Process This: The Philadelphia 76ers Are A Legitimate Championship Threat

This image is a derivative of Philadelphia 76ers by Michael Tipton (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Coming off a disappointing season which culminated in a first-round sweep at the hands of the Boston Celtics, the Sixers organisation knew some big changes would be required to set 'The Process' back on track

And the big changes certainly have come, starting right from the top. Former Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has taken the reigns from Elton Brand, while legendary coach Doc Rivers has stepped in to replace long-time Sixers coach, Brett Brown.

All this to go along with a revamped roster with a blend of young talent and veteran experience, shooting and defensive prowess. 

And the results have been nothing short of spectacular. The Sixers have leapfrogged the Celtics, Raptors, Bucks and Nets, with their current 17-7 record allowing them to enjoy their position perched atop the Eastern Conference standings.

So, how have the changes in personnel helped transform this team from a fringe conference threat to legitimate title challenger? Let’s take a deeper look: 

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Doc Rivers

Coach Rivers is an all-time great coach, however, coming off a disappointing final season with the Los Angeles Clippers, Doc arrived in Philadelphia with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. 

Clearly, seeing his new location as a second chance and a new opportunity, Rivers’ coaching thus far has been masterful. A team that was already solid defensively (8th in defensive rating in 2019-20) is now downright smothering, giving up the 4th fewest points per 100 possessions in the league. All this is culminating in Philly achieving the 5th best net rating in the league of +3.9, up from being 10th last season at just +2.4.

Doc’s experience and leadership is clearly revered in the locker room, his championship pedigree is something that Brett Brown simply could not bring to the table. 

His ability to get players to buy into his system, despite their egos, has always been remarkable dating back to his days in Boston with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, and thus far he’s been able to wield the same chemistry magic with this team. 

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Joel Embiid

From the moment he set foot in the league, we knew that Joel Embiid had a chance to be special, however, questions persisted as to whether the Cameroon-born star had the mental toughness and maturity to take the next step to MVP-level play on a night-in, night-out basis. 

This season, all those narratives and whisperings have been dispelled, at least for now, with Embiid putting together an absolute monster of a campaign. For a 7-footer such as Embiid to be as dominant on the low block in this era of space and pace is simply incredible.

His box score numbers jump off the page, as he’s contributing a casual 30 points and 11 rebounds a night on mind-boggling 55/39/85 shooting splits. 

A man as physically dominant as Embiid being able to step out and knock down the 3 at a near 40% clip is quite simply unfair, however he’s been shooting it less than usual this season. In fact, 3pt attempts represent just 18.6%of his overall field goal attempts this season, a career low, which suggests an increased willingness to be aggressive, and look to draw contact inside. 

The refs have been rewarding this added physicality, with Embiid sitting on a remarkable 67.3% free throw to field goal ratio, just over 10 percentage points higher than his previous career-high. 

If Embiid continues to produce at this kind of level, Philly fans should feel very comfortable they have the star power to make a deep playoff run, and genuinely compete for an NBA title. 

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Supporting Cast

An analysis of a championship-hopeful wouldn’t be complete without diving into who they have surrounding their superstar in the middle, and with Philly, there’s plenty to talk about. 

Tobias Harris has taken a step up this season, finally somewhat justifying the enormous 5-year, $180 million deal he was given last off-season. 

While Harris has only marginally upped his scoring volume from 19.6 ppg to 20.2, the real difference has arrived via a sharp uptick in offensive efficiency.

Harris is posting a career-high 57.6% eFG, primarily due to his blistering 44% shooting from 3pt-range, also the best clip of his career. 

Ben Simmons’ production has dipped slightly this season as he takes a backseat to the Embiid show on offense, however the Australian is still a force to be reckoned with in the open floor, with his 8 assists per night indicative of his pronounced ability to read defences and find open players with precision. 

Seth Curry has stacked his claim for best shooter in the Curry family, knocking down threes at an absurd 49.3% rate so far this season, on around 4 attempts per contest. Curry and Danny Greenare providing valuable floor spacing which allows Embiid and Simmons clear lanes to the bucket for inside scoring opportunities. 

Young stud Matisse Thybulle and veteran centre Dwight Howard continue to make their presence felt on the defensive end. Thybulle just seems to have a nose for the ball to go along with incredible reflexes and long arms which help him to disrupt passing lanes. He leads the team with a massive 3.2 steals per 36 minutes, while allowing Simmons plenty of chances to get out, run and exploit the open floor.

Howard has been an underrated addition to this team, especially as his minutes give Embiid respite from the rough and tumble of playing in the key as a big man. Howard can certainly rough a few guys up when needed, which will provide much needed help come playoff time.

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Closing Thoughts

So, do the Sixers have what it takes to go all the way? Well, they certainly have the personnel, and when Embiid is clicking on all cylinders they are damn near unbeatable. 

The question will be around their ability to perform when the lights get brightest. Although Doc Rivers, Danny Green and Dwight Howard provide some championship experience to this roster, the three big pieces of their rotation, Embiid, Simmons and Harris, have not a single game of conference finals (let alone NBA finals) experience between them, so their ability to step up when they’re up against the very best on the very biggest stage is as yet unknown. 

What is known is that the Sixers right now should strike fear in the hearts of any team in the league with championship aspirations. 

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Mitchell Turner

Sports are an all-year-round affair for Mitch as his basketball coaching takes up a weekly slot on a Saturday. Yet it's the Australian summer which most floats his boat, what with the tip-off to the NBA, test cricket and NFL playoffs all taking centre stage.

In between watching sports, Mitch is about to commence his 3rd year Bachelor of Arts at Monash University (majoring in Journalism and International Relations) and is currently undertaking an internship at Stats Insider.

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