Charles Barkley dubs Philadelphia 76ers “sleepers” in the East

The former Philadelphia 76ers superstar has changed his tune.

Charles Barkley holds a special place in Sixers lore, but to say he’s been a vociferous critic of the Philadelphia 76ers this season would be an understatement. The TNT co-host has ragged on the Sixers all season, taking aim at Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons for their well-documented shortcomings.

After a few months of quarantine, however, it appears Barkley’s opinion has shifted. He once said the Sixers have “no chance” in the East. Now, in his eyes, the Sixers are sleepers.

This comes as a mild surprise, but the points Barkley makes are legitimate. Philadelphia has a wealth of talent on the roster, and it’s not difficult to derive confidence solely from the presence of Embiid and Simmons who, despite ragged reputations, are both All-Stars.

“I’ll tell you what, the one team in the Eastern Conference that scares the hell out of me — I don’t want to see Ben and Joel and Tobias Harris. I would not want to play the 76ers in the playoffs. … Other than Giannis — I want to make sure I don’t leave anybody out — the Sixers are going to have the best two players against any team in the Eastern Conference. With the exception of Giannis, any team they play in the Eastern Conference, they’re going to have the two best players on the court in every series — except against the Milwaukee Bucks.”

Not everyone will agree with Barkley’s claims here. Jimmy Butler, Pascal Siakam, and Jayson Tatum are the noteworthy names who some would argue are better than Simmons. Even so, the core point remains the same. The Sixers are wildly talented, and there aren’t any one-two punches better than Embiid and Simmons in the East.

The Sixers have struggled to make the pieces fit all season, and frankly, my evaluation of Philadelphia’s title odds probably aligns more with Barkley’s previous sentiments. But it’s foolish to deny the Sixers as sleepers — a largely discounted team that, under the right circumstances, could vastly outperform expectations.

If Brett Brown can figure out Al Horford’s role; if Shake Milton continues to set nets ablaze; if Josh Richardson is fully recovered; if Ben Simmons is his healthiest and most aggressive self; if Joel Embiid is in shape; if the Sixers can hit shots away from home — if all these things culminate in a specific and favorable way after three months off, the Sixers could emerge as borderline favorites. Never underestimate talent in the postseason. The Sixers have a near-universal advantage in that department.

Barkley went on to state the importance of Embiid and Simmons from a leadership perspective. If the Sixers are going to compete, it starts at the top. Embiid will need to have a chip on his shoulder. Simmons will need to be not only healthy, but assertive. The Sixers need their stars to lead the charge.

Questions linger when it comes to Embiid and Simmons’ ability to lead. They are still young relative to most playoff-hardened superstars. The Bucks, the Heat, the Celtics — they all have “older” core pieces, even if Al Horford evens the equation somewhat for Philadelphia.

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Only time will tell if Barkley is right. If the Sixers can truly turn around a seemingly lost season and compete in an Eastern Conference many once claimed as theirs to win. Barkley has an infamously shaky track record when it comes to predictions, but he is a former Sixer, and it’s clear this team elicits a strong emotional reaction from him. Maybe — just maybe — he’s onto something.

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