The Sixers have won 50 games for the first time in 17 years and with two games left have a pretty good shot at being the No. 3 seed in the NBA playoffs. With 14-straight wins under their belt — tying a franchise record — Philly has proven they are more than just a fringe playoff team in recent weeks. If the season ended today, they would host the Heat in the first round with a likely chance of playing either the Celtics or Bucks in Round 2. Which begs the question: Are the Sixers a real contender to win the Eastern Conference? Here are five reasons why they could:
1. The offense
Did you see the Sixers score 132 points against the Cavaliers last week? It was a season high. They score the third most points in the East and have the fourth best plus-minus rating in the entire NBA. During their current win streak, they have won 10 of 14 games by double figures. They have also broken the 110 point mark 11 times during the streak. And six of these games have been without leading scorer Joel Embiid, who is on the mend from a concussion and eye socket surgery.
Philly has shown all season it can score in bunches, and has the second most assists in the league. During their recent period of stellar play that they can outscore some of the more elite teams in the NBA — like the Cavs and Timberwolves.
2. The defense
As mentioned just above, the Sixers’ plus-4.1 rating per game is the fourth best mark in basketball which highlights their defensive success as well. During the streak, the Sixers are the best defensive team in the NBA allowing 98.2 points per possession. For the season they are the third best, particuarly with Embiid as a rim protector — a role he’ll reclaim when healthy next week.
Philly has grabbed more rebounds than any other team in the NBA and the most defensive boards as well. And to fill out the stat sheet, the Sixers are in the top 10 in steals and blocks this season.
3. Ben Simmons
Over the last 14 games Simmons, who has emerged as the runaway Rookie of the Year, has posted 14.7 points, 10.1 rebounds, 10.9 assists, and two steals per game, whole shooting 61.1 percent. Those are ridiculious numbers for anyone, but for a rookie tasked with leading a team during a playoff push without their All-Star center, they are eye-popping.
Simmons has emerged as a true powerhouse on both sides of the ball, proving to be unguardable and with court vision unseen since the days of Magic Johnson. Should Embiid experience any hesitancy to return to the floor the Sixers are in good hands should they need to play without him for a few games.
4. Joel Embiid
That being said, Embiid should be back on the court soon and will cause even more match up nightmares for the Heat and later Celtics or Bucks. His numbers, 22.9 points, 11 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game are impressive enough, but the eye test shows he is one of the more transformative presences in the NBA right now. The Sixers are one of the best teams in basketball with him on the floor.
If Philadelphia could not just survive but thrive in Embiid’s absense, evidence suggests they could be lethal with their 7-foot-2 dynamo in toe.
5. The competition
The Sixers have beaten every playoff team in the East at least once this regular season, including the top-seeded Raptors. Philadelphia has confidence and knows how to beat every team they’ll face this spring. And they are getting a little help from the injury gods.
If they can handle their first round opponent the Sixers will likely draw the Celtics in Round 2. Their two biggest stars, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward will miss the postseason and even though the team is still a potent squad led by rookie Jason Tatum and veteran big man Al Horford Philly is getting a big break in a potential second round bout. After that, a seven-game series against the Cavaliers or Raptors will be a test to be sure, but the former league laughing stock will be no pushover if they can advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.