Through the regular season, NBA fans and media tend to focus on extreme examples. Expressed in terms of which teams get put into the spotlight: we talk a lot about the brightly ascendant (Memphis Grizzlies, Denver Nuggets, New Orleans Pelicans) and unexpectedly struggling groups (Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks). Both subjects are frequently analyzed through the framework of trades. If they’re contending, they’re “one piece away,” and if they’re flailing, “it might be time to blow it up.” Extreme conditions make for an ecosystem in which hot takes, which are easier to come up with on the daily, thrive.
There’s nothing exactly wrong with all that. It’s a long season, and through much of it, most fans are living somewhere where it's cold outside. We’ve got to get our kicks somehow. But it would be wise, probably, to take a moment for the staid and reliable, the less dramatic organizations in the field, about whom we struggle to say anything more explosive than “they could certainly make a deep playoff run come April.” Somehow, the perennially asunder Philadelphia 76ers have become one of these. Winners of 18 of their last 22 games, they’ve quietly entrenched themselves at the top of the Eastern Conference despite a slow start (which was discussed broadly by media), and a litany of missed games from injury—12 for Joel Embiid, 16 from James Harden, and 19 from Tyrese Maxey.
When that happens, you know there’s something going on that transcends a straight-forward talent calculus. Credit is due to Doc Rivers who, while often rightly grilled for a lack of tactical imagination on the highest stage, is among the league’s very best culture builders. Whenever a Rivers team loses its stars, true heads know that they remain fully dangerous, every time they take the floor. In this case, the solidification of De’Anthony Melton in the starting lineup has been a big part of that opponent harm. Melton has emerged as one of the most versatile and overlooked guards in the sport, and is exactly the kind of supplementary player that every star-centric team could use—a ferocious glue guy, perfectly content to passionately fill in the gaps in Harden’s game.
Melton is second in the NBA in steals, a 39 percent shooter from beyond the arc, and an always energetic off-ball presence. His approach has paired with the stolid, space-eating P.J. Tucker to create a rugged identity that the Sixers have lacked in past seasons. Melton provides a decent portion of the defensive benefit Ben Simmons used to offer the team, but with less of the idiosyncratic limits that were so rankling to Embiid’s game on the other end. Instead, the MVP-candidate center is now fed the ball by the best pick-and-roll partner he’ll probably ever have, in Harden. This simple play between two offensive mega-talents has now manifested in many different forms, all of which are unstoppable.
None of this comes together for anything as theatrical as what past Philly seasons have wrought—it’s kind of eerie, these days, to look at how well they’re doing in the standings and realize, simultaneously, how little the team’s been mentioned in First Take-type arenas. This is real estate long occupied by the Milwaukee Bucks, who have managed to land right next to the Sixers in the standings as they suffer their own missed-game setbacks. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday have both missed 11, while Khris Middleton has sat for all but eight contests. Brook Lopez, the fourth member of their elite veteran core, has played almost every game and held it down through the best season of his career, garnering attention for All-Defense consideration, and reminding everyone how important he is to the Bucks' ethos.
Antetokounmpo and Holiday have shown everything we know they can, when they’ve been on the floor, and often taken turns leading the team to victories during each other’s absences. It’s Middleton, however, who looms as a potentially volatile variable for Milwaukee. In his limited action, he’s been bad, shooting 33 percent from the field and 29 percent from three. He’s been a negative on defense, as well, and generally hurt the team more than he’s helped it. The Bucks are good enough to absorb such damage in the effort to rehab Middleton before the playoffs, though, and there’s little chance he’s lost everything he previously had. As long as he’s able to hold his own on defense, occasionally relieve Giannis and Jrue as playmakers, and score mid-range baskets in crunch time, he’ll elevate the Bucks back to near title-frontrunner status.
That’s especially true given that the Bucks, like Philly, have proved that they’ve got a spirit to them fulsome enough that it invades the bodies of all role players. From Giannis and Holiday flows a hard-nosed, swashbuckling demeanor that fundamentally changes how space is understood on the floor. Everyone on the roster gets their juice from their dexterous aggression. This is a strength that edges on recklessness, but more often than not, the Bucks’ brawn is the reason they win the game. This has become boring to NBA fans who thirst for interpersonal conflict and player movement, but it won’t be when the playoffs hit. Then, they and the thriving Sixers will suddenly be interesting to us again.