Philadelphia 76ers: Are the wheels falling off for the East favorite?

NBA Philadelphia 76ers Joel Embiid (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
NBA Philadelphia 76ers Joel Embiid (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

Are the wheels falling off for the Philadelphia 76ers, who many proclaimed to be the favorite to emerge from the Eastern Conference?

Before the 2019-20 NBA season started, most experts and observers believed there were two true contenders for the Eastern Conference title that stood out from the rest of the pack.

The first was the Milwaukee Bucks who had high expectations for this season, following a 60-win campaign in the 2018-19 season that topped the league and lead to an Eastern Conference Finals berth. So far, they have been exceptional this season, again topping the league with a 31-5 record behind their superstar and reigning League-MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The other team was the Philadelphia 76ers who are currently experiencing an indifferent first half to their season.

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The 76ers are proving to be a hard team to gauge, currently sitting in 6th position in the Eastern Conference with a 23-14 record. Their start to the season has been encapsulated in their last five games: Started with an impressive Christmas Day win against the Bucks before dropping their next four games straight.

It was a promising start to the season with the 76ers winning their first five games to open the season, topping the East Conference through the first two weeks. The main highlights of their season so far include wins over Denver, Toronto, Milwaukee and two victories over their uptown rivals, the Celtics.

But, for a season that holds so much potential, the 76ers would be disappointed with where they currently sit in the NBA landscape.

For starters, the biggest letdown so far would be the lack of development shown by some of their starters and in particular, Ben Simmons. The young Aussie is currently averaging 14.5 points per game, which is a lower season average than either of his previous two seasons in the NBA. The lack of scoring improvement can be attributed to his inability to step out of his comfort zone, only attempting five 3-point shots across 35 games so far.

His inability to improve and develop a jump shot has been thrown into the spotlight this season after the 76ers lost arguably their best shooter from the 2018-19 season when Jimmy Butler was traded to the Miami Heat. This highlighted the need for consistent outside shooters for the 76ers, but Simmons has shown a fear to attempt any kind of jump shot so far this season.

Simmons is not alone however, 76ers No.1-man Joel Embiid is another who is not contributing the same numbers as last season. He averaged 27.5 points per game across the 2018-19 season, but this number has dropped significantly to just 23.7 points in this 2019-20 season which is almost a four-point decline in points per game for Embiid this season.

The second reason the 76ers are struggling this season is the internal conflict that is arising due to this lack of improvement.

It started with Al Horford taking a shot at coach Brett Brown, stating:

"“Offensively, I am very limited with the things that I can do. We have to rely on [Brown] to make the decisions.”"

Then it was Josh Richardson’s turn, saying:

"“I don’t think there’s enough accountability in our locker room right now.”"

There was already clearly an issue with chemistry in the 76ers locker room and with tensions high, things got just that little bit worse.

When commenting on the team’s offensive struggles, Joel Embiid took a subtle shot at Ben Simmons, claiming:

"“We’ve got to be able to help each other even if it means being outside your comfort zone. Meaning that, if you’ve got space to shoot it, you’ve got to do it.”"

There is an obvious clash of personalities and abilities inside the Philadelphia camp, quite possibly one of the main reasons for their struggles so far this season. If they want to be true championship contenders, then they need to find a way to gel and play better basketball as a team instead of being simply a group of individuals.

Another important factor in their struggles has been their struggles against teams with a winning record.

In their matchups with teams who currently hold a .500-plus record, the 76ers have only recorded nine wins from 21 games. They have certainly had some impressive victories, beating teams such as Boston, Milwaukee, Toronto and Denver amongst those nine victories.

However, the flip side to that is their 11 losses against teams with a winning record. They have fallen twice to Miami, dropped games against Oklahoma City and Dallas and suffered a blowout  loss to the Brooklyn Nets. They have also been beaten twice by the Orlando Magic this season, who currently sit in 8th spot in the Eastern Conference.

The worst part of Philadelphia’s losses is that when they do lose, they tend to come in bunches. After winning their first five games of the season, they then lost five out of their next seven to slip to a 7-5 record after such a promising start.

They also lost three-straight games before Christmas, including losses to Brooklyn, Miami at home and Dallas also on their homecourt. Then following the Christmas Day victory against the Bucks, they dropped games to Orlando, Miami again, Indiana and the Rockets.

Obviously, in a playoff series, the 76ers could not afford to lose consecutive games on multiple occasions if they want to have a serious crack at the Championship.

So clearly, the Philadelphia 76ers have a number of flaws that are currently plaguing their 2019-20 NBA season campaign. Their inability to develop as a group despite a good core of young talented players, their internal conflicts and their struggles against top teams are all proving large distractions for the team.

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If they want to be true Eastern Conference contenders like everyone predicted before the season, they need to iron out these issues and start to play like a team and help each other to reach their potential.