The Ben Simmons saga is dragging on as the NBA trade deadline approaches, and there seems to be a good chance that he will not be dealt this season. Published reports indicate it is very unlikely that Simmons will ever play for the 76ers again.
Many Sixers fans have visions of acquiring James Harden or another top star, which will produce a serious shift in NBA betting lines, as they look to return to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2001.
But do 76ers fans really have to wait another season to see them reach the Finals if a trade does not materialize? After recent gut-wrenching playoff exits against Toronto and Atlanta, do we need Julius Erving to return and say “we owe you one” again?
Embiid is Key
ESPN analyst Kendrick Perkins recently said the Sixers are an “underrated squad.” Tyrese Maxey has been performing well. Tobias Harris has been a top contributor recently.
However, Joel Embiid is the main reason why Philadelphia is challenging Miami and Chicago for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Embiid is trying very hard to nix the narrative that the Sixers can’t win the East without Simmons. He was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Month for January, averaging 50.8 points, 16.1 rebounds and 7.6 assists per 48 minutes, becoming the first player in league history to average 50-15-5 per 48 in a calendar month.
Caesars Sportsbook has the 76ers at (+850) to win the Eastern Conference, which is fourth behind Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Miami.
The Bulls may not truly be in the mix to win the East, as they are listed at (+1200) at Caesars. Of course, the Bulls or Cavaliers could certainly make a spirited playoff run as the Hawks did last season, but it is clear who the top favorites are.
If the Sixers end up with one of the top two seeds without making a major move, they can conceivably avoid Cleveland or Brooklyn in the first round. That would obviously be the best road to the second round.
Still, it is apparent that the 76ers would likely have to knock off two of Brooklyn, Milwaukee, or Miami to win the East.
Embiid recently expressed great confidence that the Sixers have “no urgency” to make any changes and the team just needs to stay healthy to contend.
If Philadelphia can steer clear of any significant injuries, they may have what it takes to win the Eastern Conference even without Simmons or the type of All-Star replacement that they have reportedly been seeking in trade talks.
Philadelphia lost eight of their first 12 games without Embiid this season, but they can be a major hurdle for the Nets, Heat or Bucks if he does not get sidelined again. Much like Giannis Antetokounmpo ensured Milwaukee’s excellence in last year’s playoffs, Embiid is capable of doing the same.
If we project that the Sixers would end up with the second seed behind Miami and advance beyond the opening round, Miami could draw Brooklyn as a second-round matchup.
A Philadelphia-Milwaukee matchup could also be on the map for the second round. The Bucks have won the last six regular-season games between the two, but regular season results are in no way a firm indicator of what will happen in the playoffs.
Embiid has been Antetokounmpo’s equal in terms of scoring and rebounding, and the teams are similar in several offensive categories, with the Bucks being slightly better in terms of total points per game, and the Sixers having a minor edge in field goal and free throw percentages.
Milwaukee has dealt with a lot of injuries this season though, and if Maxey and Harris continue to play at high levels, Philadelphia could compete right to the wire with Antetokounmpo and his prime supporting cast members, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. One notable Bucks injury would make Milwaukee easier to defeat.
The Heat and Nets have split their last four games. Either team would present a highly formidable foe for the Sixers, but neither would be impossible to vanquish.
The Sixers have won three of the last five meetings with the Nets, but we never know which Brooklyn team will show up. The “Big Three” of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Harden have rarely played together because of injuries, and Irving cannot play in home games.
Brooklyn is hoping it will be whole for the postseason, but the past two seasons have indicated that having all of their superstars for any extended period is far from a sure thing.
Philadelphia has won three of its last five regular-season meetings with Miami. The Sixers have been the better road team, which could be an obvious key to a potential series win.
Miami does not have a comparable player to Embiid in terms of both points and rebounds per game, although Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo can come close enough in each category as a duo. The Heat and Sixers are also very evenly matched in several offensive categories.
Even without Simmons, Philadelphia can hang with Miami. A 76ers-Heat series would pit Embiid against Butler and Adebayo in the spotlight, but we also cannot overlook the roles that Tyler Herro and Kyle Lowry play for Miami.
Still, Maxey and Harris can be pivotal in terms of giving Philadelphia an edge over Miami’s top players outside of their two biggest stars.
No Big Three, No Problem
Without Simmons, many NBA observers seem to have an opinion that the Sixers don’t have a “Big Three” of their own, and therefore aren’t good enough to compete for the Eastern Conference crown.
But the Sixers know they now have something special in Maxey, who they have refused to include in a trade for another superstar, according to published reports. Harris can play a significant role in the postseason as well.
So maybe Embiid’s words will prove to be true. A healthy Sixers team in its current state can challenge anyone in the East if they stay healthy.
Embiid gives them a very good chance of matching up well with any of the other top three teams in the Eastern Conference. After all, they’ve been on par with them so far this season.
Perhaps Sixers fans won’t have to wait until next year to see their team reach the NBA Finals if a Simmons trade does not become a reality this season.