Why the Sixers will contend for an NBA title this year
I'm a sports writer, I live for the crazy reactions of my readers when they see the headlines above the writing.
Normally, putting title contention and the Sixers in the same sentence would warrant a confused and disbelieving response, but after the season the Sixers have had in 2017-18, exceeding all expectations of the national and local media, as well as the staff of Sports Talk Philly, nothing seems to be out of the realm of possibility anymore.
This team has won 51 games.
Just a couple weeks ago, the Sixers shut the mouth of one their biggest haters, Colin Cowherd by winning 40 games.
From 40 wins to 51 wins, the Sixers didn't drop a game. They are currently on a 15-game win streak, the longest in a single season in franchise history. On Wednesday night, the Sixers are likely to win their 16th straight game to close the regular season.
Things like this don't happen overnight. The Process took place over the course of the last five seasons, and following turmoil, injuries, a lack of faith, and as little of winning as possible, they are just two wins away from finishing in the Eastern Conference playoff race as the No. 3 seed, ahead of the three-time defending conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
I am not going to downplay the road the Sixers have traveled upon while on this winning streak. The teams they have beaten along the way aren't the least bit impressive. However, a win is a win in the NBA, and in order to get where you need to go in terms of contending for a championship, you have to beat every team you encounter along the way.
During the 15-game streak, the Sixers have only faced three playoff-bound teams. They defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Denver Nuggets, one of which will represent the West as the No. 8 seed, the other will go home.
And the Cavaliers, who the Sixers got themselves the respect of media-heads Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless, by upending LeBron James 132-130 at the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night.
Three out of 15 games against playoff-type teams isn't the most impressive resume in the world, but as I said earlier, a win is a win, and you have to win the games you are presented in order to compete and contend.
The Case of the East
The Eastern Conference is definitely not the strongest of conferences when it comes to the playoffs and who can beat who. Especially at this point in the season when many of the East's best players are out with injuries.
The road to getting further in the playoffs gets a lot easier, especially from the No. 3 seed, where the Sixers are currently located at.
A first round playoff series win against any number of opponents could put the Sixers in the driver's seat of facing the No. 2 seeded Boston Celtics, who in most cases throughout the season, would almost be considered a lock to move to the Conference Finals against Philadelphia.
The situation became a lot more muddy for Boston when it's superstar guard Kyrie Irving was ruled out for the remainder of the season, including the playoffs.
The road for Boston to be the team everyone had expected them to be coming into this season became a lot more challenging.
So challenging, that the Sixers are by far looking like the superior team over the Celtics right now. Depth-wise the Sixers have Boston beat, talent-wise, and health-wise.
Toronto has been looking good all season, but have slipped up a little over the last couple weeks or so, not able to overcome LeBron and the Cavs. If all goes as planned, the Raptors could face the Cavs in the second round.
If the Sixers beat the Celtics in the second round, a date with the Cavs in the Conference Finals could be the situation, where the Sixers have bested Cleveland twice this season including the last two meetings.
Still, even if all the balls drop in the right places, the Sixers' probability of making the NBA Finals are not extremely positive, but not out of the question either.
The East just isn't as certain as they were earlier in the season. The teams that everyone thought would be up in the mix for a contention spot (Wizards, Bucks) aren't in the mix, and this could be the year that the Sixers sneak up, surprise millions, and matchup in the Finals against Houston or Golden State.
The Sixers aren't an afterthought in the Eastern Conference anymore. They aren't just "another playoff team." The Sixers are built to win. Now. It's unbelievably special to see.
The Sixers are built to win, but are they built to sustain?
It's a reasonable question. Are the Sixers built to sustain success throughout the playoffs into the NBA Finals, or have the peaked already? Is this the ceiling or can the Sixers go higher than they are?
We've seen the Sixers build their success all season long behind their point guard, rookie Ben Simmons, who hasn't developed a full-fledged jump shot quite yet, relying mostly on his paint skills and ball-handling. However, it's worked. He's been dominant, and his 12 triple-doubles have led the Sixers to 51 wins this year.
I'm starting to wonder what teams are going to try to do to guard Ben Simmons in the playoffs, since he is in fact so one-dimensional in the way he plays offense.
Guarding the paint with a series on the line is going to be so huge, as Simmons will almost always play his game down low. You may even see Simmons just dish the ball outside to a JJ Redick or Robert Covington to get the 3-ball and control the offense that way.
The problem here is that the Sixers have a tendency of being an extremely shaky outside shooting team. Recently, it hasn't been an issue, but when it's an issue, it's a big problem. With an injury to Joel Embiid, the offense becomes even more predictable with Ben Simmons, especially in a seven-game series.
Can the Sixers be as dominant for a long period of time, when teams start to figure out the way Simmons and Co. run an offense? We'll have to wait and see to find out.
The Sixers are more than likely going to enter the first round of the playoffs on a franchise-record 16 straight wins, which just shows how much momentum the Sixers will be riding at that point in time.
In the NBA, having home court advantage in literally any playoff series is so key, because the probability of getting out of the series and advancing is just so much higher when you have the chance to play the deciding games in front of your own fans.
With whoever they face in the first round, the Sixers will have the opportunity to do just that.
With Joel Embiid, I believe the Sixers have a very high chance of getting to the Eastern Conference Finals, especially with the injury bug affecting other teams.
I believe Joel Embiid will make his return at any point during the playoffs, if not the first round. With that said, even without their star center, I wouldn't put it past the Sixers if they still got out of the first round in decisive fashion and found themselves on the brink of winning a series against Boston in the second round.
The question still lingers. Can the Sixers actually contend for a title this season? It's honestly not out of the question any longer. The Sixers are a much better team than we were originally led to believe, and as of right now, I believe the stars have aligned in the right way to put them in a possible contention to upset LeBron James and head to the Finals for the first time since 2001.
Josh Liddick is Sixers managing editor for SportsTalkPhilly.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoshLiddickTalk.