HBO has a new series that glamorizes the 1980s Lakers, “Winning Time.” Those Lakers may have been the best franchise of the decade, winning five NBA titles.
But there was one opponent that actually dominated them and overshadowed the Lakers for one season: the legendary 1982-83 76ers.
Those Sixers were one of the eminent NBA teams of the modern era, featuring the Hall of Fame duo of Julius Erving and Moses Malone. Yet that actually may not have been the greatest 76ers team of all time. The 1966-67 version of the Sixers are regarded as one of the top single-season teams in league history and finished with a .840 winning percentage, even better than the .793 mark of the ’82-‘83 team. That version of the 76ers featured Wilt Chamberlain and Hal Greer.
Now, the 76ers have assembled another exciting superstar duo, adding James Harden to pair with Joel Embiid. It is too early to truly compare them to the likes of Malone/Erving and Chamberlain/Greer, but could this version of the Sixers join those teams as one of the best in franchise history?
The New-Look Philadelphia 76ers: Greatness Awaits?
Vegas is Not Overreacting to the Philadelphia 76ers
Early on, the Harden/Embiid version of the 76ers has looked very impressive. There were some questions about how the two would blend together, yet so far, they have mixed ideally. Watching Harden run the pick and roll with Embiid and seeing the two-run the floor together at times has been breathtaking.
But Caesars Sportsbook still has the Sixers at +700 to win the NBA title, the fifth-best odds overall. They have the third-best odds to win the Eastern Conference at +360. Clearly, the sportsbooks are going to need more convincing. So will the likes of the NBA’s savviest observers.
Beating up on the New York Knicks twice and downing the Minnesota Timberwolves isn’t quite enough to sell everyone yet on Philadelphia earning the right to meet Phoenix or Golden State in the NBA Finals. How the Sixers fare in the month of March against opponents such as the Bulls, Heat, Bucks, and Suns will be very telling.
Still, these 76ers have looked darn good so far, and we can’t really follow on the “they didn’t beat anybody” narrative. The Sixers embarrassed a respectable Minnesota team by over 30 points and took care of business against New York like they were supposed to. The best teams beat who they are expected to beat, and the 76ers deserve credit for how they have played since the trade for Harden. There really aren’t many reasons to strongly doubt that they can stand up to Miami, Brooklyn, and Milwaukee when it counts the most in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The Third Key to Success
The two greatest 76ers teams of all time also had a third outstanding player who significantly helped elevate the franchise to great heights. The ’82-‘83 Sixers also featured Andrew Toney, a spectacular sharpshooter who became known as “The Boston Strangler” for his terrific play against the hated Celtics, their biggest Eastern Conference rival of the decade. Billy Cunningham was a major force on the ’66-‘67 team.
It has become clearly evident that if these Sixers make a big playoff run this season, Tyrese Maxey will be a big part of the push. Maxey’s breakout made the team more comfortable about trading Ben Simmons. He has been a demon as a penetrator and on the fast break. Maxey also makes opponents pay with his timely and regularly effective outside shooting.
In his second season, Maxey has more than doubled his points per game output, from 8.0 to 17.3. His three-point shooting percentage has shot up to 40.8 percent from 30.1 percent. Entering play on March 2, Maxey was shooting .412 on pull-up three-point attempts since February 2, which ranked in the top 10 in the league.
In his first three games playing with Harden, Maxey scored 68 points. The arrival of Harden has not only eased pressure on Embiid, but it has also bolstered the outlook of Maxey as a top complement.
The Path to Prominence for the Philadelphia 76ers
It’s already fun to envision this version of the Sixers being considered among the greatest and most revered teams in franchise history. That also includes the 2000-‘01 Eastern Conference championship team. We can certainly foresee a Harden/Embiid-led team making its own special place in team lore if the team fully plays up to its potential in the postseason.
But those conversations cannot start at all until an Eastern Conference championship is won. Until then, the Sixers are simply great on paper or as good as you can play with them on NBA2K. Harden is already looking like a better fit than expected, but there are three other formidable teams to deal with in the East. The Harden trade made the Sixers a real contender to win the East, but now the field of powerhouse teams at the top of the conference seems more crowded.
The Brooklyn duo of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving will loom large as a roadblock for Philadelphia in what could be a marquee Eastern Conference Finals matchup between the two teams that pulled off the major trade. How Ben Simmons fits when he returns could be a big key to the Nets’ chances.
The Heat have remained a steady presence at the top of the East and were third overall in the latest NBA Power Rankings, three spots ahead of the Sixers. Miami’s defense will certainly test the 76ers, and it will be very compelling to watch the teams match up in March.
The Bucks will make a strong bid to repeat as Eastern Conference champions if they can stay healthy. But the Sixers could certainly take out any of the other three contenders if Embiid and Harden continue to flourish as a pair and Maxey remains on a track to stardom. Once Tobias Harris gets rolling again, Philadelphia may emerge as the true favorite in the East.
The 76ers could indeed prove to be the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. The month of March may show us whether they can live up to their new billing and promise. They certainly have the upside to reach the NBA Finals for the first time in over two decades.
If this edition of the Sixers, which has provided Embiid his best possible shot to win it all, can deliver, then we can start truly discussing their place in the franchise hierarchy.
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