In an effort to be bold prior to the start of the 2022-2023 NBA season, I said, rather emphatically, that the Philadelphia 76ers will be crowned NBA champions.
To be fair, I wasn’t just trying to be a hot-take artist, I thought my reasoning was sound. The Sixers, after years of processing, had finally become a finished product. Joel Embiid is in full MVP form. James Harden, at his age, is capable of playing second fiddle and is the perfect partner to pair alongside the towering big man. They have a budding young star in Tyrese Maxey who has tons of breakout potential and a supporting cast that is probably the best Embiid has ever had in his career.
If there is any year that the Sixers could get over the hump… it’s this season.
Having been able to sit with my take for the last 6 months, carefully watching with bated breath to see how the Sixers have looked – I’m beginning to ask myself this question:
Are the Sixers different enough this year?
Past iterations of this team have flailed out in the playoffs, either due to injuries to their respective stars, losing in heartbreaking, 4-bounce, buzzer-beater fashion or just inexplicably caving when the lights were brightest. Is this season’s version of the team any different? Can they somehow bypass some of their inherent flaws? And are they adequately prepared to problem-solve when things get dicey in the playoffs?
Well… let’s examine.
At a barebones level, the Sixers have been just as dominant as I expected this season. They boast the league’s 3rd best offense, fueled by one of the most unstoppable plays in basketball, the Embiid/Harden Pick-n-Roll. Their defense has been sound, allowing just under 113 points per 100 possessions, good for the 8th-best mark in the league. Since December 1st, they have the 2nd-best record in the Association at 40-17, only behind the dominant Milwaukee Bucks. Embiid is leading the league in points per contest and his trusty sidekick Harden is doing the same in the assists category.
But let’s dig deeper.
After a quarter of a season together last season, Harden and Embiid have been given ample opportunity this year to experiment and develop their partnership. It’s required both of them to adjust, but it’s made them better for it.
For starters, Harden is scoring at a moderately lower clip than he ever has, instead shifting his attention to creating shots for others. At his age, Harden doesn’t have the same mobility to get downhill and finish at the rim as often, taking a career-low 25% of his shots at the basket. Instead, he’s taking even more mid-range shots, attempting the most mid-range pull-ups since his prime days in Houston. He’s also knocking them down at a high clip, ranking in the 84th percentile for his position on long-mid-range shots, hitting on over 48% of them.
It helps when you have a scoring threat like Embiid screening for you.
This is a bit of a concern, in all honesty. You need Harden to keep defenses honest and if he’s settling for more mid-range shots than getting downhill, then you’ve removed a possibility that defenses have to account for. But, glass half full, him being better in that mid-range area is a good thing.
And while Harden has shifted his attention more to being a playmaker (4th highest assist percentage of his career) – it’s actually Embiid’s improved decision-making that really stands out when you watch the Sixers.
With all the defensive attention geared toward the potential MVP who’s putting up a league-leading 33.3 points per game, it’s especially crucial that he uses that added attention in a way that opens things up for his teammates.
Embiid does a lot of his decision-making in the heart of the defense, the high-post area where he’s free to isolate if he chooses to, but it also bends the defense to his will. Keep in mind, the 7-foot, 280-pound big man isn’t easily guarded in single coverage. In fact, I don’t think there’s a single player in the NBA that would be comfortable guarding him all by his lonesome for an entire game. And that’s why the high post is such a deadly area for Embiid’s playground. Help can come from any which direction, either the high-man pinching in, or the low-man providing some extra help on drives.
The decisions he makes? Well, that just depends on what you throw at him.
Collapse in or help from the corner? That’s an easy pass for a three.
Throw some help from the low man? Well, he’s finding the player camping in the dunker.
Crowd the middle? It’s still going to end up as an open look for one of his teammates.
And it’s all because of the threat he poses as a scorer from that high-post area. Embiid is taking a career-high 51% of his shots from the mid-range area and knocking down a career-best 49% of them.
For opposing defenses, it’s become easier to send help to Embiid, forcing the ball out of his hands and forcing his teammates to knock down shots, or else… he can do this all game. Just ask the Celtics who watched him drop 52 points on 25 shots.
And ultimately, teams would rather live by the rules A.B.E “Anyone But Embiid”. Which makes those previously mentioned teammates all that more important.
None more than Tyrese Maxey,
The quick-twitch, explosive guard is the perfect release valve to punish defenses for shadowing Embiid or even Harden too much. Maxey is shooting a career-best 43% from behind the arc on over 6 attempts a game and averaging over 20 a night.
He has become essential to the Sixers’ second-side actions. It’s crucial to have a player who can attack a closeout, make a decision, or create a shot for themselves, and throughout the course of this season, Maxey has mastered that.
It’s even more challenging when Maxey is involved in actions with Embiid and Harden or when he’s asked to be the initiator. His breakneck downhill speed is tough to stop.
Maxey is a sort of swiss-army knife on offense for these Sixers. His growth this season as a scorer, both on the ball and off of it, has created a level of dynamism that has never really existed alongside Embiid.
Additionally, Maxey allows this team to play faster. Something they could desperately use.
And one of his best abilities? His malleability. Maxey can be thrown into multiple different lineups for the Sixers. You can start him alongside Harden, Embiid, Tucker, and Tobias Harris. Or you can bring him off the bench. Or you can start him alongside a guy like De’Anthony Melton, a player who can pick up the slack on defense at the point-of-attack, an area that Maxey doesn’t necessarily flourish as an undersized guard.
And that actually brings me to another big difference between this Sixers team and any other past iterations – their ability to play small.
The lineup of Tucker, Harris, Harden, Melton, and Maxey has only played 95 minutes together all season but has been +10.1 in those minutes.
This team does have the ability to play smaller than it ever has. With Tucker as your nominal center, crashing the glass and pestering big-man in the middle, Harden is able to play the 5-out style that benefits his game, alongside 4 potent shooters: Maxey, Harris, Melton, and Tucker. Throw in recently acquired Jalen McDaniels, who provides length and versatility and that small ball lineup might be cooking with some fish grease.
But Doc Rivers hasn’t gone to it much. But it could be a way to counter teams going ultra-big, which might bode well against the Milwaukee’s and Boston’s of the world. And maybe more importantly, it could be a way to survive the Embiid-less minutes come playoff time.
Which brings me to…
What’s the same?
The minutes without Embiid are still categorically bad. With Embiid on the floor, the Sixers put up almost 122 points per 100 possessions which would be far and away the greatest offense in NBA history. Their defense? About as good as it is on the season, giving up 112 points per 100 possessions.
When Embiid is off the floor, the Sixers’ offense plummets, putting up only 111 points per 100 possessions which would be *checks notes* the 4th worst offense in the league. Their defense gives up 119 points (per 100 possessions) with him off the floor and that would be second worst only to the lowly Houston Rockets.
They haven’t found much of anything without him, really. That was crystal clear in their latest win against the Celtics on Tuesday when Embiid was +17. This isn’t just a Sixers problem. The Nuggets struggle with something similar with their MVP Nikola Jokic.
When you’re so dependent on a player, it’s hard to have an identity without them. This is why that Harden small-ball lineup is intriguing. Staggering Embiid and Harden throughout the playoffs, doing so in a timely fashion, and finding ways to, at the very least, stay afloat when Embiid is off the floor seems like the make-or-break factor for the Sixers.
The Bucks have ways to stay alive without Giannis. Ditto for the Celtics without Tatum. The Sixers, so far, can’t say the same with their enigmatic star. And have never really been able to say that.
Some may say that comes down to not having a reliable backup big man. And to that, I say how dare you? Paul Reed is right there.
While B-Ball Paul has gotten more run recently for the Sixers, it still hasn’t worked. That’s why it’ll depend on if they can force teams to play small with them. Can they run Milwaukee or Boston out of the building with the combination of Harden + space? That’ll require a level of scoring output from the Beard that we just haven’t seen in a couple of seasons.
It’s asking a lot out of a 33-year-old guard with a lot of miles on his body.
Speaking of wear-and-tear, the Sixers’ transition defense is atrocious. They’re only 12th in opponent’s points off turnovers but that feels like an incredibly wrong stat when you watch them play. The more accurate stat is the opponent’s fastbreak points, which ranks the Sixers 27th, allowing just under 16 transition buckets a night. And while they are a solid defensive team, they are, at times, extremely lazy on close-outs, and rank 28th in shots contested per game.
What makes things even worse is that they are not a good rebounding team, ranking 20th in rebound percentage, including 26th in offensive rebound % and 17th in defensive rebound %. The result? Allowing nearly 13 second-chance points per night, the 7th worst mark in the league.
These are free points that Philly is just conceding every single night and it’s mostly just because of a lack of effort.
You HOPE that with the urgency and intensity of playoff basketball, that lackadaisical effort will clean itself up. But it’s hard to flip the switch on things like this. It’s leaving yourself open for disaster. For teams to poke holes in an otherwise formidable boat. And so…
Is the difference enough?
At the end of the day, they are the 3rd best team in their conference. Even if they’re pretty convincingly the 3rd best team in the league, they will still have to go through either one of Boston or Milwaukee or maybe even both.
Do they have the weapons to do so? Yes.
Have they improved their odds this year of pulling off an upset? Absolutely.
But there are certain areas that both of those teams can exploit them. Milwaukee is a notoriously dominant defensive team that does an incredible job of forcing turnovers and getting out and running. The Celtics love playing with pace as well. Philly has been ill-prepared for that all season.
Both teams have the ability to throw out double-big lineups that include Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez or Al Horford and Robert Williams – what’s Philly’s solution to that? Well, they can force either team to play small, but Doc Rivers hasn’t really been that willing to do so, and at the same time, you can argue that the Bucks and Celtics can play small ball even better.
At the end of the day, the postseason is about versatility. Think of the NBA playoffs as a sort of triathlon. You can’t just be good at running, you have to be good at swimming and biking and anything else that is involved in a triathlon. Or you can think of the NBA playoffs as combat sports. Actually, think of it like the UFC. There are fighters who are elite at the ground-n-pound aspect, some are elite strikers, and others are great at submissions. But the greatest? The ones who inevitably end up lifting the belt? It’s the ones who can do it all. Who can adapt to their environment and their opponent.
Quite frankly, Boston and Milwaukee can just flat-out adapt better.
So while the Sixers have made material changes this season, changes that, in theory, should give them a better chance of reaching their first-ever Conference Finals in 20+ years – it might not be enough to get the job done.
Before the season, I had Philly hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy and while they do look like they have a shot at proving me right – I’m not convinced enough to bet the house on it.
I look forward to them proving me wrong. Or right, I guess.