NBA basketball is on the horizon. Here’s a look at what the resumption of the 2019-20 season means for the 76ers.
First thing’s first:
The 76ers are coming back.
That in and of itself is good news.
But when the team does hit the floor, it will do so under competitive parameters and circumstances unlike anything the NBA has ever implemented.
In a return-to-play plan jointly announced Friday by the NBA and National Basketball Players Association, the Sixers were formally named as one of the 22 franchises that will help re-open the league July 30th at the sprawling ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resorts in Orlando, FL.
“We have worked together with the Players Association to establish a restart plan that prioritizes health and safety, preserves competitive fairness and provides a platform to address social justice issues,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “We are grateful to our longtime collaborator Disney for its role in playing host and making this return to play possible, and we also thank the public health officials and infectious disease specialists who helped guide the creation of comprehensive medical protocols and protections.”
As part of the restart, the NBA and NBPA will combine their forces to drive substantive, sustained solutions to racial inequality in the United States.
“It has taken true collaboration between the League and the Union – special kudos to our Executive Committee and several other team reps – along with the continued support and assistance from medical experts, public health officials and many others,” said NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts. ” Additionally, our platform in Orlando presents a unique opportunity to extend the ongoing fight against systemic racism and police brutality in this country. We will continue to work with our players and the League to develop specific plans in Orlando as well as long-term initiatives to bring about real change on these issues.”
To qualify for the field of 22, teams either had to rank among the top eight or sit within 6.0 games of eighth place in their respective conferences before the 2019-20 season was suspended due to the outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States.
At that point, the Sixers were 39-26, and occupied sixth place in the Eastern Conference.
Under this unprecedented new arrangement, however, the Sixers not only automatically clinch a postseason berth (they’re currently 9.0 games ahead of the eighth-place Orlando Magic), but now actually have a chance to improve their seeding for the playoffs.
That’s because with eight “seeding” games left on the docket prior to the postseason, the Sixers are in an essential deadheat with Indiana Pacers (also 39-26) for fifth place, while trailing the Miami Heat (41-24) by only 2.0 games for fourth place.
A top-four seed typically means home court advantage for the first round of the playoffs. What the “home court” dynamic could look like at a neutral site, of course, is unknown.
When the season went on indefinite hiatus on Mar. 11, the Milwaukee Bucks (53-12) sat atop the East. The Toronto Raptors (46-18) held second place, and the Boston Celtics (43-21) were in third.
If the standings chalked, the Sixers and C’s would square off in the opening round. The NBA intends to preserve its traditional four-round, best-of-seven game format, and use seeding to dictate match-ups.
So, now that the questions of if and how the league will return have been resolved, the next issue facing the Sixers and other teams headed to Orlando is what they’ll be once they’re back to work?
We’ll dive into that topic a little farther down, but first, for some context, we’ll hop back in time three months…
Perhaps the most relevant footnote from the 76ers’ first 65 games this season is that their opening night starting five of Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford, and Joel Embiid played together just 22 times.
Based on that fact, Brett Brown in May gave the Sixers a grade of “incomplete” when speaking to a group of reporters on a Zoom call.
“I stand by this – I feel like our team is built for the playoffs,” Brown said. “I think if you took a ruler, a measuring stick, and you measured us wingspan to wingspan, we are the tallest team in the NBA. I think that we have the opportunity to guard because of that length, and spirit, as well as anybody.”
Whether or not the Sixers mix up their lineups and rotations when play resumes is a matter to be sorted out in the weeks ahead.
The point, though, is that despite injuries serving as an impediment to continuity, the Sixers still managed to do more than hold their own.
What hard, fast conclusions can be drawn about the 2019-20 76ers as we know them?
Clearly, they were dominant at home, compiling an NBA-best 29-2 mark on their own court (the Sixers also ranked second in the league with a 10.3 home net rating). But again, only time will tell how past performance in “true” home games translates to future success at a neutral site, without fans.
Here, though, are a few promising items worth highlighting in respect to the Sixers’ identity from the pre-hiatus phase of the season:
Collectively, the team ranked sixth in the NBA in defense, with a rating of 107.6 points allowed per 100 possessions.
More narrowly, the five-man unit of Simmons, Richardson, Harris, Horford, and Embiid generated a 97.1 defensive rating, good for second-lowest in the league among five-man groups that logged at least 240 minutes. Regardless of whether the quintet starts or finishes games together, this stat should resonate in the postseason.
Specific to Simmons, he proved this season that even at 23 years old, he can be the fulcrum of a championship-caliber defense. His 2.1 steals lead the league, while his averages in loose balls recovered (1.7) and deflections created (4.0) put him at second and third in the league, respectively.
On the whole, the Sixers limited possessions by holding opponents to an offensive rebounding percentage of 24.6 (no. 3 in the NBA) – another important number to keep in mind. Furthermore, the team gave up the fewest rebounds per game (41.9). The Sixers also gave up the league’s fewest 3-pointers made (10.2) and attempted (29.0) per 100 possessions.
An encouraging sign offensively was that the Sixers were sixth in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.82).
It’s hard to draw conclusions from four games, but following All-Star Weekend, Joel Embiid seemed to shift to a different gear (his career-high 49-point performance Feb. 24 vs. Atlanta, for instance), and he wasn’t the only 76er who appeared to find a spark after the break. Put Al Horford, Shake Milton, and Mike Scott on the list as well. If there’s carryover, albeit three months later, the Sixers will certainly be better off.
Until the Sixers and the NBA’s other 21 Orlando-bound clubs get back on the court, all we can do is speculate about what they’ll look like or how they might fare.
Nevertheless, from the front office down to the players themselves, internal optimism remained high within the Sixers during the hiatus, and that’s because the organization believes it has a legitimate shot at fulfilling a mission launched a year ago.
The championship aspirations the 76ers set last summer are still alive with a new summer on the horizon.
In early May, while quarantined at his home, Brett Brown said:
“When it’s go time, we gotta go. We are hunting to still contend for a championship. That hasn’t changed.”
With “go time” inching its way around the corner, the Sixers’ pursuit of their ultimate goal unites them with their community.
“It would be good to go out there and represent something, for everybody that’s rooting us on from home, from TV, and have a chance to win a championship,” Tobias Harris said. “It’s a great opportunity for a team to come in, have a chance, and just run with it.”
Midway through the hiatus, Elton Brand felt confident that the Sixers would be ready to return to play. With the NBA’s recent announcement, a timeline to get back on the court has formally been put in place..
“We’ll be prepared,” Brand said “I’m very hopeful that this season will resume so we can get back out there and compete.”
With two of the Sixers’ top stars healthy again, Brand’s reason for optimism seems justified.
For All-Star Joel Embiid, who entered the hiatus after one of his best performances of the year (30 pts, 14 reb, 3 ast 3/11 vs. DET), a chance to return to play is a chance to continue the momentum he built, and to represent Philadelphia with pride.
“When the time is right, and everything is safe, and I can be on the court, what I’m missing the most is being out there, winning for the City of Philadelphia, representing the City of Philadelphia, and then just going out there and dominating.”
The Sixers also look forward to welcoming a healthy Ben Simmons back into the fold.
“[Ben] is to be praised and applauded in a real way, a significant way,” Brown said last month. “The professionalism and discipline that he has shown, he’s been outstanding. It could be a little bit of a silver lining… just the fact that you actually have a chance to get somebody like Ben – and as important as Ben is – back into our team.”
From a human perspective, the 76ers look forward to reuniting as teammates and friends after almost three months apart .
“Honestly, more than anything, [I’m looking forward to] being able to play basketball together,” Matisse Thybulle said. “Get back out there, and get that feel, that chemistry, that flow going that we had.”
“We were doing a pretty good job, and we were having a lot of fun doing it.”
Josh Richardson, true to form, can’t want to get back to lighthearted banter with his teammates. The schedule for the Sixers’ first eight seeding games will be revealed the evening of June 26th.
“I’m excited to beat Joel in some shooting competitions. I’m excited to call Matisse rook,” Richardson said. “I’m excited to see all my guys.”
There’s a sense of unfinished business, especially for a player like Shake Milton, who was having a breakout season.
“I know for a fact that when we get back, people are going to realize, you can’t really take the little things for granted,” Milton said. “Every little thing that comes with this blessing of being able to play professional basketball – you’ve got to enjoy it, and cherish it, and make the most of it.”
Enjoy it. Cherish it. Make the most of it. 76ers basketball is coming back.