On Nov. 29, 2015, the Philadelphia 76ers lost their 28th straight game. It was a losing streak that took so long, it took two seasons to get there. Mercifully, the streak ended the next game … and then they lost the next 12.
The Sixers stood at 1-30, the laughing stock of the league and the poster boys for tanking. Sam Hinkie, the author of “The Process” and the team’s general manager and president of basketball operations, was put in an awkward spot in the middle of the second losing streak: Jerry Colangelo was hired as chairman of basketball operations. Hinkie eventually resigned in April and was replaced by Colangelo’s son, Bryan.
Fast forward to last Wednesday — a mere 864 days after that losing streak ended — and the Sixers had won their 16th straight game with a 130-95 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, making Philly the hottest team in the league headed into the playoffs. Their 52 wins on the season was the most the franchise had won since 2000-01, when the Sixers made it to the NBA Finals and lost to the Los Angeles Lakers.
“The strength of this team is so deep,” Robert Covington told Paul Newberry of the Associated Press. “We’re doing it without Joel, so imagine once we get the head honcho back. He’s definitely going to be ecstatic. There wasn’t really much of a drop-off. We just played a little bit differently. We’ll be glad once he gets back. We just have to hold it down until he gets back.”
Embiid’s absences due to surgery adds to the mystique of what the Sixers are doing. They’re clobbering teams without the man who has become the literal poster boy for the Sixers’ rebuilding efforts, to the point that his nickname is “The Process.”
Since Feb. 6, Philadelphia closed out the regular season 27-5 with a plus-11.3 net rating. Over the 16-game winning streak that finished off the season, they were plus-15.3. Since Embiid went down, they trailed a total of 36 minutes and had only been down by more than five points once. They’ve led by 11 or more points for 431 of 936 total minutes that they’ve played with Embiid on the sidelines.
We saw how dominant this group can be, sans Embiid, on Saturday, when they throttled the Miami Heat in Game 1 of their postseason series. Philadelphia won, 130-103, behind an all-out blitz of the Heat’s defense from deep. The Sixers connected on 18 of their 28 attempts from behind the arc and put the clamps on Miami in the game’s second half.
Still, the Heat have plenty of time to recover, and it’s not crazy to think they will seeing as how the teams split the season series, 2-2. Both of those losses came during the 76ers’ latest run of poor form, however, as they occurred during a 4-6 stretch when the Sixers were integrating new bench players Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova into the fold. Since then, Markelle Fultz has also finally made his re-debut, and the team’s bench is clicking on all cylinders. When that trio was on the floor during the regular season, they had a net rating of plus-24.7, according to NBA.com.
We saw how impactful the Sixers’ bench could be in Game 1, as Belinelli was the team’s second-leading scorer (25 points on 9-for-17 shooting) and Ilyasova had a double-double (17 points, 14 rebounds). Fultz had a solid game — five points, four assists, two rebounds, and two steals in 14 minutes — but most importantly the team was +12 when he was on the floor.
There is a potentially big (literally) cause for concern by the name of Hassan Whiteside, who thrived against the Sixers during the regular season while Embiid has been on the sidelines. The Heat have a minus-12.3 net rating with both big men on, but when Whiteside was on without Embiid, they were plus-14.2.
That wasn’t the case in Game 1, though, as Whiteside could not have been a bigger non-factor. He played 12 minutes and was a -16(!!!) in that time. Erik Spoelstra preferred the way the team matched up when Kelly Olynyk (31 minutes, -3) and Bam Adebayo (21 minutes, -15) were on the floor. Perhaps things will change once Embiid comes back — he has already been ruled out for Game 2 — but the early returns were not encouraging.
If the Sixers can make it past the Heat, and Game 1 showed that the expectation is they will, they’ll face either the Boston Celtics or the Milwaukee Bucks in the conference semifinals. Let’s assume that seeding holds (for now) and they take on the Celtics, an incredibly well-coached team that wouldn’t have the talent to contend with the Sixers over a seven-game series due to a plethora of injuries. If they were healthy, it would be spectacular, and Boston would likely be the favorites. But they’re not, and without Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward, or possibly even Marcus Smart, there’s certainly a feasible argument that the Sixers march to the conference finals.
(As for a potential matchup with Milwaukee, the two teams split the season series, but the last time they played, Philly won by 35 points without Embiid. The Sixers would almost certainly be the favorites to move on in that series, too, although seven games of Simmons vs. Giannis Antetekounmpo would be a joy.)
We’re already this far, so let’s keep going down the rabbit hole just for fun. Should they make it to the conference finals, Philadelphia is likely to face either the Toronto Raptors or, despite their Game 1 loss to the Indiana Pacers, the Cleveland Cavaliers. Given their druthers, Philadelphia might actually prefer it be the Cavs, despite the fact that Cleveland has that LeBron James guy. The Sixers would have home-court advantage, but more importantly, they have Cleveland’s number as of late.
Philadelphia has won each of the last two times the teams have squared off. Both of those wins have come after the Cavs were revamped at the trade deadline, one of which was a game near the end of the season that gave Philadelphia the inside track on the No. 3 seed in the East. It was an instant classic, one in which the Sixers didn’t have Embiid and LeBron put up 44 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists. Still, Philadelphia won the game, and while they might not be the favorites in a seven-game series, they could make life really hard for Cleveland. And who knows? Maybe they’d be able to conquer the longtime beasts of the East.
The Sixers fared worse against the Raptors, going 1-3 against the top seed in the East. But all four games were fairly early in the season — they last played on Jan. 15, a six-point Toronto win in Philadelphia — and the young Sixers have grown up a ton since then, both by the aforementioned additions and the in-season development of Simmons. Again, the Raptors would be the favorite, but a Sixers win wouldn’t be impossible.
Things could not have worked out much better for the Sixers when it comes to making the Eastern Conference Finals, and while it would be a bit of a stretch to predict it now, it’s not impossible to imagine a scenario where the team makes it to the NBA Finals. The Process is working, now the challenge is for this group of players to take things to the next level. Their playoff road couldn’t be more open for them to do that.