Are Struggling Sixers Still A Championship Contender Worth Wagering On?

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A mere 12 days ago, the Philadelphia 76ers, fresh off a decisive win over the L.A. Lakers in which the Sixers didn’t even have their best player, fivethirtyeight.com’s RAPTOR calculations declared the Sixers the team with the best chance in the whole NBA of winning the 2019-20 championship.

That probably says more about flaws in the metrics being used than anything, but still, Philly was 30-17, about to get Joel Embiid back from injury, and generally looking like a title contender.

All that’s happened since is a too-close-for-comfort win over the woeful Warriors, a 10-point loss to the similarly basement-dwelling Hawks, a 19-point defeat by the rival Celtics, and a 31-point shellacking at the hands of the Heat. It’s a streak that has served to amplify debate over fit and chemistry issues, whether coach Brett Brown should be updating his resume, and what the hell is wrong with Embiid, whose shoulders are slumping even when his shooting isn’t.

The Sixers came into the season expected to be a top-two team in the Eastern Conference, alongside the Milwaukee Bucks. Tonight, they play those same Bucks in Milwaukee a staggering 12½ games back of them. Philly is currently the sixth seed in the East, 3½ games out of position to have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

The Pennsylvania sportsbooks haven’t written the 76ers off, owing to the team’s high theoretical ceiling if and when everything clicks. But their odds are now as long as they’ve been at any point this season.

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Is this the right time to bet them, just as the perfect time to bet the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs was when their odds expanded during a midseason swoon? Or are these Sixers a lost cause, just marking time until an offseason shakeup?

Tenuous trust

There wasn’t much in the way of a midseason shakeup, as the 76ers traded three second-round picks for two bench players at the deadline. Assuming everyone’s healthy, they’ll be going into the postseason with the same starting five with which they began the season. That inordinately tall, defensively gifted, offensively inconsistent lineup of Embiid, Ben Simmons, Al Horford, Tobias Harris, and Josh Richardson is either going to get it together over the next couple of months or go down as one of the most disappointing squads in Sixers history.

“It’s all a matter of expectations and perspective,” says Spike Eskin, co-host of the popular Rights to Ricky Sanchez podcast, without which “trust the process” chants surely wouldn’t exist. “I think the problem right now is the preseason expectation of what the team was going to be, and the team’s reinforcement of that expectation. And I think it has made things seem a little bit worse than maybe they are. But things are not good, clearly. I would say that the body language of everyone seems pretty bad. There’s not a great vibe coming from the team right now.”

From the outside, a Sixers team that stands at 31-20, on pace for 50 wins — and probably more like 52 or 53, Eskin says, because they’ll feast on several tanking teams down the stretch — might appear just fine.

Their preseason win total at most sportsbooks closed at 54.5. So is the doom and gloom an overreaction?

“I think sometimes you get so in the middle of it that you don’t have enough perspective to recognize that, on the same night the Sixers lost to the Heat, the Pacers lost to the Knicks at home,” Eskin says. “I think you could look at it and say, they’re 31-20, their starting lineup defensively has been one of the top three in the league, and they’re likely to wind up around 52 or 53 wins, which is right around where they’ve been the last couple of seasons.

“But I think, to that point, you would go, ‘Well, they’re not supposed to be right around where they’ve been.’ This was not a year where you were supposed to be right around the same as the year where you started Markelle Fultz and traded half your team at the deadline. You’re not supposed to have the same record.”

Can they Buck the odds in Milwaukee?

NBA observers will get an inkling of whether this Philly team can turn it around tonight. According to all of the online sportsbooks in Pennsylvania — DraftKings (and the other books partnered with Kambi), FanDuel, FOX Bet, and BetAmerica — the Sixers are 9-point underdogs against the Bucks, the largest spread the 76ers have been on the wrong side of all season. Their moneyline price is as high as +370.

It’s no wonder that the Sixers are getting so many points. They’re 9-18 on the road this season (compared to an NBA-best 22-2 at home), have won just one of 12 games this year in which they’ve been a road ’dog, and have failed to cover in their last seven such contests.

And the Bucks happen to have won 86% of their games so far, with a +12.4 average point differential, almost 5 points better than any other team’s.

The Sixers should lose tonight. But they did beat this same Milwaukee team 121-109 on Christmas Day, so what will it mean if they pull off the upset and snap their three-game losing streak?

“Everybody will feel great, but I don’t think it shows us anything that we didn’t already see — that they have the best chance in the East of beating the Bucks,” Eskin says. “If they win in Milwaukee, it will at least give some credence to the fact that they have not given up on the coach, they are not just playing out the string, there is a fire inside of them, which I think would mean something.

“But as far as long-term and what’s wrong with the team in terms of how they’re constructed, I don’t think it means much to me if they win this game. And I sort of feel like they’re going to get destroyed in this game — and I’ve never felt that way about a Sixers game all year.”

Searching for futures value

Tonight’s contest is just one game, of course. What matters more is how the Sixers’ season ends. And on that front, it’s hard to know if there’s value in the bookmakers’ odds.

DraftKings has the team at +1200 to win it all. As a struggling February team with a lot of talent and appreciable upside come April and May, is that a bargain?

“If you were to ask me two weeks ago what are the chances that the Sixers win the championship this year, I probably would have told you 15% or 20%,” Eskin says. “Now, I would say, if you run this simulation 100 times, maybe they win the championship five times, or eight times, something like that. So I don’t know that there’s a ton of value in those odds. The 12/1 odds actually seem pretty accurate to me.”

The same goes for their +500 odds to win the Eastern Conference. Even though the Sixers seem to present matchup problems for the Bucks and Celtics, they’ve had their own matchup problems with the Raptors, Pacers, and Heat and are staring at the very real possibility of being the road team in every round of the playoffs.

But at least there’s hope for those futures bets. The same can’t realistically be said for the current +550 odds on the Sixers to win the Atlantic Division. Sitting six games behind the Raptors — who have won 12 straight — with 31 to play, not to mention 4½ behind Boston, the regular-season division title is inching toward becoming a mathematical impossibility.

The Pennsylvania sportsbooks are daring Sixers fans to believe that the best version of this team will emerge for a sustained stretch in a way it hasn’t through the first 51 games of the season.

You can trust the process all you want. But right now, it’s hard to trust any algorithm that might tell you this 76ers team has betting value.

Photo by Steve Mitchell / USA Today Sports

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Eric Raskin

Eric is a veteran writer, editor, and podcaster in the sports and gaming industries. He was the editor-in-chief of the poker magazine All In for nearly a decade, is the author of the book The Moneymaker Effect, and has contributed to such outlets as ESPN.com, Grantland.com, and Playboy.

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