Philadelphia 76ers should be optimistic after shaky 6-5 start

Ben Simmons & Joel Embiid | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Ben Simmons & Joel Embiid | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

11 games into the season, the Philadelphia 76ers are a mere 6-5, with losses by wide margins to top Eastern Conference foes. Yet, most signs point to better times ahead.

Have you ever felt like a 6-5 person? You know, like you’re doing well, but not as well as you know you could be doing. A better break here, a better performance there, and you could easily be an 8-3 person, feeling as if your predicted greatness is progressing according to plan. But you’re 6-5, just barely better than breaking even, wondering if and when you’ll pull it together and turn into that 8-3 person you know you’re not far from being.

That’s where the Philadelphia 76ers currently stand. They’re 6-5, although another break or two in that first game against the Detroit Pistons in addition to actually showing up against the Brooklyn Nets and they could easily be 8-3.

Instead of fifth in the East, they’d be third. Instead of everyone wondering if this team is going to pull it together and fulfill its potential, the NBA’s talking heads would be praising the Sixers for playing like the major Eastern Conference contender that so many predicted they would be (although there would still be concern about their performances against top teams).

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Yet, 6-5 isn’t so bad. The Sixers are a win on Wednesday against Indiana away from tying the third-seeded Pacers in record. They’re a mere half game behind the Celtics and a more successful streak of basketball away from closing the small gap between them and the Bucks and Raptors. Everyone who should be behind the Sixers in the Eastern Conference standings is currently behind them.

But the team looked awful on Sunday against Brooklyn and is one of only two NBA teams with a winning record to sport a negative point differential. The other team? The Sacramento Kings.

The other concern about 6-5 is that the five seed is this team’s floor. At the very worst, this is where the Sixers finish in the standings. Needless to say, it hasn’t been great to watch the Sixers play like the worst version of themselves.

That’s a bleak picture, but don’t forget that the Sixers were also 6-5 last season and finished with 52 wins. The difference is that last year’s 6-5 felt optimistic, as the team was proving doubters wrong. This year’s 6-5 feels disappointing because the team is expected to challenge for the Eastern Conference crown, yet they look like a team that will be fortunate to escape the East’s first round.

Behind Joel Embiid‘s masterful performances, Robert Covington’s defensive dominance, and Ben Simmons doing Ben Simmons things, not much has worked for this team. It’s an understatement to say that Dario Saric has been awful. J.J. Redick is shooting a mere 38 percent from three (‘mere’ by his standards) and only 39 percent overall. Markelle Fultz can’t shoot or share the floor with Ben Simmons. Amir Johnson is, was, and will always be Amir Johnson (for which I love him, but he’s no game-changer). Mike Muscala has shown flashes but no consistency. Wilson Chandler has barely played. T.J. McConnell isn’t seeing the floor. Basically, the Sixers are two top-25 players, a defensive wizard, and an opportunistic Landry Shamet dragging a bunch of underperforming bums through the mud.

Which is why we should be optimistic. Despite most of the team playing like good basketball is punishable by death, the Sixers are 6-5. They’re a mess, but a good mess. An above .500 mess, with their culture standing out as keeping them together during this underwhelming start. They probably won’t repeat last year’s 16-game win streak, but just like last year they’re a winning team at the 11-game mark that’s united and saying the right things despite most of their best players being very young. For all of that, 6-5 doesn’t feel so bad.

Not that 6-5 is a cause for cheers. This is merely to say that things will get better.

As much as whoever manages Dario Saric’s offseason workouts deserves to be put on trial for treason, Saric won’t remain this bad all year. Like a baseball player who encounters an unprecedented slump, he’ll break out of this. He might not shoot 39 percent from three again, but he’s also not a 23 percent three-point shooter and 34 percent overall. He’ll get better.

Brett Brown will continue to experiment with and figure out how to best deploy Markelle Fultz, who, despite not being able to shoot, has displayed improved aggressiveness and defense of late, especially when not sharing the court with Ben Simmons. If Fultz ultimately can’t help the team, McConnell will see more minutes. Either way, the player getting those minutes figures to provide better performances, if not in the near future then at least eventually, when the games matter most.

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Redick will shoot better.

Wilson Chandler will play regular minutes.

Ben Simmons will improve as the year progresses and Joel Embiid will continue destroying worlds like the bona fide MVP candidate he is.

Robert Covington will hopefully continue to hit threes at or around his current 42 percent clip.

And maybe Muscala brings his A-game on a more consistent basis.

Maybe a trade happens.

Perhaps we score big on the buyout market again.

Heck, the Sixers might even figure out how to win a road game.

No matter what, 6-5 feels more like a launching point than a sign of team decline. The Sixers might not win 52 games again, but unlike last year they just might have the best player in the East. They might even have the East’s best duo. While Embiid is not LeBron, and together with Simmons they’re no Jordan and Pippen, the Sixers’ duo gives Philly a better than good shot. Those guys don’t play 6-5 basketball all year long.

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Just like when you feel like a 6-5 person, while it’s not ideal, because you’d love to be an 8-3 person, you know deep down that when push came to shove, the odd break was favorable, that you proved to be a winner, not a loser. Not that 6-5 is being a winner by much, but when things are going bad and you’re still a winning team, that’s usually a sign of untapped potential.