Boy, it doesn't take much, does it? It was barely a week ago that the Sixers had suffered a humiliating fourth-quarter collapse in Utah that left them 7-24, having lost each of their last four games, and six of their last seven. Noel was disgruntled, Okafor was running (well, jogging) rampant, Covington hadn't hit a three since the LiveJournal era. We were in last place, and about one more deflating L or depressing post-game scrum away from turning our attention to learning our Malik Monks from our Josh Jacksons for next year's draft.
But four contests later -- three Ws, and a fourth that easily could've been -- and all of a sudden, we're talking postseason again. That's thanks to one Joel "The Process" Embiid, who not only has played the All-Star part of late (six straight games with 20+ points, averaging 24-7-3-2 over that span), but is trying to get the Sixers thinking big picture with his post-game rhetoric:
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Embiid is eyeing the playoffs: "I think we're 7 or 8 games from the 8th place so I think that's a goal. I think we have a chance."— Jessica Camerato (@JCameratoCSN) January 8, 2017
Ridiculous, right? Even after their not-really-even-a-winning-streak, the Sixers stand at 10-25 for the season, 13th out of 15 in the Eastern Conference. They're 7.5 games back of the Bucks and Wizards for eighth place. Meanwhile, there have been teams that have won as many games as the last three Sixers squads combined and still missed the playoffs -- we're really gonna shake that off and make a premature run at the postseason with this unbalanced, inexperienced roster?
And yet, the thought tempts. OK, so there's five teams separating them and the postseason -- that's not insurmountable, is it? All of these teams (Washington, Milwaukee, Detroit, New York, Orlando) are so roundly underwhelming that each seems one injury and/or losing streak away from throwing in the towel on the season altogether. The Sixers have 47 games remaining in the season; could they possibly go 27-20 the rest of the way? Is there a chance 37 wins might be enough to sneak into the playoffs in a perpetually unremarkable East?
The allure of a playoff run feels at least partially more plausible than it would have ten days ago, because two key personnel adjustments have made this feel like a different Sixers team. Nerlens Noel has swiped Jahlil Okafor's rotation minutes from him as if Jahlil was inattentively dribbling them on the perimeter, while T.J. McConnell has scrapped his way into being our PG1, a role he inherited with Sergio Rodriguez's ankle injury and has locked down in the games since.
Nerlens and T.J. have undoubtedly breathed new life into the Sixers, or at least have kept Jah and Sergio from sucking out all the old life. Noel is playing the classic, rim-running Tyson Chandler role for the Sixers on offense, a perpetual threat for a lob or putback -- forcing the defense to account for him on every possession, and shooting 60% in the process. Rather than mire the offense like Okafor with his plodding post-ups, he makes life easier for everyone, and still ends up scoring at a higher (and far more efficient) rate. Defense has been slower-coming for Nerlens this season, but he's learning what to do and where to go, and his irrepressible handsiness means he's still responsible for nearly three steals per 36 minutes -- an insane rate for a big man.
McConnell, meanwhile, has given the Sixers' offense a spark it hasn't had since the early halcyon days of Ish Smith 2.0. T.J.'s court vision is virtually peerless, as we saw in his 17-dime game in Boston, and while he's not as good a shooter from range as Rodriguez, he's much craftier in and around the paint, much more aggressive attacking the basket, and much better at remaining a nuisance for opposing PGs on D. With the two players upgraded in the rotation, the Sixers are quicker, smarter and exponentially friskier. Combined with Embiid's continued progress and Ben Simmons' likely imminent return, it's enough to make you wonder if this recent Philly run could actually sustain for the rest of the season.
Unfortunately, the odds are against them in even more ways than the obvious ones. As good as T.J. has been in his five games as Sixers starter, his lack of outside shooting remains a weakness that teams will increasingly exploit in the days to come. You already saw it start in Sunday's Brooklyn game -- the Nets went under on every pick, and the driving lanes (which T.J. would use to kick out to shooters, drop off to Joel/Noel or scoop in his own layup) that were there for him in previous games were virtually non-existent.
Consequently, he had just 4 points on 2-11 shooting -- he only attempted two triples, missing both -- and a middling six assists. It's why point guards who can't shoot are getting increasingly phased out of the modern NBA, and why just last year, Ish Smith lit it up for Philly in his first couple weeks before plummeting back to earth for the season's remainder. If Timothy John can't make defenses pay for sagging off him, it's gonna be difficult for him to stay effective as a starter, and you'll likely see the Sixers' surging offense (107 PPG the last four contests, eight higher than the team's average) begin to recede along with his productivity.
It's hard for me to believe that we've seen the last of Jahlil Okafor in this rotation, either. As much as the evidence -- visual, statistical, anecdotal, karmic -- suggests fairly unequivocally that Philly is better with Nerlens on the floor and worse with Jahlil, the Sixers still have too much wrapped up in the No. 3 overall pick of 2015 to write him off as a sunk cost. I fear that Noel's excellent play of late merely upgrades his status as a trade chip for the Colangelos, and the fact that Okafor would likely net little more than a fellow prospect disappointment or mediocre rotation player seems to suggest he's not going anywhere anytime soon.
And even with Noel still in tow, we'll likely end up leaning on Jahlil some in the weeks to come, as our currently luxurious scheduling gets more and more cramped. The Sixers will play an absurd six back-to-backs in the next month, which likely means at least six games with Embiid riding the pine, and possibly more. The Sixers are only 2-8 when Joel sits, and even with the team's improvement around him, it's hard to imagine that winning percentage getting much better with him out in 2017. We'll need Jah to pick up some of the slack, but that hasn't exactly been his forte of late -- our third-string center hasn't posted a positive plus-minus in a single game since December 11.
And about that Simmons guy -- his return is undoubtedly a great thing for the Sixers franchise, but are we sure it's that great for their 2016-'17 win-loss record? His insertion into our rotation should make for some exciting high-low big-man play and some awesome fast breaks, but it'll shrink the floor to us to a brutal degree -- especially if his minutes come at the expense of PT for Ersan Ilyasova, the sweet-shooting PF whose on-court presence actually makes the largest difference in our offensive and defensive ratings. With Simmons' stroke still looking iffy and Covington yet to really snap out of his funk from distance, expect things to get awfully crowded for Embiid down low in the days to come, and our offense to suffer greatly as a result.
So yeah, the road to postseason basketball in 2017 is gonna be a bumpy one. The Sixers almost certainly won't make the playoffs this season, and I'd still say their chances of even getting to 30 wins are pretty slim. But that's totally fine -- the fact that the Sixers aren't already close to mathematically eliminated from the discussion at this point in the season has to be seen as a positive, and Embiid talking tough about the Sixers not writing off May basketball as a possibility is exactly what we want to hear from our franchise player. It's a silly discussion, but that doesn't mean it's not fun to have.
The Process may talk about the playoffs being the goal, but the real goal is to be able to say those things and not have everyone in the building roll their eyes so hard they burst a blood vessel. And this year, for the first time since Our Once and Always Dark Lord took the throne, that goal actually seems achievable.