MILWAUKEE — Considering how Philadelphia center Joel Embiid chose the occasion of a homecourt victory that required overtime against the sub-par Brooklyn Nets to refer to himself as “the best player in the world,” here’s a prediction:
If the Sixers beat the Bucks at Fiserv Forum Saturday night on national television, Embiid will up the ante by declaring himself to be the greatest player in NBA history. Or maybe even king of the world.
After all, topping the Bucks in Milwaukee would rank as a stunning upset compared to beating the Nets at Wells Fargo Center in Philly. And not just because of the opposition.
The Sixers win almost all the time at home. They travel, however, as if someone has made off with their emotional support animals.
At 26-2, Philadelphia’s home record is the league’s best, one game better than the Bucks’ (25-3). On the road, their 9-19 results rank 20th – and the teams that are worse are headed to the draft lottery or the lowest playoff seeds and likely first-round eliminations.
The Sixers – projected as a top Eastern Conference contender, even a potential Finals champ – have no business floundering with that bunch. Their overall record, 35-21, has them on track to top 50 victories. They have two All-Stars, both elite defenders, in Embiid and Ben Simmons.
A third star, full-service scorer Tobias Harris, was signed to a max deal last summer and general manager Elton Brand lured savvy veteran Al Horford away from the rival Celtics. They rank fourth in defensive rating (106.0) and third in defensive rebound percentage (75.4).
And yet Philadelphia is 1-13 on the road against teams with winning records. Y’know, the sort it eventually will run into in the postseason. Even a No. 1 seed wouldn’t presume to survive two or three best-of-seven series relying entirely on its comfort level at home.
Time was, that wasn’t a deal-breaker for a legit contender. In fact, three NBA champions of the 1970s – the Warriors in ’75, the Trail Blazers in ’77 and the Bullets in ’78 – all won in spite of their losing road records. But it hasn’t happened in the 42 years since, and the Sixers’ margin of error is down to just one before they’re locked into a sub-.500 season on the road.
So while records reset to 0-0 when the playoffs begin, bad habits generally don’t.
“This isn’t a traditional-type team,” coach Brett Brown said recently.
The usual suspects when an otherwise good team sputters away from home are youth, inexperience and a lack of chemistry. Throw out the first two with these Sixers – they’re neither too young nor too raw – and we’re left with the third, where this crew definitely has room for improvement.
Earlier this month, remember, Horford appeared to pull back the curtain on some discontent when he said in the midst of a four-game losing streak: “There’s some stuff going on in our locker room and we’ll keep that internal. We all know we need to be better.”
Particularly when their cell phones switch to roaming.
“You look at our record on the road, it’s like, ‘How can that be?’” Brown said last week. “You’ve got this at home and this on the road, it’s two different personalities. … Have we had bad shootarounds? Have we had bad practices? Is the spirit of the group that polluted that we can’t navigate through stuff? And it isn’t.”
Brown admitted that the struggles away from Wells Fargo are “a little bit of a mystery,” even to him. “I’ve been doing this long enough to live in the real world,” he said. “I can’t point to any of [the theories] as being ‘uh oh.’”
This team does have obvious flaws. Simmons, its point guard, doesn’t shoot from the outside; he has responded to Brown’s request that he attempt at least one 3-pointer nightly by taking six in 53 games.
Embiid put the lie to early-season reports that he had sculpted himself into better shape; the big man still looks to be carrying extra weight and lacks stamina. Meanwhile, the 7-footer has hoisted 147 more 3-pointers than Simmons, hitting at a mediocre 34%. Keep in mind, Philadelphia’s rationale for more perimeter shooting is to open up space for Embiid down low, not to have him shoot them.
Harris hasn’t been the closer that Jimmy Butler was for their team last season. With J.J. Redick leaving for New Orleans, the Sixers’ deep threats were limited, prompting Brand to add Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III at the trade deadline. Then there’s Horford, whose impact in the starting lineup was proving oddly deleterious at both ends. After starting his first 49, the veteran has come off the bench in Philadelphia’s most recent two. Brown is expected to stick with that.
Philadelphia fans’ reasons for optimism might not yet counter their reasons for skepticism, but they’re real. Embiid missed 16 of the first 47 games but has played nine straight, averaging 23 points and 11 rebounds (not quite “best in the world” quality). Defensively, he is an absolute shot alterer, while blocking 1.4 per game.
Eleven of Simmons’ 15 20-point games have come since Jan. 1, suggesting a newfound aggressiveness on offense. Oh, and the back pain that sidelined him Thursday apparently will allow him to play against the Bucks.
Wing Josh Richardson missed 14 of the first 52 games, but he’s back too, logging heavy minutes these days. Burks and Robinson, in their bench roles, are combining for more than 35 points on a per-36 minutes basis. Don’t forget the schedule, which will be one of the league’s easiest to close out the regular season.
Except, y’know, for the 13 road games left on it.
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