Preseason prediction: 56-26 record, second seed in East. Now looking unlikely, maybe third.
What is reasonable to expect from the 76ers in the final 27 games of the season?
More specifically: Are they still capable of competing for an NBA championship, as management, the fans and others thought they would be heading into the 2019-20 campaign?
The answer is it’s still possible, but not as likely as it appeared to be prior to the season.
The Sixers are 34-21 and fifth in the Eastern Conference. They’d love to end up second in the East to secure homecourt advantage in the first two rounds, but they trail the No. 2 Raptors by six games, which, unless Toronto goes into a tailspin, should be difficult to overcome.
Third would also be decent because it’d allow Brett Brown’s team to avoid the NBA-leading Bucks in the conference semifinals if they’re able to advance beyond the first round for the third straight year. It’d mean no extra home game in the second round, though. The Sixers trail the No. 3 Celtics by 4 1/2 games, though they possess the head-to-head tiebreaker on Boston by winning the season series 3-1.
“It’s a great time in the year where you come back fresh and just get ready to make a great run,” said Sixers forward Tobias Harris after Wednesday’s practice. “I think we are in a good position to improve, get better and find how we want to play going into the playoffs.”
Brown declined to publicly say what his goal is in terms of seeding, adding “we, for sure, want to play at home as much as we can.”
While the Sixers are still trying to figure some things out, such as style of play — are they a running team (Ben Simmons’ preference) or more of a halfcourt team (better suited to Joel Embiid)? — who will become the fifth starter? Which wings will crack Brown’s playoff rotation? Will the Sixers add somebody in the buyout market by March 1? There is a lot to figure out over the next eight weeks.
Following the Sixers’ first workout in a week, Brown said he plans on sticking with Al Horford coming off the bench the way Horford did in the Feb. 12 win over the Clippers. Horford had started his first 49 games as a Sixer before moving to sixth man.
“With 27 games left, my mindset is to take this next period of time – seven, 10, whatever number of games – and really get precise and purposeful with our rotation,” Brown said. “And then take that run home and polish it up. My experience doing this, there is ample enough time to pull (it) off.”
Brown didn’t say who would be starting in Horford’s place. It was Furkan Korkmaz at the outset of the Clippers’ victory and Glenn Robinson III to begin the second half. It could change depending on the opponent and the size of the foes’ starting power forward.
Josh Richardson, the starter at shooting guard and likely the backup point guard, said he likes the new starting group and believes it’ll “highlight (Horford’s) strengths” and move Harris back to his natural 4-spot.
While the 34-year-old Horford is a proud man with an impressive resume, it’s too bad if his feelings are hurt by what could be a somewhat diminished role. There is a great deal at stake for the Sixers and Brown not to do everything possible – other than playing Embiid so many minutes that he’s not as close to 100% as possible for the postseason – to get the highest possible seed.
Horford was diplomatic Wednesday, saying “it’s what the team needs right now and that’s what we’re doing.”
Embiid has been cleared to play without the splint that had been protecting his surgically repaired left ring finger until Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game. Brown wants the star center “to grab the team by the throat and lead us in a bunch of different areas.”
One positive for the Sixers is their favorable end-of-season schedule. Their remaining opponents have a winning percentage of .455, which is the second-easiest slate (the Pelicans’ foes are at .449) among the league’s 30 teams.
Yes, they still must take on some elite clubs, such as Milwaukee on the road Saturday night after hosting the Nets on Thursday evening, and a four-game Western Conference trip starting with the Clippers and Lakers begins March 1. But don’t forget two home dates with the Hawks, home games with the Knicks and Pistons, and a road meeting with the Cavs in the next eight weeks.
They’ll need to improve on their perplexing 9-19 road record, which should happen based on some of the teams they face. Then again, they’ve lost to the Magic twice, Hawks and Pistons away from the friendly confines of the Wells Fargo Center.
The Sixers’ 25-2 home mark is fantastic and shows what they can do. The problem is if they finish third or fourth, they’re almost surely going to have to win a best-of-seven second-round series without homecourt advantage.