From tank to title talk, 76ers primed for championship run
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Charles Barkley had a statue dedicated in his honor outside the 76ers’ complex, the franchise for which he played the bulk of his Hall of Fame career — and later poked fun at as an analyst when the team tanked.
Billy Cunningham was Barkley’s first NBA coach and joked the Sixers may never have drafted Sir Charles had Houston not tanked at the tail end of 1984 to increase the odds it could select Hakeem Olajuwon with the No. 1 pick. Sixers coach Brett Brown, trying to become the first coach to win the championship in Philadelphia since Cunningham in 1983, had some fun at Barkley’s expense with the revelation.
“I can’t believe (Houston) dumped games to get high draft picks,” Brown said to laughter. “Can you believe that? Somebody trying to get high draft picks dumping games? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
From tanking to title contention, Brown has lived through it all in Philly since he was hired in 2013 and finally has his best roster and shot at winning a championship. The sting of last season’s elimination, when Kawhi Leonard sank the first Game 7-ending buzzer-beater in NBA history to lead Toronto past the 76ers, still lingers for the holdovers.
Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid & Co. have 7-1 odds to win the NBA title and believe the best is at last ahead for a team that has lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals each of the last two seasons.
“I’ve already picked the 76ers to win the championship next year,” Barkley said. “So, no pressure. I mean that, sincerely. I did call you all a stupid organization.”
Much like the 60-loss seasons, that’s all in the past for Philadelphia.
Simmons and Embiid are proven All-Stars and have the long-term, big-money deals that will keep them franchise cornerstones for years in their prime. Al Horford was signed away from rival Boston to start at power forward and, perhaps more importantly, provide needed relief to Embiid as backup center.
Embiid says the 76ers have a “chance to win it all” and the excitement around the team grows with each season.
Here’s what else to know about the 76ers:
SIMMONS FOR 3
Simmons was cheered in a preseason game like he was a scrub off the JV bench who scored a basket in mop-up time when he buried a 3-pointer.
The reason the crowd went wild? The 3 was the first for Simmons in the NBA.
Simmons is 0 for 17 from 3-point range in two seasons and spent his summer trying to improve his jumper. Defenses sagged on Simmons, daring him to shoot because the point guard can’t do much outside the paint. Simmons’ ability to expand his game is needed for the Sixers to go deep in the postseason as much as a healthy Embiid.
“I work every day and to me, it shows,” Simmons said. “I’m in the gym every day and I feel like it is paying off.”
Simmons has 50-1 odds to win NBA MVP.
The 23-year-old signed a $170 million, five-year contract extension in the offseason. He made his NBA debut in the 2017-18 season and was Rookie of the Year. He was an All-Star for the first time last season but vowed to do more.
“I think I was just too worried about what people were saying and what was going on around me. Too many outside noises,” Simmons said. “I was really able to block them out this summer and not focus on what people were saying.”
NEED FOR EMBIID
The Sixers will go only as far as their franchise center takes them.
They were willing to wait two years for him to sit out with injuries because they knew the tantalizing talent ahead. But Embiid has yet to play more than 64 games a season, one reason why the Sixers played Game 7 on the road instead of home. He missed a playoff game against Brooklyn with a bad left knee and had multiple digestive issues that made his starting status unknown for other games.
Embiid said he wants to play more than 64 games, though the Sixers are weary of his workload. He has 13-1 odds to win NBA MVP.
“I knew I had to be in better shape,” Embiid said. “Meaning that, I had to do a better job. You can’t coach sickness, you can’t go and get sick. All I can do is just make sure I do the right thing and eat the right things. I just try to do what I can do best.”
Embiid said at the start of training camp that he lost 20 pounds over the offseason and aimed for at least five more before opening night by eating right and working with team officials to get in better condition. Embiid didn’t say how much he weighs but is listed as 250 pounds on the depth chart.
Horford just might prove the most valuable pickup for the Sixers. When he played for the Celtics, Horford often gave Embiid fits defensively and now can give spell at center, when needed. A five-time All-Star, Horford averaged 13.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists last season.
Horford said he didn’t necessarily spill any secrets to Embiid on how to solve rugged defensive matchups.
“We are going to talk, but he is going to be fine,” Horford said. “If you look at the stat line, he is just doing his thing. I’m here to help him and I am here to help the team.”