Coming into the season, the Philadelphia 76ers were a popular candidate to fall toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, if not all the way into a play-in seed. For good reason. Ben Simmons was a training camp and preseason holdout. Going into the season without your second-best player, to say nothing of the distraction of his ongoing standoff, didn’t exactly look like a recipe for success.
But here the Sixers are, rolling along at 8-2 as the East’s top seed and looking like one of the best teams in the league. On Saturday, Philly, which owns the league’s fourth-best point differential, took out a good Chicago Bulls team for the second time in four days to extend its win streak to six games.
Let’s get the qualifiers out of the way: Their schedule hasn’t been terribly daunting to this point. Half of their wins have come against Detroit (twice), Oklahoma City and New Orleans. It’s early, obviously. The Sixers are far from perfect and still have one big potential hole that feels like the Achilles heel — the lack of an elite half-court creator — that’s eventually going to bite them again.
They could fill that hole when and if the Simmons trade comes.
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In the meantime, they’re not feeling sorry for themselves. If anything, they look galvanized by the Simmons noise, finding success in the aggregate on both ends. When you think of Simmons’ absence, the biggest hit you would’ve expected the Sixers to take was on defense, but so far the Sixers are giving up two fewer points per 100 possessions than they did last season, per Cleaning the Glass.
There’s context to that. Though the Sixers have been statistically better this season, they rank just 13th in defensive rating, per CTG. Last season, they ranked third. Offense is down — or defense is up, however you want to frame it — across the league as a whole.
Still, it’s impressive what Philly is doing. Matisse Thybulle is every bit the defender Simmons is (he’s even better on the ball), and Joel Embiid was always the gatekeeper to which everything funneled. Around those two, the Sixers are, first and foremost, playing their tails off defensively. They are a collectively slow team on both ends, but they are almost never out of position defensively, and they rotate and close out on a string. I am in love with this possession below.
Look at those guys flying around. Tyrese Maxey tracking Lonzo Ball from behind. Georges Niang stepping up on Ball before jumping out on Javonte Green, switching onto Zach LaVine, riding his hip out to 30 feet and racing back to Green on the block.
Watch the clip again, and notice Seth Curry taking one quick jab step toward Green from the center of the paint to allow Niang the split second he needs to recover without allowing Nikola Vucevic a passing window to Green. It’s a subtle move, but important. It’s how the Sixers are staying connected without Simmons. Everyone doing little things that add up to big things.
That quick show from Curry instead forces Vucevic to sling a pass to Ayo Dosunmu in the corner, to which Curry sprints for the first of three textbook closeouts, the last of which induces Ball into a traveling violation. You hear coaches talking about the importance of multiple defensive efforts. That’s what it looks like. Any one of those probes could’ve resulted in a clean shot, driving lane or pass opening had even one Sixer relaxed for even a second. But nobody did.
Offensively, the Sixers are doing it by committee as well. Seven players have a usage rate above 20, per CTG, and somehow Curry, who has been their best player, isn’t one of them. With a usage rate of 16.7, Curry’s scoring efficiency has been off the charts. His 152.9 points per 100 shots attempts, per CTG, ranks in the 100th percentile. He’s shooting 60 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3. Entering Saturday, he had the highest effective field goal and true shooting percentage in the league.
By now, everyone knows Curry is a lethal 3-point shooter. But if you think that’s all he is, you’re not watching him very much. He is listed as 6-foot-2, which is probably generous, and he’s relatively slow-footed, but he uses the threat of his shot to get the leverage necessary to put the ball on the floor and get to his spots, from which he hardly misses off the dribble. Entering Saturday, his 68.5 EFG on pull-up jumpers was tops in the league, almost 10 percentage points better than Kevin Durant. Here he is running off what hoopers affectionately refer to as an Iverson cut, then rolling right back into a dribble hand-off with Embiid.
Here, despite lacking the burst to beat Javonte Green, he hits a ridiculously tough shot off the dribble.
When the Sixers needed a bucket to close out their first win over the Bulls, they put the ball in Curry’s hands and he delivered.
He’s even developing as a playmaker, and his two-man chemistry with Embiid is increasingly apparent.
This is not a stand-still, one-dimensional shooter. This is a ballplayer. Add in Niang, who’s shooting 42 percent from beyond the arc, per CTG, Danny Green (44 percent), Furkan Korkmaz (35 percent and growing every game as a guy who can put the ball on the floor, at least within the Sixers’ movement, to get shots), Shake Milton and Maxey, and the Sixers are showing us what it looks like to finally arm Embiid with three to four shooters around him at all times.
Entering Saturday, the Sixers were shooting better than 40 percent as a team from 3, the best mark in the league per CTG, with the No. 1 ranked offense. Even when Thybulle, a sub-30-percent 3-point shooter, is on the floor, it’s a far cry from the complete non-threat that Simmons was. Everyone has to be accounted for. Nobody is in anyone else’s way. And again, the ball is moving. The Sixers might not run in the full court the same without Simmons, but their half-court pace is noticeably more energetic. They get downhill off actions rather than individual creations, driving and kicking with zip.
As mentioned, Embiid hasn’t even gotten going yet. He’s been tremendous defensively (and he was stellar on Saturday vs. Chicago: 30 points, 15 rebounds, 11-of-19 from the field including 4-of-5 from 3), but he’s currently averaging career lows in points, rebounds and shooting percentage. His face-up jumpers are not connecting like they did last season, when he was an elite mid-range shooter.
Also, we haven’t mentioned Tobias Harris yet, who on paper should be Philly’s second-best player (Curry has taken that mantle for now). The Sixers beating the Blazers without Harris or Embiid might’ve been the single-most impressive victory any team has had so far.
Harris is currently out dealing with COVID-19, but when he gets back it will be interesting how the offense adjusts. Harris is something of a ball-stopper, and that’s when the Sixers get in trouble. They don’t have that guy who can create out of nothing against set defenses. They have to play fast in the half-court, at least when they’re not going through Embiid in the post.
That has been a problem with this team for years. Simmons was a big part of it. They get bogged down and end up having to rely on tough one-on-one shots from guys ill-equipped to deliver in that role consistently. Come playoff time, you still have to think the Sixers will be in trouble if they can’t find a true one-on-one playmaker to close games. Yes, Curry has been great within the system, but he’s out of his depth in terms of a 1A perimeter option. So is Harris, So are Maxey and Milton.
Playing through Embiid in the post to finish games is dicey as well. He’s getting better out of double teams, but throwing the ball into him does not guarantee a good shot the way it does with, say, Nikola Jokic. The Sixers have to mix it up. Daryl Morey is obviously in the market for Embiid’s elite perimeter wingman.
I keep saying this, but you put CJ McCollum on this team right now, and the Sixers would be a title contender. The defense wouldn’t fall off so dramatically that the uptick in reliable postseason offense wouldn’t be a net positive. As we’ve seen, Philly can cover for weaker defenders (though Curry and McCollum at the same time would surely be a challenge) with Embiid as a one-man backstop.
I would take the chance. But for now, I’m just having fun watching this Sixers team operate free and easy and without expectations. One of the most frustrating teams in the league with Simmons has become one of the most enjoyable without him.