When we were left without basketball amid the coronavirus pandemic, we all turned to different methods to entertain ourselves. Whether it was watching old games or picking up a new hobby, we were passing the time however we could.
When The Last Dance documentary aired, it gave us all something to look forward to. As you watched each episode, you were reminded of what Michael Jordan had to go through to get to his first championship.
When he broke his foot during his second season, his team wanted him to sit so they could get a better draft pick – Jordan, of course, defied that. He then struggled to get over the hump in the playoffs, losing to a Celtics dynasty and the “Bad Boy” Pistons. He faced scrutiny with doubters thinking he couldn’t get the Bulls to the promised land. Then, finally, at age 28, Jordan won the first of his six NBA titles.
Nothing can make up for experience. Kevin Durant was also 28 when he won his first championship. LeBron James was 27. Steph Curry was 26. Even for the most elite NBA players, the ride to that first ring can be bumpy.
For 26-year-old Joel Embiid and 24-year-old Ben Simmons, their young careers have taken a strange path. While the ultimate goal for any team should be a championship, it’s important to have perspective in where these players are. In reality, their ride together in Philadelphia is just getting started.
There is one basic fact that Embiid and Simmons’ detractors have to realize: The All-Star duo is authoring one of the best eras in franchise history. Since Simmons made his NBA debut, the Sixers have a record of 142-87 – that’s good for a .620 winning percentage – and have won 50 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1986. In the 16 seasons between the team’s 50-win season in Allen Iverson’s MVP campaign of 2000-01 and the first 50-win season of the Embiid-Simmons era in 2017-18, the team had a .411 winning percentage.
The bottom line is this pairing has provided the most exciting era of Sixers basketball since Iverson and the winningest era since Julius Erving. Simmons’ move to the four spot shouldn’t change much in that regard.
“If you look at the numbers since we’ve been playing together, they’ve been great,” Embiid said last week. “This year it’s kind of down – new roster, people are getting used to it the whole year. But you look at the ratings on and off the past few years, we were great. So I think [any position Simmons plays], really doesn’t matter, we’re going to be great. We’re going to do what we need to do to accomplish the goal that we set for ourselves and I’m excited. I don’t see any difference. I think it’s still going to be the same and we’re going to dominate.”
Their first two playoff runs ended in the second round. For a team that constantly talks about competing for a championship and a fan base that patiently sat through The Process, it feels like a disappointment.
These things don’t happen overnight. Jordan made his NBA debut in 1984 but didn’t make it to the Eastern Conference Finals until 1989 and didn’t make the NBA Finals until 1990. As The Last Dance revealed, Chicago fans and media got impatient with Jordan. Even in Sixers franchise history, Julius Erving didn’t win his first title until his seventh NBA season. There were people that doubted Dr. J could get the Sixers a ring with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in their primes.
It won’t be easy for the Sixers this season. With a global pandemic and issues with social injustice and racial inequality still in the foreground, the Sixers face an uphill battle.
Perhaps it will all galvanize a team that underachieved through 65 games.
“The guys have come in ready, mentally prepared and willing to sacrifice whatever someone needs to sacrifice in order for us to win,” Simmons said Friday. “I think this is the best the team’s been; we’ve been together collectively. The chemistry is much better than prior to early on in the season in a big way.”
It’s not to say you shouldn’t get frustrated every time Simmons passes up a shot or Embiid looks winded or the roster fit around the pair looks clunky. It’s just to say every star player has their own path. It could be bumpy along the way, but it’s entertaining.
At least the documentary will be.
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