The Philadelphia 76ers are currently riding a six-game winning streak, sit one game behind second place in the Eastern Conference and have the favorite for MVP.
All of that together sounds like a team poised to win the NBA championship, right? While the 76ers may look like a contender, many fans are struggling to buy into the possibility. Currently, Philadelphia has the consensus sixth-best odds to win the championship (some betting sites even have them in seventh, behind the 37-33 Los Angeles Clippers). There’s certainly a disconnect, but why? Philly is playing its best basketball at the right time of the year, and those caught sleeping could be in for quite a surprise by the end of the season.
A lot of the success for Philadelphia, especially lately, has been the play of their dominant star duo of Joel Embiid and James Harden. In the team’s last 10 games, Embiid has looked the part of the best player in basketball, scoring 36 points per game and taking over the top spot in the race for the much anticipated MVP race.
He’s on a stretch that will burn into the memory of Philadelphia fans for years to come, with numbers over the last 10 games hovering around 60/40/90 territory. He’s even had to get the team out of some tight spots, like storming back to defeat the Portland Trail Blazers at the buzzer.
There’s still a lot of time to determine who will win the MVP award this June, but it’s hard to imagine Embiid not taking the crown right now. He’s delivering us his magnum opus of basketball right now, dominating the league night after night, looking to be the center of attention and making each 76er game feel important. It’s easy to imagine him leading this team to a championship given the current form he’s in. In a league where the casual fan doesn’t value the regular season, every game matters to Embiid, and he plays like he’s got the biggest chip in the world on his shoulder whether it’s prime time or Monday night in Indiana.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic are equally having terrific seasons, but it’s hard not to take into account one of the league’s best players giving us one of the league’s best seasons. What Embiid is doing feels like it matters, and that is a value that should be celebrated in an NBA regular season.
Harden’s performance over the last 10 games feels just as important to Philadelphia’s success, as he has the second-highest offensive rating during that span (Onyeka Okongwu stans make some noise).
He’s also second in the league in assists during that time, averaging 11.3 assists to just 3.2 turnovers. His shooting is also hyper-efficient, averaging 39 percent from 3 and 90 percent from the free throw line, getting about eight shots from each spot per game. In a season where Harden is averaging his lowest amount of field goal attempts since he was in Oklahoma City, he’s managed to still find ways to maximize his efficiency and production later in his career.
Bringing us back to our overall thesis, “can the Philadelphia 76ers win an NBA championship?” those two players are going to be the most important driving forces behind it. Looking at each winner since the year 2000, one can begin to sense an underlying pattern of what is required to win it all.
Obviously, every team is really good, but context does matter. Since 2000, 19 out of the 23 NBA champions this century were top five in net rating. The four outliers, the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, 2010 Los Angeles Lakers, 2006 Miami Heat and 2001 Los Angeles Lakers, ranked eighth, seventh, sixth and eighth, respectively.
The majority of the teams thrive on the defensive side of the ball, with 21 out of the 23 teams thriving on the defensive side of the ball. The two exceptions, the 2018 Golden State Warriors and 2001 LA Lakers were among the top defensive teams the season before. Shaquille O’Neal famously played his way into shape in 2001 after winning his first championship, while the Warriors had assembled the greatest basketball team of all time. In both instances, it’s clear why they didn’t rank as well in the regular season. Both of those teams ranked first in defensive rating during their runs to a championship, clearly flipping the switch to the top level when it mattered most with superior talent.
The last interesting tidbit when looking at champions, 16 of the 23 teams ranked outside the top 10 in pace for an NBA season. There’s some logic to this, as the game slows down in the postseason, teams must know how to execute in those spots. Once again, the Warriors are the exception to this rule, with their first three championship seasons having teams top five in pace. They thrive off of the “pace and space” style of basketball, as did the 2014 San Antonio Spurs, who ranked 10th in pace. The 2009 and 2002 Lakers are the only other exceptions.
So using those parameters to give a rough outline, here are the current teams that rank as contenders for the NBA title in 2023: The Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks. That’s right, only the top four Eastern Conference teams match the guidelines for what we believe to make a contender, with Philadelphia very much in the mix.
Over the last 10 games, they’ve even gone up a level. They’re the top team in net rating over that span, outpacing the second-place New York Knicks by a comfortable margin. With one major statistical outlier in their wild 147-143 win over the Indiana Pacers, they’ve continued to soar as a top-five defense in the league. During their six-game winning streak, they’ve tracked down Boston and look poised to take the place of the second seed and perhaps gain homecourt advantage in what will be a critical second-round matchup.
So yes, the 76ers have the ingredients required to win a championship. While it makes sense for a team like Cleveland, a smaller market team without a bonafide top 10 player on the roster, Philadelphia doesn’t fit either of those boxes. They have the stars, they have the roster talent, why are they not in consideration?
A lot of this is narrative driven. Harden and embattled head coach Doc Rivers both have long resumes of playoff failures, perhaps clouding the judgment of everyday fans. Philadelphia by no means is a perfect team. They’re 28th in rebounding and while they’re first in 3-point shooting percentage at 39 percent, they have to prove that they can continue to shoot at such an efficient level. If they can do that, the 76ers could easily take home a Larry O’Brien trophy.