Despite owning best record in East, identity-seeking Sixers have ‘more to give’

Despite owning best record in East, identity-seeking Sixers have ‘more to give’ originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Will the real 76ers please stand up? We are a third of the way through the season and the first-place Sixers have navigated some of the protruding landmines in this new NBA, but do they still suffer from the lack of a solid identity that might hurt them in the long run? Does it even matter as long as they continue to win?

Yes and yes.

Winning is a great deodorant and the Sixers are smelling like roses as their 16-point win over Brooklyn Saturday night stretched their Eastern Conference lead over the Milwaukee Bucks to a game and a half. Sure, Brooklyn was missing two of its stars in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, but you can only play who is in front of you and the mantra “survive and advance” deftly applies to this uniquely truncated NBA campaign.

Even with their success, the Sixers are suffering internally from a lack of practice, which is a catalyst for their identity concerns. The shortage of time together is directly related to the many issues the team has faced in the early stages of the season. Doc Rivers even admitted in his pregame remarks before Saturday’s 124-108 win over the Nets, that he has used shootarounds as a de facto practice for the team because of the Sixers’ dearth of opportunities with the entire group together. Rivers knows overcoming the adversity starts with a group approach, which he intimated in his postgame remarks.

“When you have everyone involved, everyone touching the ball, first of all I think it makes you a better defense because everyone is in a good mood. They have better spirits,” Rivers said. “I like the balance tonight way better. I think we’re a better team when we do it that way.”

At the very least and probably worth more than some will admit, the Sixers are building a ton of character by trudging through these hardships. They survived a potential COVID outbreak and the subsequent absences associated with contact tracing and league coronavirus protocols. They have endured disjointed starting lineups because of injury and load management. They have overcome a glaring Achilles’ heel of playing down to weaker competition, which has accounted for a few of their seven losses.

Still, their 17-7 overall record and 11-2 home mark are the best in the East with the latter leading the entire league. Tobias Harris attributed that success to the “trust in [Rivers’] system.” 

“We were able to see early on things that Doc was harping on to really put into this system of play,” Harris said. “Things that he knew would be able to help us win. We were able to see results early. And for us it was just being fine with that and accepting that type of role of this is how we need to play to be successful and we could do it night after night. The formula has been there and it’s been successful and for us it’s just sticking to the script.”

The Sixers’ starting core is also enjoying a glowing unblemished record when the full group is together (13-0). Although, Joel Embiid kept it real when asked after the win over the Nets about how much work the team has left to do in order to reach the heights it aspires to.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Embiid said. “I don’t think we’re close to where we want to be. Me personally, I don’t think I’m close to where I want to be and I know for sure as a team we’re not there yet. Every day we’re still learning how to play with each other, but I still think we have a long way to go and we have more to give.”

The team now embarks on a four-game Western Conference road trip starting with Sacramento on Tuesday. The Sixers went a perfect 3-0 on their most recent road swing earlier this month. 

Vince Lombardi said it best, winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. If the Sixers can continue to find ways to win, stay healthy and figure it out on the fly, their chemistry will continue to grow and the identity will come with it. The NBA trade deadline is March 25 should the front office decide it’s not coming fast enough.

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