The Philadelphia 76ers have long been a joke. And not a particularly funny one. They still are a long way from good - at 13-26 there are only two teams worse than them in the Eastern Conference, and the +100,000 championship futures odds price at BetOnline is lower than only the Nets. But they have won six of their last eight, are showing confidence for the first time in a long time, and are playing like, well, an NBA team. When was the last time you could say that in Philadelphia? So, is this for real or just a fluke? Can bettors trust this team? Here are five factors to consider when pondering those questions:
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Almost good?: The Sixers beat the Bucks in Milwaukee on Monday afternoon for their sixth win in eight games. That is the most respectable this team has been pretty much since Allen Iverson was in town. That's an exaggeration, but only sort of. It is certainly the best they have played since they made a strong commitment to being terrible. There is a bit of an asterisk because the wins have come over powerhouse squads like the Nets, Knicks and Timberwolves. Still, any momentum at all is great for a team like this that has done so little for so long. They are no threat to be a playoff team or anything, but glimpses of hope and the novelty of not being the worst team in the league have to help both players and fans. Things get tougher from here, though, with seven straight against current playoff squads . If they can keep winning at even a somewhat reduced rate then it will be time to really take notice and wonder what is going on.
Joel Embiid: The team had to be very patient after drafting Embiid to deal with his injuries, but as it turns out he was clearly worth the wait. He's very efficient offensively, scoring at a per-minute rate that only Wilt Chamberlain has matched. And he's efficient, too, displaying more maturity than most guys in his position - though that is at least partly aided by spending two seasons watching NBA games from the best seats in the house. It's not his defense that stands out most, though. Defensively he leads all rookies in efficiency, and he is the cornerstone of that segment of Philly's game. The Sixers have a real star on their hands in Embiid, and soon enough they will have Ben Simmons to add to the team. With that core maybe winning six of eight won't be remarkable enough to write an article about.
Okafor and Noel: Embiid was a great pick, and Simmons should be. It's tougher, though, to be optimistic about two other recent top picks (or draft acquisition in the case of Noel, who was drafted by New Orleans). Jahlil Okafor scored 20 points 23 times last year, and he played in only 53 games. It seemed like he was on his way. This year Okafor surpassed 20 for his first and only time in his 29th game played. He's just not playing well, and he hasn't stood out as a complement or challenge to Embiid at center. And the team hasn't found a way to make any of them comfortable while playing two at the same time. Embiid, in particular, really struggles when sharing the space with another big. Noel, meanwhile, has struggled with injuries, and his attitude has been lousy. Neither guy was acquired to be a somewhat passable backup, so changes need to be made. One is likely on his way out - my bet would be Noel - but the problem is that both guys have diminished their value so badly that the Sixers would likely wind up just dumping what was once a shiny asset.
Ben Simmons: The first overall pick is travelling with the team now, working with them in practice lightly, and has recently even starting warming up with the team before games. He isn't ready to return yet, but he could be back within the next month or so if things go well. This has a chance to be a huge boost for this team. The point hasn't been inspiring with Jerryd Bayless hurt and Sergio Rodriguez playing fine but not overwhelming anyone. If nothing else, getting him back would further engage fans and would give him some seasoning to hit his first full season strong next year.
Betting performance: The changes in this team are reflected by the betting performance. Last year they were 37-44-1 ATS, which was well below profitable and ranked them just 24th in the league. This year they sit at a much improved 22-17 ATS, which is nicely profitable and ranks them sixth in the league. All the difference has been made in the last 10 games, where they are a stellar 8-2 ATS. So, before the last three weeks this was still the same old Sixers. So, can it last? That's a million dollar issue - or at least a several-unit one.
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