The Philadelphia 76ers Need to Win the NBA Title to Avoid a Painful Case of Deja Vu

There are few, if any, NBA contenders that have experienced more drastic turnover than the Philadelphia 76ers over the last 18 months. The specificity of that turnover creates a sense of urgency for them to win the NBA Finals.

Philadelphia fired head coach Brett Brown in favor of Doc Rivers after losing to the Boston Celtics in the first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs. They also hired former Houston Rockets executive Daryl Morey as team president. Philadelphia finished the 2020-21 season with the best record in the Eastern Conference but lost to the Atlanta Hawks in round two. That series was lowlighted by Philly losing back-to-back games at home and blowing a 26-point lead in Game 5. 

The final game of the aforementioned series became the last time Ben Simmons would suit up for the 76ers. Simmons was held out of training camp and was eventually sent to the Brooklyn Nets as part of a midseason trade package for James Harden.

Philadelphia 76ers’ powerhouse standing can turn on a dime

NBA teams Philadelphia 76ers vs. Atlanta Hawks at the Wells Fargo Center
Philadelphia 76ers vs. Atlanta Hawks | Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Philadelphia will take on the five-seeded Toronto Raptors in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs. A lot can go wrong for the 76ers against a deep-rooted and fundamentally sound Raptors team and the East as a whole. Furthermore, the 76ers are in store for a case of deja vu if they don’t strike while the iron is hot.

If there’s one constant in the NBA, it’s unpredictability. Who thought the Nets would trade Harden to the rival 76ers 13 months after acquiring him from the Rockets? Did the Phoenix Suns winning the Western Conference sound realistic two years ago? By the way, the Los Angeles Lakers, a team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, didn’t even crack the Play-in Tournament this season.

The chances and obstacles of the 76ers

A handful of situations could spiral out of control for the Philadelphia 76ers. For starters, there are rumblings that Rivers could be fired if they fail to win the East and that he could pursue the Lakers’ vacant head-coaching position. Tobias Harris has been a vital source of offense for the 76ers across the last four seasons. That said, the team may have to trade Harris this offseason for the sake of being able to give Harden and Joel Embiid max-level contracts. 

Speaking of Harden, he has a player option for the 2022-23 season. Who’s to say Harden doesn’t opt out, listen to free agent pitches and leave the 76ers? A year ago, it seemed like Harden, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving would rule the East. Harden abruptly bolted a contender once. He could do it again.

Philly surrendered a highly valuable player in Simmons, a sturdy scorer in Seth Curry, a starting-caliber center in Andre Drummond and a pair of first-round draft picks for Harden. With no guarantees that Harden is in the fold for the long haul, the possibility exists that a bold investment blows up in their face.

To boot, it’s not a given that the 76ers win the East or even get to the Conference Finals, which is a round they haven’t reached since 2001.

Philadelphia 76ers are part of a stiff Eastern Conference playoff picture

The Philadelphia 76ers are one of a plethora of long-standing Eastern Conference forces. In their own division, the Nets have two of the 15-best players in the NBA (Durant and Irving), the Boston Celtics have hit their stride under first-year head coach Ime Udoka, and the Raptors have bounced back from a disastrous 2020-21 season. 

The Miami Heat finished first in the conference with a balanced roster of proven scorers. Meanwhile, the Chicago Bulls are an emerging threat. All the while, the defending-champion Milwaukee Bucks are playing plausible basketball and are still a force to be reckoned with.

Philadelphia has a high-octane offense and a well-rounded team. Embiid is arguably the best big man in the NBA, as he gets points all over the floor and is the team’s backbone. Harden is one of the NBA’s elite scorers. In thought, Embiid and Harden are an optimum pairing, as the former gets his points working from the inside out, whereas the latter gets his points working from the outside in. 

Harris is a consistent and aggressive scorer. Tyrese Maxey is a continually improving and lethal scorer. Danny Green, Furkan Korkmaz, and Georges Niang are efficient/capable shooters. Shake Milton is a respectable scoring option off the bench. Matisse Thybulle is a defensive pillar. 

The 76ers are firmly in the conference mix, but they have no margin for error and some glaring insecurities working against them. Outside of high-profile faces potentially leaving the organization, Harden is having the worst season of his NBA career as a full-time starter. The 76ers will also be facing teams with a great deal of continuity. 

Philadelphia drafted and developed a high-level team through “The Process,” but it peaked last season. This led to them pulling the plug, so to speak, and acquiring Harden. A quick playoff exit provides an excuse for those with uncertain futures to jump ship. The 76ers need to cash in this spring.

All contract figures courtesy of Spotrac.

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