76ers X-Factors That Will Decide Philadelphia's Fate Amid 2021 NBA Playoff Race

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 6, 2021

76ers X-Factors That Will Decide Philadelphia's Fate Amid 2021 NBA Playoff Race

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    In recent years, the Philadelphia 76ers were among the toughest teams to rank in the NBA championship race.

    There were questions of fit, injuries and supporting cast. Philly's whole never seemed to measure up to the sum of its parts.

    While the Sixers still need to prove it in the playoffs, they finally appear ready for postseason success. Between Joel Embiid's MVP rise, the smart additions brought in by executive Daryl Morey and the fresh approach to this roster by coach Doc Rivers, Philly qualifies as a full-fledged contender and quite possibly the best team in the Eastern Conference.

    Championship dreams have become championship plans. In order to make good on these aims, the Sixers need a healthy Embiid and a great postseason out of the following X-factors.

George Hill

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    It's admittedly a little strange to drop the X-factor label on to George Hill since stability is his biggest selling point and probably what pulled the franchise his direction at the March 25 trade deadline.

    But as a deadline acquisition, he was racing against time to get acclimated already, and on top of that, he arrived with a lingering thumb injury that delayed his debut until mid-April. At this point, he is familiarizing himself with Philadelphia like he's on a speed date, a process we can only hope involves eating cheesesteaks by the platter and watching Rocky movies on repeat.

    Hill should be good for this team. He can pilot the second team, share the offensive controls with a co-pilot or even just ride along when a star is running the show. He plays both ends, makes open shots and works on or off the basketball. He's an easy fit with anyone.

    Still, there's no way to fake chemistry that hasn't been established yet, so hopefully he and his new teammates won't need long to get on the same page.

Ben Simmons

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Stars almost never qualify as X-factors. But they almost never play anything like Ben Simmons, either.

    For starters, he's a 6'11" point guard, which is something seen slightly more often than Bigfoot. Then, he's a modern guard without a three-ball, which is almost as rare. Finally, he's a true five-position defender, which is a statement you can maybe make about Draymond Green, a fully engaged LeBron James and no one else.

    But let's lock in on Simmons' shooting, since that's where most discussions about him end. The fact he won't even look at the basket from outside of the paint is a problem, especially against postseason defenses programmed to exploit weaknesses wherever they can.

    "It's not even about individual scoring, but when the game slows down and coaches have a chance to game-plan over a seven-game series, great playoff defenses have shown that they can utilize [Simmons'] lack of shooting and passive play to disrupt the rest of the team's half-court offense," The Athletic's Derek Bodner wrote.

    Simmons needs some half-court utility at the offensive end or it's going to be tough for his minutes to land on the right side of the ledger. He is clearly an impact puzzle piece, but that impact can't all be about defensive versatility and transition attacking.

Matisse Thybulle

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    If defense is all about disrupting an opponent, then Matisse Thybulle might be the best stopper on this roster. Yes, even while accounting for fellow Defensive Player of the Year candidates Embiid and Simmons.

    But Thybulle is pestering opposing players like no one before.

    Throughout NBA history, only 37 players have logged 2,500 minutes and posted steal and block percentages of at least 2.0. Thybulle is one of those 37, but even in this uber-exclusive group he is raising the bar as the only player ever to put both numbers north of 3.0 (3.6 steal and 3.9 block).

    The Sixers surely want to squeeze a good amount of minutes out of their disruptor, but the onus is on Thybulle to add some kind of offensive value. He can't allow teams to ignore him in the half-court, or he'll just be making life more difficult on Embiid, Simmons and Tobias Harris.

    If Thybulle is splashing his open looks and making timely cuts to the basket, great things might be happening for Philadelphia.