2018 NBA Playoff Preview: Philadelphia 76ers
If you were to tell me at the beginning of the season that the 76ers would finish the year as the 3rd seed in the east, I would not have believed you. I liked the 76ers going into the year, but I didn’t think they were ready to make a huge jump over established Eastern Conference powerhouses; such as the Bucks, Wizards, and the Cavaliers. While some of their success can be attributed to the subpar seasons had by those teams, it’s about time we acknowledge the 76ers as the new dominant super-team in the east.
The season started a bit rough for the 76ers. They appeared to be around the lower seeds for the majority of the first half of the season, which is where many people predicted them to be. What they didn’t predict was the incredible finish they had during the 2nd half of the season.
Post All-Star Break, they went 22-5 (2nd best record to the Houston Rockets) with the 5th best offensive rating, the 2nd best defensive rating and rebound percentage, and the best effective field goal and assist percentage; all while posting the 3rd best pace in the entire league. These herculean feats were accomplished despite the injury to their best player, Joel Embiid, near the end of the season. The narrative pushed by many commentators and analysts at the beginning of the season was that “they were too young to know how to win close games”; now the narrative has shifted to: “they could make it to the Eastern Conference Finals and threaten Lebron James’ finals appearance streak.
Offensively, since the All-Star Break, the 76ers have been the most balanced scoring team in the NBA. They are 4th in 3pt shots made per game and 2nd in field goals made per game, while having the best effective field goal percentage in the league. On top of their ability to score, they have also been the 2nd best defensive team in the NBA since the All-Star Break; posting up the 2nd best defensive rating along with the 2nd lowest opponent effective field goal percentage in the league. Moreover, they have the tallest point guard in the league in Ben Simmons, arguably the most complete center in the league in Joel Embiid, a very versatile player in Dario Saric, and the #1 pick of the 2017 NBA draft, Markelle Fultz, as their primary playmaker off the bench. On paper, this might be the most dangerous team in the Eastern Conference.
While most analysts and commentators would tell you that their lack of playoff experience is their biggest weakness, I won’t. I tend to disagree with the whole notion that young players will fail to perform in the postseason due to lack of high pressure experience, because it’s a very generalized claim without any measurable data to back it up. What I will point out is that some of their key players are one dimensional in their ability to score. Ben Simmons has yet to incorporate any sort of jumpshot and Markelle Fultz seems to still be trying to recover his. This problem has been negated so far in the regular season by their inhuman passing and inside scoring abilities, but teams will try to take advantage of the lack of shooting from the 76ers playmakers during the playoffs. I would expect opposing teams to back off them on the perimeter and play the passing lanes more, while staying close to the shooters; forcing Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz to try and create their own offense.
The biggest factor in determining the 76ers success in the playoffs would be if they can maintain this offensive and defensive onslaught. Joel Embiid returning to the team for the second game of the first round will definitely help with that, but the burden is more than his to bear. Ben Simmons needs to continue his insane level of facilitating; shooters like JJ Reddick, Marco Bellineli, Ersan Ilyasova, and Robert Covington need to continue to make shots and play defense; Dario Saric needs to continue to be a swiss army knife; and Markelle Fultz needs to continue to be effective in limited minutes. The 76ers are currently playing like a team with no glaring weaknesses and they need to maintain that if they want to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals or beyond.
Player to Watch
During their run after the All-Star Break, the best major rotational player (someone who plays more than 20 minutes per game) by advanced metrics is Robert Covington. He is posting up an insane 112.6 offensive rating and a 95.1 defensive rating on 30.3 minutes per game. This makes sense seeing that he is arguably the best 3 and D player in the NBA this past season. He is not only just a floor spacer, he has the 6th best defensive rating among major rotational players in the NBA since the All-Star Break, behind Utah’s Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, and Jae Crowder. He also leads all major rotational players in net rating. As someone who is arguably the best defender and one of the major offensive contributors to the 76ers, his success or failure would have dire consequences on the overall success of the 76ers in the postseason.
Estimated Playoff Run
On paper, I think Philadelphia will make it to the Eastern Conference Finals this year. Miami will be a tough fight in the first round, but, as great as Erik Spoelstra is, I don’t think he can coach enough offensive firepower into his team to compete with Philadelphia. I think he can create a defensive system that will contain Philadelphia enough to win 2 games, but I don’t think Miami has enough offensive weapons to win the series. The 76ers should cruise through the 2nd round easily against a depleted Boston or (if they finally play to their potential) a talented yet uncoached Milwaukee Bucks. The real challenge for the 76ers would be in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Raptor’s defense would certainly provide a challenge for the 76ers, but they should fear the Cavaliers more. Although in the 2 most recent matchups, the 76ers gained the upper hand, it would be silly to bet against Lebron James in the playoffs; especially with Kevin Love coming back from injury. The 76ers have the better overall team as of late, but Lebron is capable of willing his team to winning the series.
(All stats provided by NBA.com)