quality depth. Offseason acquisitions for De’Anthony Melton, Danuel House and P.J. Tucker gave Philly improved versatility, depth and optionality. An in-season trade for Jalen McDaniels put another combo, defensive-minded wing with an athletic burst in the Sixers’ rotation.

And, we haven’t even discussed Tyrese Maxey (20.0 points/game) nor Tobias Harris (14.9 points/game), who quietly continue to produce in tertiary roles on offense while shooting the lights out from beyond the arc.

In particular, Philly finds itself in a better spot to match up with Boston and Milwaukee. In the short-term playoff view, it also gives the Sixers better insurance to avoid (another) early-postseason exit.

Overall, the Sixers’ depth can be substantiated by the numbers. Besides Boston, only Philly sits with top-six marks in both offensive rating (third) and defensive rating (sixth).

Specifically, Philly’s defense has been the most surprising this season, in particular. The Sixers (fifth in opponent field-goal attempts, fourth in opponent offensive and defensive rebounding) usually hold opponents to one-trip offensive possessions. Philly’s perimeter defense (third in opponent three-point percentage) forces other teams to funnel inside and shoot for mid-range looks to avoid Embiid’s shot-blocking.

On paper, the Sixers possess a scary formula that any playoff team usually fears: great defense, a 1-2 superstar tandem, solid depth, high-scoring upside, and a slowed offensive tempo that usually translates into the postseason.

By all the numbers, Philly should be a clear title favorite.

But…

Here we go again

Embiid’s and Harden’s postseason shortcomings are well-documented over the course of their careers. Especially for Embiid, this feels like a turning point given the MVP production and the various disappointments in the last half-decade.

Furthermore — at least at this point — any path to even the Conference Finals requires playing one of Boston or Milwaukee. In all likelihood, unless Philly secures the one-seed, the Sixers will need to beat both the Celtics and Bucks.

In general, the big questions for Philly’s title hopes to revolve around a) will one of Embiid or Harden regress due to fatigue or injury, and b) can both superstars avoid a playoff collapse?

Philly fans have been down this road before. But unlike past years, there’s legitimate hope for this franchise. That optimism bore out since the beginning of the season. It continues to do so heading into the postseason.

The Sixers hope to make the NBA Finals for the first time since the famous Allen Iverson-led team in 2001. The franchise shot itself in the foot on several occasions before. By chance, Philly finds itself with its best chance to break the 20-year drought.

Now, there’s no excuse for Embiid, Harden and Co.

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About Dominic Chiappone

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