The Philadelphia 76ers certainly have reason to feel that if not for Kawhi Leonard’s last-second shot in Game 7 of their second-round playoff series, they would have made it to the NBA Finals.
They did give Leonard’s Toronto Raptors a tougher test than the Milwaukee Bucks, who fell in six games in the Eastern Conference finals, or even the Golden State Warriors, who also suffered a six-game loss in the NBA Finals.
So with Leonard, arguably the best player in the NBA right now, off to the Western Conference and the Los Angeles Clippers, the path is clear for Philly, right? That’s certainly what James Ennis III is thinking.
“The East is going to be wide open,” the 76ers swingman told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “We had a good chance last year. Kawhi is gone. He went to the West.
“So we are going to walk to the Finals in the East.”
Okay, so that is going a bit beyond, “I like our chances this season,” or, “We should be considered the new favorites in our conference.”
“Walk to the Finals”? Only time will tell, but it’s likely that other East teams are running to their respective bulletin boards to post this bit of hubris.
At the very least, Giannis Antetokounmpo might be interested to learn that Ennis thinks his team will not only emerge from the East, but do so with ease. You know, the same Giannis Antetokounmpo who just won the NBA MVP award, and whose Bucks will return most of a team that had the best record in the East last season, nine wins ahead of the Sixers.
Las Vegas likes the Bucks better, giving them the best odds of any East team to win the 2020 NBA Finals, behind only the Clippers and the Los Angeles Lakers. In fairness, the 76ers have the next-best odds, well ahead of other East contenders such as the Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets and, yes, those Kawhi-deprived Raptors.
Still, it’s a bold comment, and one that would seem to require a bunch of Ennis’s better-known teammates to do the heavy lifting. Traded from the Houston Rockets to the 76ers in February for a second-round pick, Ennis averaged 5.3 points over 15.6 minutes for Philadelphia, with a 9.9 Player Efficiency Rating.
Ennis did have a slightly greater impact in the playoffs, averaging 7.5 points in 21.1 minutes with an 11.3 PER. However, the contract he signed to return to Philadelphia — a reported two years for $4.1 million — reflects the fact that the organization doesn’t feel its fortunes depend on his play.
If the Sixers do, in fact, “walk” to the Finals, it will be because players such as Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Al Horford helped the team live up to legitimately high expectations. Embiid, for one, has been known to engage in some smack talk, so he might actually appreciate his teammate’s prediction and feel motivated to justify it.
If things go south, though, Ennis’s comments may well be remembered as fondly in Philly as former Eagles backup quarterback Vince Young’s “dream team” talk leading into the 2011 season, when a squad with Super Bowl aspirations wound up missing the playoffs.