They’re probably wrong, but the Sixers are certain that they’re the best team in the NBA. While this creates a potent comic disconnect when, say, Jimmy Butler and Joel Embiid are side-eyeing each other as the offense staggers and stumbles, it has also become much closer to the truth over the past couple of months. The Warriors are the Warriors, but the Sixers can only beat the competition in front of them, and just this past week, their victims have included the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks. Following an intense victory over the Celtics on Wednesday night, Embiid called himself “the best defensive player in the league” and “the most unstoppable player in the league” which, again, is not entirely correct but not far from it either. He put up 37 points and 21 rebounds against Boston and pulled off a nigh impossible late-game block on Kyrie Irving to seal the win. After a night like that, he’s allowed to boast.
It’s not a mystery why the Sixers have taken off recently. Since trading for Jimmy Butler, they’ve had arguably the most talented roster in the Eastern Conference, and Tobias Harris is predictably fitting in like a role player while performing like a star when he’s called upon to do so. Landry Shamet has been a loss, and he’s flourishing in Los Angeles at the moment, but Elton Brand was smart to make sure he got Mike Scott and Boban Marjanovic from the Clippers in the Harris deal. Those guys at least belong on an NBA court, in a way it’s not entirely clear Wilson Chandler does anymore. You can do a lot worse than “getting by” with Embiid, Butler, Harris, Ben Simmons, and a collection of lunch pail types.
So, there is no here come the Sixers. They have arrived: winners of six in a row, having just beaten two of their three strongest rivals in the East. (They lost their most recent meeting with the Raptors, but that was right before they landed Harris.) They’ll almost definitely finish third in the conference, and they have as good a shot as any other Eastern squad to make the Finals. Who can gauge the utility of heating up this time of year—the Blazers were on top of the world last March; it didn’t work out great for them once the games started to matter—but it’s obviously better to be operating at close to full capacity rather than needing to flip the switch. Though the Sixers are preternaturally cocksure, and you get the idea that they could get swept in the season series against Boston or Milwaukee and still believe they’ll beat them in the playoffs, it helps to have some solid evidence, and to know the shape of what needs doing.
It’s this borderline delusional confidence that makes the Sixers such a compelling team. Harris is a sweetheart, but Butler, Embiid, and Simmons are all brash and chippy and ornery. They bring out the fun ugliness in opponents. Their rivalry with the Celtics is young, but firmly established. Embiid talked a delicious amount of trash during last year’s playoff clash, and Boston mostly shut him up, taking the series in five games. On Wednesday, in the middle of eating the Celts alive, Embiid levelled Marcus Smart with a screen, then got shoved to the ground when Smart, as is his wont, took serious umbrage. Embiid knew what he was doing; he’ll pick a fight with whoever wants one. He seems to take real joy in confrontation, and if this edge doesn’t always help him on the court, he feels like it does.
Simmons’ contemptuousness is subtler, but nearly as persistent. He’s not belligerent so much as rude, not scornful so much as peevish. He’s quietly superior. You want to accuse him of hubris, but he never actually says anything objectionable. He’s also the less hacked-to-hell heir to Blake Griffin, in that he appears to draw the ire of opponents for reasons that aren’t totally clear. When Giannis called Ben Simmons “a [bleeping] baby” on Sunday night, after backing him down and baptizing him, it would have seemed like a bit of a non-sequitur except you figure, with Simmons, that he must’ve done something to deserve it.
And of course, we all know about Jimmy. These three temperamental stars don’t really get along, and they’re not a perfect basketball fit, but as a trio of characters—flanked by Harris, presumably amused by all of it—they’re splendid entertainment. That they’re finally finding their way and coming close to living up to their lofty notion of themselves is fine timing. What the Eastern Conference lacks in juggernauts, it will hopefully make up for in fraught, high-level competition among its best teams in April and May. If the whole thing is made a bit spicier by the Sixers puffing out their chests and starting a few shouting matches, then that’s all for the better. Their bravado, provided they match it with performances like they’ve been producing lately, is almost charming.