We've all been so excited about the start of the Philadelphia 76ers' season that it feels like nobody even bothered to look at the first three games on the schedule this year: at Washington, home for Boston, at Toronto. The Sixers may be the fifth-best team in the Eastern Conference when healthy this season - Jeff Van Gundy thinks so, at least, as he kept gushing last night on the ESPN (!!) broadcast of 76ers-Wizards - but they play three of the four teams ahead of them to kick off the season, their first after the supposed summation of The Process. It's a pretty cold way to welcome the Sixers to the land of the NBA living, really.
So yeah, the Sixers lost last night in their season opener for the fourth time in four seasons - and forever shoutout to Michael Carter-Williams, Spencer Hawes, Evan Turner and the rest of the squad that pulled off arguably the greatest regular-season upset in franchise history against LeBron and the Heatles on opening night 2013. But the Sixers lost last night merely because they were playing in D.C. against the Wizards, arguably the second-best team in the East last season and only stronger in the new year. And they still came a couple late-game deflections away from walking away with more wins than losses on their docket for the first time since ... hey, don't forget James Anderson and Tony Wroten on that '13-'14 squad, either. Remember James Anderson?
No, you don't, of course, because the Sixers don't have any James Andersons anymore - they have 10 professional basketball players, and arguably even more on the bench who might not crack the rotation this year until things go very south. (I'd take Furkan Korkmaz over all but maybe three players on the '15-'16 squad; we might not even see him on the court until we reach the deepest recesses of December garbage time.) And all of 'em looked good last night - except for Amir Johnson, who went 2 for 27 from within three feet of the basket and somehow fouled out in 15 minutes. Even he should have nothing on the infuriating Sixers of years past. Brandon Davies ain't walking through that door anytime soon.
Everyone else was beautiful. Ben Simmons had a sparkling debut, posting an 18-10-5 with just one turnover, with shocking efficiency for a ball-handler who didn't attempt a shot outside six feet. Markelle Fultz was really impressive making plays for himself and others around the basket - though he similarly balked at shooting from any kind of range, and his free-throw motion still looks disturbingly close to my fourth-grade form - and fought on defense, generally showing that he can be a positive contributor even while he works on fixing his busted jumper. And we probably should've known that Joel Embiid's minutes limit was just a red herring. He played 27, posted 18 and 13, and got the crowd chanting "Trust the Process" like Capital One Arena (formerly the Verizon Center) was just an oversized Chickie's and Pete's. Dario Saric played unexceptionally - 3 points on 1 for 5 shooting - but he's Dario, so he's beautiful by default.
But the real difference was in the wings. Robert Covington and JJ Redick combined for an absolutely staggering 11 triples on 19 attempts. The Sixers routinely went entire months at the beginning of the Process without making double-digit threes in a single game. Now we have two guys doing it entirely on their own. Covington was, of course, the real superstar, accounting for seven of those triples on his way to a game-high 29 points with typically exceptional D. But man, when Redick pulls up into a quick-trigger three off the dribble ... it's like, you didn't even know players were allowed to do that. Not Sixers players, anyway.
And even with all that, the Sixers still lost, 120-115. Oh well. If Jerryd Bayless can get the ball to an open Simmons under the basket in the final minute, or if Covington can swing a pass to an open Bayless in the corner a possession later - both passes were deflected and stolen - the game may have ended very differently. But it also may not have - the Wizards have John Wall, they have late-game experience, and they have organizational consistency. In other words, they should win games like this, even against a team as improved (but still as green) as the Sixers. It's fine. It's great, honestly.
Of course, Redick and Covington won't always combine for 11 three-pointers, Embiid won't always be available for 27 minutes a night, and Simmons won't maintain a 5:1 assist-to-turnover ratio for the entire season. But it's not like any of that won't ever happen again, either. This is just a good team of good players now, and there will be games where they hang in against teams they shouldn't be hanging in against, and even escaping with the win on occasion.
Will it happen in any of the team's first three? Maybe, maybe not - it's a little frustrating that the Ballers might not get to demonstrate how improved they are in their W-L record for the season's first stretch, and you have to hope the team (and fanbase) don't fall into some Same Old Sixers malaise as they scrap against the conference elite. But watching the team last night in Washington, the feeling couldn't have been more different than even last year, when they nearly scraped together an opening-night win against an undermanned OKC team. It's not gonna be long before the Philadelphia 76ers are the team that makes the rest of the East go, "Oh crap, we have to play them on opening night?"