The Sixers are 18-7. We’re already about 40% through this abbreviated basketball season and the Sixers have a four game lead in the division. The Celtics are the only team with a conceivable chance at upending them in the Atlantic. In the last week they’ve beaten Orlando, Chicago, Atlanta and the Lakers. These wins, combined with a knack for blowing out the NBA’s deep reservoir of horrible teams, have positioned the Sixers as fringe contenders. They’re a team that will certainly make the playoffs, a team likely looking at a 3-seed, but with all those positives they’ve also been expertly handled on two occasions by the Miami Heat. The stacked beasts of the Eastern conference seem to put a hard ceiling on this Sixers season regardless of how well it goes. It begs the question, how much does Miami’s perceived cakewalk to the NBA finals hinder rooting for the hometown upstarts?
The Sixers have exceeded my expectations and in turn the fans have exceeded them as well. The kind of crowds the Sixers have been getting at home didn’t seem possible during that opening week when about 5,000 lonely souls lightly dotted the Wells Fargo. But, I underestimated the wizardry of Doug Collins and I underestimated the town’s undeniable love of a team that wins games–in any sport. The push to follow the Sixers has been aided by aggressive marketing, and a modest influx of celeb buzz at Sixers games. Will Smith (a minority owner) occasionally appears court-side and the Sixers have made the effort to get other Philly athletes in attendance. Claude Giroux, J-Roll, LeSean McCoy–they’re using the city’s other popular sports figures to increase their own visibility. It’s a smart move, but it’s hard to know the true impact–especially when DeSean Jackson shows up in his Lakers jacket and NY hat.
The real reason for the increased buzz around the team, though, is that awakened group of basketball fans that have been living in misery in recent years. The Sixers do have their group of fans, I’m not going to say something ridiculous like deep down this is a basketball city, but there’s plenty of love here for this team if there is even the slightest hint of optimism. These are the people I really feel good for, right now, these fans that finally can enjoy their own basketball team again. I am not one of these people. I’m a fraud. A borderline bandwagon man, but I know a couple of people out there that genuinely care about the Sixers and it’s refreshing to find them being something other than a laughing-stock.
I wonder what’s it like for these fans, though, with the knowledge that a championship is so unlikely even with this great start. I’ve talked recently about other sports being overcome by the “hot team” phenomenon. You could argue it just happened again in the NFL. You could also argue there’s so much parity in that league that the playoffs have just become a wide-open tournament. Regardless, for about every team that makes the post-season you could come up with a scenario where they win it all. Perhaps the Broncos were the lone exception? But, in football, or baseball even more so a ticket to the playoffs has been like a lottery ticket for fans of late. It could hit.
In basketball, the world still seems ruled by the superpowers and the superstars. The Heat failed last year to win the title, but they appear to be even stronger this year and when they were eventually derailed last year it was by the Mavericks. A team that was relying on superhuman performances from Dirk Nowitzki. The Sixers have no superstar and there’s not much tangible difference between themselves and the Heat team that dismissed them from the playoffs last year. If getting to the Finals means going through the Heat, I think even the most optimistic Sixers fan would take pause. That’s an awfully tall order for a team two-years removed from being one of the NBA’s worst.
This isn’t to say that the season won’t be enjoyable, or that the city shouldn’t be happy with the direction the Sixers are going. There are only good signs right now. They’ll play some more meaningful home games this year, they’ll continue to give their signature effort and they could even make a decent playoff run. That’s more progress than anyone could have rightly expected. I just wonder if you take away that chance, however small it might be, of winning the whole thing–does it diminish the experience? Or, are Sixers fans really thinking something more could happen this season?