Everything You Need to Know Before the 76ers Enter the NBA Playoffs
Here they come! Here’s everything you need to catch up on the Sixers before they head into the Wells Fargo Center this weekend.
Clap your hands, everybody! The 76ers begin their 2023 playoff run against the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday at 1 p.m.
If this is sounding familiar, it should: The Sixers have now made the NBA playoffs six years in a row. And they’ve advanced to the second round four of the last five years — only to be stopped short of advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals each time. There has been something uniquely gut-wrenching about each of these disappointments, but an early exit in 2023 might be the most painful yet. Because, while the Sixers have been perennial championship contenders for the last six years, there’s a sense that their window may be closing — and maybe faster than they think.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves — or down on ourselves — just yet. Instead, here’s where to watch, how to watch, and everything you need to catch up on what’s been happening with the Sixers before they head into the Wells Fargo Center this weekend.
Where and How to Watch
The first playoff game takes place on Saturday, April 15th, at 1 p.m. at the Wells Fargo Center. Tickets are available online.
Game 1 will air on ESPN, and the rest will likely be on TNT. You can also stream or watch via Sling or Fubo TV. To listen to the game on the radio, 97.5 FM has you covered. Here’s the whole series schedule:
- Game 1: April 15th, 1 p.m. in Philly (on ESPN)
- Game 2: April 17th, 7:30 p.m. in Philly (on TNT)
- Game 3: April 20th, 7:30 p.m. in Brooklyn (on TNT)
- Game 4: April 22nd, 1 p.m. in Brooklyn Nets (on TNT)
- Game 5 (if necessary): April 24th, TBD in Philly
- Game 6 (if necessary): April 27th, TBD in Brooklyn
- Game 7 (if necessary): April 29th, TBD in Philly (on TNT)
The Sixers enter the Eastern Conference Playoffs as the third seed. That sets them up to play the sixth-seeded Brooklyn Nets in a best-of-seven series that begins at home. The Sixers are favorites to win that series.
The Eastern Conference is strong this year and boasts, arguably, three legitimate title contenders: the Sixers, plus the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics who secured the first and second seeds, respectively. If things go as expected — the Celtics draw the seventh-seeded Atlanta Hawks in the first round — the Sixers would face off against the Celtics in the second round. The Sixers would be underdogs against the Celtics (Boston won the season series 3-1), meaning the specter of a fifth second-round exit in six years already looms. But even if the Sixers best the Nets and the Celtics, there’s a strong possibility they’d need to get past the the powerhouse Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals — another matchup in which the Sixers would be underdogs (though, for what its worth, those teams split their season series). If the Sixers can win three series, they would advance to the NBA Finals, rarified air they’ve not reached since 2001 and not succeeded in since 1983. But if everything breaks the Sixers’ way, the Finals begin on Thursday, June 1st.
Four best-of-seven series or bust. Sixteen more wins. Sixers fans began anticipating the 2023 playoffs right after the team’s disappointing exit last year versus the top-seeded Miami Heat. It’s finally here.
The Sixers finished the season with a record of 54-28, their best since the Allen Iverson-led 2001 squad went 56-26 on their way to the Finals. Getting to 54 wins seemed unlikely after a rocky start in October. The Sixers started by winning just one of their first five games, and were just 12-12 after a double-overtime loss to the lowly Houston Rockets (more on them later) on December 5th.
But then something clicked. The Sixers rattled off eight straight wins. They followed that up with a seven-game win streak starting in mid-January, during which they reached third place in the conference. The Sixers have maintained one of the top three records in the Eastern Conference ever since.
The season-ending momentum and the dynamic that’s developed between Joel Embiid and James Harden during their first full season as teammates give us reasons to hope this year will be different. An even more powerful reason to believe may be that this year’s version of Joel Embiid might just be the best yet. Embiid was the runner-up for NBA MVP the past two seasons, but this year he is the overwhelming favorite to bring home that award. He won his second straight scoring title, averaging 33.1 points per game – besting last year’s 30.6. It would be something special if Embiid could win a ring along with his first MVP trophy.
Another reason that this playoff run takes on special importance is that it may be the last chance for the Sixers during this era spawned by the famous rebuilding effort known as “The Process.” The Sixers’ mantra going back a decade has been to “Trust the Process,” a term used by its most ardent supporters and detractors alike.
The Sixers had finished the 2012-’13 season at 34-48, wrapping a decade where they were stuck in NBA’s version of purgatory: a middling squad not good enough to win a title but not bad enough to be in the running for an early first-round draft pick. When Sam Hinkie took over as the Sixers’ GM in 2013, he set out to make the Sixers terrible. The idea was that if the Sixers were bad enough for long enough, they would be eligible for numerous early first-round draft picks. Hinkie also made trades with little regard for how terrible they would make the Sixers in the short-term. He would trade serviceable players for draft picks, both because those draft picks could be turned into future talent — and also because a lack of serviceable players was a feature rather than a bug. Wins were poison, and good players got in the way. Hinkie’s Sixers set the all-time professional sports record for longest losing streak — 28 straight games. It was not a fun time to be a fan. It was bearable, though, if you were willing to Trust the Process.
The Sixers averaged only 19 wins over the next four years, falling as low as 10-72 in 2015-’16, but they picked in the top three in each of those four years. To hear Hinkie tell it, the goal was never to be a wizard at drafting. Some early draft picks would fall flat, while others would match their lofty expectations. Hinkie’s plan was to treat draft picks like lottery tickets, and acquire as many of them as possible. So with those four early first round picks, they had a couple spectacular duds — Jahlil Okafor and Markelle Fultz. But they also drafted Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
As a result of those four lean years, the Sixers are now culminating their sixth straight playoff run. Hinkie was out as GM before the Sixers even began to compete, but he retains a cultish following among fans who recognize his fingerprints on the team’s current success.
The smashing success of selecting Embiid with the third pick of the 2014 draft is obvious. It’s the main reason you’re reading this. Embiid even once nicknamed himself The Process, affirming just how integral he has been to the Sixers. But the truth is that, despite Philadelphia’s collective hatred for Ben Simmons, his selection at the beginning of the 2016 draft is the other big reason the Sixers are in the position they are in. Simmons had early success but became a fantastic, disgruntled disappointment by the end of his time in Philadelphia. But his talent remained appealing enough that the Brooklyn Nets were willing to trade their own disgruntled star, James Harden, to acquire him. Embiid and Harden are the offspring of The Process. Simmons begot Harden. Simmons never fulfilled his potential, but trading him might yet help the Sixers fill theirs.
Of course, don’t expect Simmons’ name to come up when we get to the section discussing the Sixers’ first-round opponent. Simmons is hurt — again. And even if he wasn’t hurt, and was unguarded right under the basket, he might not take a shot against us anyway.
James Harden, the Houston Rockets, and the Sixers’ Potential Last Hurrah
Had he panned out, Simmons could have been a wonderful partner for Embiid. The 26-year-old would presumably have been paired with Embiid for years, giving the Sixers many, many chances to bring home a title. On the other hand, Harden may not stay with the Sixers past this year.
Harden has a player option for next year, and the Sixers would likely love for him to exercise it. Should he decide to decline the option, he could sign a new contract with the team. However, rumors surfaced in December that Harden was considering returning to the Houston Rockets next year. Harden became a star in Houston, and it certainly has a special place in his heart. The Rockets and Harden divorced amicably enough when he was traded two and a half years ago, and many believe that he may want to return there as they work on their own rebuilding process.
The Sixers have expressed confidence that Harden will choose to return, but the specifics of the Collective Bargaining Agreement in the NBA complicate that.
The CBA allows teams to go over the luxury tax threshold only to retain their own star players (their “Bird Rights”), so it would forbid the Sixers from spending Harden’s would-be salary to acquire his replacements from other teams. Instead, the Sixers’ salary cap will be used up by the burdensome contract of useful-but-overpaid Tobias Harris, and the upcoming salary hike coming to elite guard and all-around darling Tyrese Maxey on his next contract.
If Embiid doesn’t have a player of Harden’s caliber to play with, the Sixers aren’t contenders. And if the presumed league MVP is not a contender, many have speculated that he himself would ask for a trade. In that scenario, the Sixers may be eager to trade Embiid away anyway, because they would otherwise find themselves back in that worst-case scenario middle ground of being a non-contender that’s not bad enough to make franchise-altering early draft picks.
Will Harden return? Are these rumors about Houston real? Would a better outcome in this year’s playoffs encourage Harden to return? None of this is clear, and all of it makes it feel like this is the time for the Sixers to get the job done — for The Process to make good on all that trust.
The Brooklyn Nets were unceremoniously swept in the first round of the playoffs last year, but were still supposed to be championship contenders going into this season. Yet they are now heavy underdogs in the first round as a sixth seed against the third-seeded Sixers. Gambling sites place the Sixers at -900 and the Nets at +600, meaning that bettors collectively think the Sixers have a nearly 90 percent chance of winning the series. So, how did the Nets end up mediocre?
The team was supposed to be led by Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and Ben Simmons. Those three now find their homes with, respectively, the Dallas Mavericks, the Phoenix Suns, and the injured list.
On Thursday, October 27th, the Nets fell to 1-3 with a loss to the Mavericks by a score of 129-125 in overtime – despite Irving scoring 39 points. But it was Irving’s behavior earlier that day that ultimately set their demise in motion. Irving tweeted a link to a movie called “Hebrews to Negroes” which was littered with debunked antisemitic conspiracy theories. (And it was far from his first foray into conspiracy theories. Google “Kyrie Irving & vaccination” and “Kyrie Irving & flat earth.”) He was suspended indefinitely, and eventually returned after eight games (after everyone seemingly decided that he wasn’t antisemitic anymore? I don’t know). The Nets were 7-9 when he returned, but they never quite recovered. In early February, Irving demanded a trade, and his request was granted.
Fellow superstar Durant was traded in accordance with his own wishes shortly after. And Simmons found his way to the injured list.
The Nets managed to win enough games after the trade deadline by going 13-17 to land themselves in sixth place in the Eastern Conference. But they are led by an entirely new crew. Former Villanova standout Mikal Bridges emerged as an important piece after coming to the Nets from the Suns in the Durant trade, averaging 26.1 points per game in his 27 contests with Brooklyn. Spencer Dinwiddle came from the Mavericks as part of the return for Irving, and he too will be an important part of the Nets starting lineup against the Sixers.
Nets’ center Nic Claxton will also be integral for the Nets, because he draws the hefty responsibility of guarding Embiid.
All told, it is clear why the Sixers are such heavy favorites. Teams have lost series with advantages like this before, but not often.
It is never good luck to look past any opponent in professional sports, but you could forgive the Sixers for looking past the Nets. (You could argue that by giving into trade requests from their two best players in February, the Nets themselves kind of looked past the Nets.) But if you feel like indulging the thought that the Sixers may just beat this shell of a Nets team in the first round, things get much tougher going forward.
While Embiid would be the best player on the court in the 76ers-Celtics series, the Celtics are a much deeper team, and will be favored to win that round. (Gambling odds suggest that the Sixers would have a 40 percent chance of winning that series.) Then they would likely have to beat the Bucks, who are heavily favored in their part of the bracket, to get to the Finals. It’s a tall order for a team like the Sixers with unquestioned superstar power, but a weaker supporting cast. But if the Sixers are going to fulfill the prophecy set in motion a decade ago, and if they are going to keep their contention window open by giving Harden a reason to stick around, that is exactly what they will need to do. And it all starts this weekend, when the Sixers will aim to win the first of 16 games they need to finally bring an NBA Championship back to Philadelphia.