Count me among those who thought the Philadelphia 76ers were locks to win the Eastern Conference this season. I figured the defense could be historic, mitigating the play- and shotmaking losses of Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick, and their season-opening win against the Boston Celtics seemed like Exhibit A.
Except, every potential roadblock has arisen already, and the Sixers have looked like anything but a Finals favorite since their 5-0 start. They are 2-4 over the past 10 days, with one of those wins requiring a last-minute bailout against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Some of their struggles can be attributed to the intermittent absences of Joel Embiid (suspension and sore knee) and Ben Simmons (shoulder sprain), but the more pressing issues stem from a predictable offense rooted in stunted superstar development.
The Sixers spent training camp lauding the summer gains of Embiid’s conditioning and Simmons’ shooting, but we have yet to see evidence of either in the regular season, and as a result Philadelphia’s half-court offense is less effective than ever since The Process transitioned into playoff expectations.
Ankle and knee issues have cost Embiid a pair of games already. The 25-year-old is averaging fewer than 30 minutes a game, largely because he has been in foul trouble in four of seven outings. And as the pounding takes its toll late in games, he is drifting further from the paint. His per-36 numbers may still be impressive (28.8 points, 15.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 3.4 combined blocks and steals), but his overall performance is far from the dominating effort we expected from a top-five preseason MVP favorite.
Meanwhile, Simmons has attempted just one shot outside the paint this season and none from 3-point range, according to the NBA’s tracking data. All eight of his attempts outside eight feet are misses. Among players who average 30 or more minutes per game, nobody scores less per touch than Simmons. Much of his scoring (career-low 13.9 points per game) can be credited to his uncanny ability to get to the basket in transition and on defensive breakdowns. Considering how many of Philadelphia’s possessions run through Simmons, the team’s offense becomes wildly predictable in the half-court.
It has not helped that only reserves Furkan Korkmaz and Mike Scott have posed any kind of a shooting threat, further crowding the interior. Gone is the gravitational pull that Redick’s constant movement on the edges created. Starting wings Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris are shooting a combined 24.5 percent on 9.3 3-point attempts per game in the early going. Al Horford is also shooting well below his career average from deep (36.6 percent), and while Embiid is knocking down threes at a 38.5 percent clip, opposing teams are happy to let him roam the exterior, where he is a career 31.8 percent shooter.
If the 76ers want to improve a half-court offense that ranks as the seventh-worst in the league (scoring just 88.6 points per 100 plays, according to Cleaning the Glass), they have to find some floor spacing.
Because of their size advantage and a point guard who poses no threat of pulling up to shoot, Sixers coach Brett Brown has tried running his offense through the post, where Simmons, Harris, Horford and Embiid all rank among the NBA’s top 21 in possessions finished. Only Embiid rates better than average in that regard, scoring 1.18 points per possession on 61 attempts from the post (Simmons is in the league’s third percentile). It is a whole lot harder to score in the post when nobody fears the possibility of a kick-out, and yet Philadelphia leads the league in post-ups by a wide margin. This is their Catch-22.
These issues have all been magnified in the fourth quarter. Seven of Philadelphia’s first 11 games have been decided by two possessions or less, and a rewatch of those fourth quarters reveals a lot of Harris throwing up shots from the short mid-range as he drives into traffic. Outside of Simmons driving to the rim, the Sixers lack anyone who can create his own offense outside of Harris, who ranks 63rd among players with enough isolation opportunities to qualify for the NBA’s public tracking data (0.60 points per possession). The Sixers rank dead last in isolation scoring, which is a problem when games often boil down to the ability to manufacture a late bucket. This is where Butler’s free-agent departure hurts most.
After their offensive rating climbed into the league’s top 10 last season, the Sixers are down to 22nd in the early going this year. That figure would look far worse if they were not among the NBA’s best offensive rebounding outfits, scoring 13.5 of their 105.3 points per 100 possessions on second-chance opportunities. Only three teams move the ball more on offense than Philadelphia, but that does little good for a roster that is no better than average shooting from every zone on the floor. They can create shots, but they cannot make them, or at least that has been the case for the first month of the season.
The defense has been good, albeit not as good as expected, ranking sixth in efficiency. Ideally, that number climbs higher, if only so Simmons can create more transition opportunities, although the Sixers rank 24th in points per possession on the break — same as they do after an opponent’s made shot, per Inpredictable. The limitations of Embiid and Simmons just might serve as the respective root causes.
The defense has been historically great with Philadelphia’s starting five on the floor, which has been good enough to outscore opponents by 15.1 points per 100 possessions despite an offensive rating in line with the Chicago Bulls’ 27th-ranked outfit. This is encouraging news if the Sixers can keep them healthy enough to field them more than the NBA’s 37 lineups with heavier minutes loads this season.
Otherwise, general manager Elton Brand has one of three options if he wants to again elevate this team to East favorite before the playoffs: 1) Find some playmaking and scoring depth to fill out the bench; 2) Find a coach creative enough to maximize the Simmons-Embiid pairing without sharpshooters around them; or 3) Shop one of the four max (or near max)-salaried All-Stars to field a lineup that makes more offensive sense. There is still plenty of time to solve this riddle, and the Sixers still have enough talent to win in the East without serious tinkering, but the flaws the favorites most feared are already apparent.
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