The Philadelphia 76ers enter the 2020-21 NBA Playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
That is something they haven’t accomplished since the 2000-2001 season.
— Kevin Negandhi (@KNegandhiESPN) May 15, 2021
This marks the fourth consecutive season the Sixers will make the playoffs.
And after last year’s disappointment, they will be looking to make some noise this time around.
The pieces seem to finally be in place around the two cornerstones.
Doc Rivers is a championship-tested coach and the bench is deep.
But they are not the favorites to come out of the East, much less win the Finals.
That honor belongs to the Brooklyn Nets and, depending on who you ask, the Milwaukee Bucks.
Here are three reasons why the Sixers should hold that distinction.
76ers Play Elite Defense
There’s a reason “defense wins championships” is still a mantra today.
Even with the scoring boom happening in all sports, the less-glamorous side is still important.
A team can score as many points as it wants, but all that is for naught if they can’t stop the other side.
The 76ers offense is not elite by any means.
They are somewhat overly reliant on the play of Embiid and the 3-point shooting is streaky.
But their defense is locked in night-in and night-out.
The Philadelphia 76ers are feeling confident about their defense heading into the playoffs. https://t.co/oeKwa3EAJU
— Sixers Wire (@SixersWire) May 15, 2021
Behind the efforts of their young two-way stars, Philly is allowing the sixth-fewest points per game this season (108.1).
That number gets even stingier in terms of Defensive Rating, which is calculated per 100 possessions.
In that category, the Sixers rank second at 107.6.
They hold opponents to 45 percent from the field and 36 percent from deep – both top 10 percentages in the league.
And it starts with the pillars in Embiid and Simmons.
Simmons has made his case for DPOY this season behind his incredible versatility on the defensive end.
Two guards, two forwards, and a big – all with different play styles.
Embiid is a force in the paint by simply existing.
His presence alone deters drivers from the paint while allowing his teammates to play more aggressively on the perimeter.
Joel averaged 1.4 blocks per game while making opponents shoot 8.1 percent worse from inside six-feet on average.
Philly has also found a secret weapon in Matisse Thybulle, a rangy wing who may make an All-Defensive Team despite only playing 20 minutes per game.
Here are some highlights of Matisse Thybulle's dominant defense against the Pacers, including him wreaking havoc in the Sixers' 2-3 zone.
He finished the game with 4 steals, 2 blocks and 5 deflections in 25 minutes. pic.twitter.com/MKEyZkXChI
— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) February 1, 2021
The Sixers have plenty of defenders to throw at opposing stars.
Bench Stronger than the Past
The second support for this year’s team is the second unit.
The bench has been in the bottom 10 in terms of scoring the past three years for Philadelphia.
While their starting five has been amongst the best, the team would struggle when the stars sat.
This year has been different.
While the bench is not on par with the likes of Utah or either LA team, they rank 13th in terms of bench scoring.
That is ninth when whittled down to just playoff teams.
George Hill finally gives Philly the floor general they have needed when Simmons sits.
Hill can initiate the offense and adds another shooter to the mix.
Furkan Korkmaz can get hot from deep and has improved his overall offensive game as well.
And of course, there is the defensive ace in Thybulle.
The Philadelphia 76ers are happy with Isaiah Joe’s defensive play as a rookie. https://t.co/7U77Kz9HwK
— Sixers Wire (@SixersWire) May 13, 2021
Rivers has already hinted at the fact they may go deep come playoff time.
And he feels comfortable going 11 deep if needed.
While that seems unlikely in the playoffs, it is encouraging to hear a coach say he has trust in that many guys when it matters.
The third reason the Sixers should be considered title favorites is Embiid.
When healthy, Embiid has looked like the most dominant player in the NBA this season.
He was well on his way to earning the MVP award before a midseason injury forced him to miss 10 games.
Stars tend to win in the NBA, and Embiid will arguably be the brightest star in any series.
With MVP candidate Joel Embiid leading the way, the Sixers earned high grades during the 2020-21 NBA season
— Lebanon Daily News (@LDNews) May 18, 2021
Cases could be made in series against the Nets or Bucks, and they would be valid.
But this season has seen a new Embiid – one that is in terrific shape and is dominating everywhere.
Nobody has proven capable of stopping the big man from Cameroon.
Philly is 39-12 when he suits up, and he has scored at least 20 points in all but 10 games.
He will be a matchup nightmare for any Eastern Conference opponent and his two-way dominance could very well carry the Sixers to the Finals.
Embiid has simply been brilliant this season.