Is this Philadelphia 76ers team really different? It may be hard to believe after so many infuriating years, but yes, yes it is. This Sixers squad is inspiring championship hopes that are more legitimate than any post-Process team.

With a record of 48-23, Philly has one of the five best records in the league and was the fourth team to clinch a playoff spot. Two of those other teams, the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics, also belonging to the Eastern Conference gives off the impression that the Sixers' status as a title contender is still beneath theirs. While that might still be the case — emphasis on “might” since the Sixers may actually have been the NBA's best team since December began — this team is better equipped to pull off an upset over Milwaukee or Boston than any Joel Embiid-led team.

These Sixers are led by the very best version of Embiid and two star guards, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey. They can come back from almost any deficit and have a supporting cast that, while flawed, has been good enough to rise to the occasion both with and without Embiid on the floor (which has been a rarity over the years). Their offense as a whole is incredible, their defense is very good and they also boast the best road winning percentage in the NBA.

After two of Philly's other major sports teams won their conferences, the Sixers are good enough to do the same. Of course, the last two decades of their history are comprised only of teams that have not done that. All that playoff heartbreak and bizarre turmoil around the team has built darkness around a passionate fan base that has believed less and less that there is light at the end of the journey with every passing year.

Many among the Philadelphia faithful have developed a reflex to wait until the Sixers go on a deep playoff run before believing they can. It's hard to blame them. Although skepticism is certainly warranted, this year's team has given fewer reasons to fret over a playoff collapse. The biggest argument against them is that we just haven't seen it before. But that is the case for every great team before they break through.

With chances to start losing steam and showing that they aren't all that special, the Sixers have instead kept excelling. Paul Hudrick of Liberty Ballers wrote about how these Sixers feel more special on Jan. 24, and they have gone 18-7 since then. Only the Bucks have a better winning percentage since then. The Sixers recently rattled off an eight-game winning streak that has them within reasonable reach of the East's top seed.

Sure, the Sixers will occasionally have a game where they play down to an inferior opponent and either get bailed out by their high-end talent or take a bad loss. But those performances, particularly the ones that end in losses, have the tendency to get magnified because the expectations for this team are rightfully high.

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The resiliency of this team is a new development that, on top of the talent on the roster, is a big reason for optimism. At numerous points this season where they could have sunk, they flipped on the propellers and powered on. For every loss to the Chicago Bulls where their offense sputters, there is a win on the road against the red-hot Bucks that ends with a 48-point fourth quarter. There are also plenty of comeback wins against good teams and blowout victories against inferior opponents.

The NBA is experiencing a rare parity where no singular team is establishing itself as the clear-cut best. It works in the Sixers' favor while also showing that a championship run is still far from easy to come by. Philly's worrisome perimeter defense, lack of reliable shot creators outside of its big three and injury concerns (like the one Harden is currently dealing with) are legitimate weaknesses that another great team could expose.

Embiid, Harden and Doc Rivers all have playoff histories full of epic failures. But as a collective form this season, they have been great. Embiid and Harden have each other to lean on and have devloped into the league's most dynamic tandem. Rivers has started shedding some of his bad habits. He staggers his stars more, has finally made Paul Reed the backup center (and has another decent option in Tucker), has made some notable adjustments during key games and will often close games with different lineups.

While each member of the supporting cast has been up and down, their high points are impressive. Maxey, in particular, has turned a corner and played some of his best basketball after a prolonged funk. Tobias Harris showed legitimate improvement before a period of decline and is (slowly) trending upward. Tucker, De'Anthony Melton, Georges Niang, Jalen McDaniels, Shake Milton and Reed gives Philly genuine depth.

Really, the skepticism of this Sixers team making a playoff run mainly stems from two obvious truths: making a deep run is always hard and they have not made one yet. However, previous glaring weaknesses — a second star who has no shooting range, the key players being midseason acquisitions, a roster built clumsily with no spacing and a horrific lack of depth — are no longer. Others remain, but none that are reasons to rule this team out of title contention.

No one can confidently call this season the one where the Sixers break through. But they also can't call it the other way, either. Betting against a player as incomprehensibly dominant as Embiid is not easy. The team around him is plenty good enough to beat any team in a series. It's only a question of if it happens, not if it's possible.

As the Sixers honored the 40th anniversary of their last championship team, Julius Erving challenged the team to end the drought. This group is equipped to accept that challenge.