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Are the Philadelphia 76ers Legitimate NBA Title Contenders?


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(December 14, 2020)--Last season did not go according to plan for the Philadelphia 76ers. After coming within a few bounces of making the Eastern Conference Finals, they doubled down on size by re-signing Tobias Harris, giving the room exception to Mike Scott and poaching Al Horford from the Boston Celtics. They leaned even further into bigger lineups with fewer ball-handlers by flipping Jimmy Butler, their own free agent, to the Miami Heat in exchange for Josh Richardson.


After all that, the Sixers largely went belly up. They still made the playoffs and flirted with a 50-win pace but couldn’t make it out of the first round. Heads rolled shortly thereafter. Head coach Brett Brown was fired in favor of Doc Rivers. Former Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey was brought in to captain the front office. They traded Al Horford and Josh Richardson for sweet-shooting wings Seth Curry and Danny Green.


Is this all enough to make them championship contenders, as the presence of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid demands they should be? People are split on whether they will reach that level. Many analysts believe they’ll get there, and the best Vegas betting sites peg them as a top-10 contender. 


But the actual verdict remains to be seen, and it’s not hard to see why.


How Much Has the Sixers Roster Improved?

On the surface, the Sixers didn’t make many big moves. Seth Curry and Danny Green are role players, and while many are high on rookie Tyrese Maxey, first-year talents don’t tend to get many minutes on playoff hopefuls.


Still, though the Sixers did not add another star, they did acquire players who make so much more sense for the roster. This is the first team, in fact, that looks like it was built to complement franchise cornerstones Simmons and Embiid, neither of whom guarantees much shooting. 


With the additions of Curry and Green, the Sixers can now close tight games with three above-average marksmen—them plus to Harris—in addition to their two superstars. That’s a big deal.



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Do the Sixers Have Another Move in Them?

This is basically asking whether the Sixers should trade for James Harden, who is pretty much begging to get out of Houston.


It’s a topic that has incited division. The Sixers can beat out every other prospective suitor’s trade offer by including Simmons or Embiid, but both stars are younger than Harden and under contract for longer.


At the same time, Embiid and Simmons are also both more injury-prone than Harden. More than that, Harden has finished inside the top three of MVP voting over each of the past four seasons, winning once. Adding a top-five player to the fold, who would functionally complement whoever remains between Embiid and Simmons, feels like a recipe not just for contention but absolute domination.


Philly’s Championship Verdict

While landing Harden would no doubt vault Philadelphia up to the top tier of title chasers, we can’t view their stock through that lens. Because, well, they don’t have Harden. We must base our decision off the roster already in place.


And using that criterion, the Sixers still fall a little short.


Sure, they’re playing in the wide-open Eastern Conference. There is maybe one team that’s guaranteed to be better than them (Milwaukee Bucks). Otherwise, they fall into the same jumbled second tier with the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors, Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets and potentially the Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards. That’s not a bad spot to be. It increases the Sixers’ range of outcomes, but there is a world in which they finish with the East’s second-best record.


Then again, we’ve yet to see Embiid and Simmons remain healthy for an entire season together. And at the end of the day, they remain an imperfect fit. 


Unless Simmons suddenly develops a jumper or the Sixers do, indeed, make a play for Harden, it feels like they’ll hover around fringe title contention—that middle ground on which their defense is championship caliber, but they still lack the offensive firepower and playmaking depth off the bench to truly rival the likes of the Bucks, Heat, Celtics and, should they be lucky enough to make the Finals, the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers.