Sixers are a 'sleeper' in the Eastern Conference, Charles Barkley says

Noah Levick
NBC Sports Philadelphia

Charles Barkley's opinion of the Sixers has fluctuated this season.

Back in September, he predicted the team would win the NBA title. By December, he was criticizing Joel Embiid's effort level and said the Sixers "ain't got no chance."

If the NBA is successfully able to execute its plan to finish the season at Disney World, Barkley is back on board with the Sixers. He named the team as one of his two "sleepers," along with the Portland Trail Blazers, in a video interview Wednesday with NBC Sports Philadelphia's Michael Barkann.

I'll tell you what, the one team in the Eastern Conference that scares the hell out of me - I don't want to see Ben (Simmons) and Joel (Embiid) and Tobias Harris," he told Barkann. "I would not want to play the 76ers in the playoffs. … Other than Giannis (Antetokounmpo) - I want to make sure I don't leave anybody out - the Sixers are going to have the best two players against any team in the Eastern Conference. With the exception of Giannis, any team they play in the Eastern Conference, they're going to have the two best players on the court in every series - except against the Milwaukee Bucks

"So I think they've got a legitimate chance. I'd be surprised if they don't do well. Ben has had a chance to get healthy. I hope Joel was able to stay in shape - that's gonna be a biggie - but if those two guys are healthy, the Sixers have got a good chance.

Barkley's claim that Simmons and Embiid will be the two top players in any Eastern Conference series not involving Antetokounmpo is a bold one, and certainly open to pushback. His point about the Sixers having two stars who've had the chance to rehab during the league's hiatus is not controversial. Simmons had missed the team's last eight games with a nerve impingement in his lower back, while Embiid's 30-point, 14-rebound performance on March 11 was his first game back after being sidelined for nearly two weeks with a left shoulder sprain.

Barkley remains wary about the NBA's plan to play in Orlando during the coronavirus pandemic. He'd said in May that he hoped the league wouldn't "do something stupid just for money."

"It's scary to me," he told Barkann. "When we're doing this interview, Florida's like the hottest spot for the virus in the world. You're taking 22 teams, a bunch of people. I know the WNBA is going down to Florida. I know MLS is going down to Florida. It's a scary situation. I hope nobody gets sick, nobody dies."

In the event that the league plows ahead despite those concerns, Barkley thinks a key factor will be how teams adapt to playing without any fans in attendance. The Sixers were, of course, an NBA-best 29-2 in front of their home crowd at Wells Fargo Center, compared to 10-24 on the road. 

"I think that's really huge," Barkley said. "This is when your leaders are going to really have to step up. I think there's a tremendous amount of pressure on Ben and Joel because they're going to have to make the rest of the guys play without crowd noise. They've just gotta tell guys, ‘We're gonna play.'

"This is when you're going to find out who your leaders are. Because your leaders are going to have to make you play hard every day. … It would really suck to play without fans. With this virus and no fans, this is going to be the most interesting playoffs ever."

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Sixers are a 'sleeper' in the Eastern Conference, Charles Barkley says originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

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