The Philadelphia 76ers are entering the 2023-24 season with lots of uncertainty and loads of pressure. Let me say that again. The Philadelphia 76ers are entering the 2023-24 season with lots of uncertainty and loads of pressure. James Harden launching a verbal grenade at Daryl Morey has made the Sixers' disaster offseason even worse.
In other news, the NBA recently announced the full schedule for its new in-season tournament, which should shake up the season and provide a new achievement for teams to strive for. The Sixers will play all their games in the group stage within two weeks, alternating between home and away. Their pod should be decently competitive with two other playoff teams, another one that could become one and one team that should be bad but possess improved, young talent.
The Sixers' schedule against their East Group A opponents is as follows (and you can check out the league schedule here):
- Friday, November 10 @ Detroit Pistons at 7:00 PM EST
- Tuesday, November 14 vs. Indiana Pacers at 7:00 PM EST
- Friday, November 17 @ Atlanta Hawks at 7:30 PM EST
- Tuesday, November 21 vs. Cleveland Cavaliers at 7:30 PM EST (TNT broadcast)
The Sixers must either win their group or have one of the two best records among the other second-place finishers to advance to the knockout round. The NBA Cup is there for the taking, but Philly's road to it is anything but clear right now because, you know…
No one knows how the Harden situation plays out. But let's assume that Morey approaches this ordeal like he did with the Ben Simmons one and waits until the trade deadline to make a move. Rumors have it that Harden is ready to be messy and non-cooperative, which would serve as both a signal of his humongous sense of discontent and a means to potentially make the team make him stay away, as doing so voluntarily could risk his free agency next year as well as fines. Let's also assume that he and the Sixers can at least come to some agreement for him to stay away from the team until a trade materializes.
At this point, the exhaustion of this whole ordeal on top of the roster getting worse this offseason is too much for many fans to handle. Who can blame them? They may not care about the Sixers' chances of winning the in-season tournament, especially with the Eagles' season almost here and the Phillies in a good position to return to the postseason.
But the Sixers absolutely can win the in-season tournament, and I'll make the office prediction that they will for three big reasons. Maybe it won’t validate everything that happened this summer, but they would at least go into the history books as the tourney's first champion.
3. Because it would be random
You can throw out your X's and O's for a second and just think for a second at how hilarious it would be for this to be the Sixers' grand prize for The Process. Imagine all those years of losing, of ridicule from all outside corners of the NBA world, of a test of patience during and after those years that divided the fan base culminating in a pile of postseason flameouts and a win in a new tournament that people may not take that seriously.
If there’s one thing that the Sixers are consistent in, it's their inconsistency. Every team picks up surprising wins and suffers bad, unexpected losses, but Philly's volatility never rests.
Predicting the Sixers to win the tournament isn’t super outrageous, either. They were one of the best overall teams last year and have most of their key players back, plus an upgrade at head coach. How many teams have a better shot at winning this than them? Five or so? The Denver Nuggets, Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns seem like safer bets, while any other team's chances shouldn’t be too far off from Philly's.
No one is expecting the Sixers to win anything of value going forward. That disbelief could be the wind in their sails, though not in the same manner that the Eagles embraced their underdog status during their Super Bowl run. The perpetual instinct to zig in the face of expectations to zag — or to behave in the most unpredictable way that not a soul could conjure up from their deepest imaginations — makes the Sixers the Sixers.
Obviously, it will take more than just some dumb luck for the Sixers to survive and advance. There are basketball reasons to buy them as a potential in-season tournament champion, not just incorporeal inklings based on expectations.
2. A new identity without Harden
Harden may have made the Sixers' offense much better, but when he was on the floor, Philly's defense worsened by 0.5 points per 100 possessions. For someone who spent a lot of time with Embiid, that’s a pretty strong testament to how little value he provided on that end of the court.
Defense will be key for the Sixers going forward. They simply will not be the elite offensive force they were last year without Harden, who made life super easy for Embiid and led the second unit. If they are going to make the most of Harden not buying in, they’re gonna do it by stopping the opposition from scoring.
Embiid wanted the Sixers to be one of the absolute best defensive teams in the league last year. They were good, but that didn’t quite happen as he and Harden created a one-two punch that led Philly to having one of the best offenses in the league. This is his chance to make that happen.
Nurse came into his first NBA head coach job with the Toronto Raptors as an offensive guru but left it with a reputation as a mastermind for defenses. The players at his disposal to make the Sixers a juggernaut include Embiid, De'Anthony Melton, P.J. Tucker, Tobias Harris, Paul Reed, Jaden Springer, Danuel House Jr., Mo Bamba and Patrick Beverley.
With Springer joining the fray, the Sixers could seemingly replace Harden with a very good defender in their rotation, bumping Melton to the starting lineup. It would necessitate Maxey — who could be at least a neutral defender, if not a solid one, by working on his on-ball pressure — to take some of the load off for Embiid on offense.
Philly was a great defensive team in its games without Harden last year, though Matisse Thybulle helped out a ton. When he was on the court, the Sixers allowed 5.6 fewer points per 100 possessions, nearly a point better than Embiid. They have yet to find a suitable replacement, though Springer could perhaps aid them as a switchable defender on the wing.
The Sixers may not make it far in the playoffs if they can’t work around the lack of playmaking Harden left behind. But they do have a blueprint in place to work around it and remain a good team.
1. Joel Embiid is still really freaking good (and so is Tyrese Maxey)
Embiid is, conservatively, the fifth-or-so-best player in the NBA. At his best, he can outperform anyone. With him, the Sixers will have a shot at competing with any team.
The lingering stench of his performance in the final five quarters of the Sixers' 2022-23 season can be distracting from how great of a player he is. He anchored the team on both sides of the floor like few players can. His unreal scoring efficiency powered a top-three offense, while his intimidating rim protection led a top-10 defense. Maybe he'll take a step back as he approaches his 30s, but even then, he would still be amongst the best of the best.
On top of comfortably being the best player in East Group A, Embiid has a budding All-Star by his side even with Harden's (supposed) hiatus. Maxey works his tail off and has gotten better each season. Should he avoid injury or an extended stint as a bench player this season — probably safe to say he's free from the latter — this could be the season he notches his first All-Star team.
Maxey is already a heck of a running mate and could be even better. Nurse is eager to get him in the lab and have him experiment with more shot creating. His unreal shooting already makes him a threat, as does his blistering speed. This is his chance to make the next leap, especially since he's still playing for a contract next offseason.
The Sixers' depth is not as impressive as it was last year, though they could perhaps make it more interesting by giving summer league standout Terquavion Smith some chances to cook in the real games. With Embiid and Maxey leading the way, Philly should never be fully counted out.