At the halfway point in the 2019-2020 season, the 76ers are being viewed around the league as one of the most disappointing teams this year. Last season ended after coming the closest they had to appear in the conference finals since taking the Celtics to Game 7 of the Eastern Semifinals with a roster that is almost impossible to imagine was assembled.
Fast forward back to the 2019 playoffs. The Sixers have taken the Toronto Raptors to game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. A grueling postseason was capped off for the Sixers after their two stars, Embiid and Simmons, chased Kawhi Leonard into the corner who then answered this coverage with a last-second, off-balance, three-point heave.
It bounced four times. It went in.
To answer this, in one of the most exciting free agency periods in recent memory, Sixers showed up with a roster focused on one thing, defense, almost as if to say that if they were facing a buzzer-beater shot that would send them home from a visit to the Conference finals, they would have 5 players on the court that could guard it. This has been the mantra for this team all year. In preseason interviews, Embiid and Simmons, the Sixer’s core duo, both expressed that it wasn’t about the awards, it was about a championship, but they both said they would love a defensive player of the year award. If that didn’t send chills down Philly’s spine, I don’t know what will. The offseason was clearly defensively focused. Bringing in Embiid’s biggest competitor in the East, the high IQ Al Horford, was possibly the biggest statement from Elton Brand on size and length over shot creation and scoring. Then the draft came along. Elton Brand worked out a deal with those schemey Boston Celtics and walked away with the STEAL of the night, Mattise Thybulle, who is leading rookies in steals and deflections.
At the 41st game this season, this team was on track to finish the season 50-32. This would be one game short of last season, and two short of the year before. Many have criticized this current roster and have said it is a step down from last year’s. The roster clearly took a hit in three-point shooting and shot creation. With this, Elton Brand beefed-up defense and created a roster that makes up a top 3 defense in the league, a top team in rebounding, and places them as a preseason favorite to come out of the East.
Fast forward to just a little past midway through the season and Joel Embiid, the Process, is missing time after a nauseating dislocated finger and torn ligament in his hand, Ben Simmons, The Fresh Prince, is being torn to shreds by every talking head on television and radio in Philadelphia. But both are top 5 in betting lines to win DPOY this year. Ben Simmons is leading the league in steals and Joel Embiid is still considered the best big man in the game.
The recent win against the Nets was pulled out in a satisfying comeback that can be attributed to Ben Simmons’s monstrous 34, 12, and 12 game. Watching the last 4 minutes of that game, however, it will become clear how impactful his less talked about 5 steals were. That was a win pulled out against historically tough matchup for the Sixers, on the road, without Embiid, while coming back from behind late in-game. The defense closed that game out. An offensive possession resulted in what felt like 20 shots from beyond the arc. A problem presented itself to this team once again, shooting. But a blessing revealed itself for the millionth time this year, rebounding. This team did what it was built to do and chase down boards and steal passes in the backcourt to maintain possession. Steals on the defensive end maintained momentum and put the clamps on Brooklyn’s offensive skills just long enough to hold them to 20 points in the last quarter.
Right now, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone foolish enough to criticize the team’s defense. It is the brightest point in an otherwise rocky season. That is why when it comes down to it, you will need to lean on your strengths to pull out tough wins, just like they did in Brooklyn, and like they’ll do time and time again. The problem is of course offense, but that isn’t a surprise. Everyone knew to come into this season worried that scoring will need work. And Brett Brown has done his part in getting us there. Using Simmons as a roller is clearly opening up new avenues and chances at points on the board. As far as Simmons’s shooting goes, we’ll talk about that later. For now, just remember that as this team plays together for longer, their chemistry will only grow stronger. The defense is the strongest part of this team, don’t fight it, lean on it. The offense will come, and in close games, it will be the team’s strongest attributes that will give them the upper hand, their defense. Runs start with the defense, both in games and in a big picture sense. It’s time for this team to go on a run, being 3.5 games out of second isn’t an impossible task.
The NBA is an offensive league, it just is. Scorers will always be watched more than a clamp defender. James Harden will always be talked about more for leading the league in PPG, rather than Simmons for leading the league in steals per game. They say good defense is beat by better offense, but they also say good defense leads to good offense. And we all know defense wins championships. Think last year’s Raptors shutting down Giannis, Think the 2014 Spurs against the Big 3 in Miami, think the 91, 92, 93, 95, 96, 97 Bulls against the whole damn league, think the 2020 Sixers. So this time, if a game comes down to a buzzer-beater in Game 7 of a series, you’ll be happy to know there will be 5 players on the court capable of guarding it. Defense wins championships, Jordan said it best, and defense can win the NBA Finals for the 76ers.