More Sports:

March 10, 2023

Five important Sixers storylines heading into season's final stretch

From the Sixers need to redefine their defensive identity to Paul Reed at backup center and more, here's what to watch before the playoffs begin.

The Sixers have just 17 games left to play in the regular season, a number that caught me by surprise as I started looking at what's left on the calendar. Soon, there will be no more arguments about whether Philadelphia is a "serious team" or not, whether Joel Embiid deserves MVP or not — okay, those arguments aren't going to end — and we can simply settle in for some playoff hoops. And, yeah, a different set of arguments.

For now, here's what I have my eye on as Philly comes down the stretch.

Figuring out the defense

Here are the Sixers' league ranks in offense and defense for the season, compared to what their ranks are since James Harden's return to the lineup in early December.

 CategoryFull season Since Dec. 5th 
 Offensive efficiency116.6 (3rd) 119.5 (2nd) 
 Defensive efficiency 112.4 (8th)114.2 (14th) 

This is an eye-of-the-beholder issue. The Sixers have been outright better since Dec. 5, posting a 31-11 record while padding the margins by over a full point per 100 possessions. They have been a truly elite offense, and their offense failing has often been the cause of early playoff exits. Still, it's hard to ignore them being almost dead average on defense for half of the season. What does it mean, and can they fix it?

An optimist looks at how the team is set up and says that a half-court defense with Joel Embiid anchoring it will thrive in the playoff pressure cooker. There's some logic to that you might infer from Philadelphia's crunch-time numbers — the Sixers have the second-best defense in "clutch" situations this season, in a period of the game where teams tend to slow down and grind out the final plays. Teams will continue to look for pace where they can find it in the playoffs, but if the Sixers can translate some of their late-game success on defense into the other three-and-a-half quarters, they're on the road toward playoff success. And frankly, the success of their offense will be their best defense, allowing them to get back and set after made baskets.

The flaws you've seen all season aren't going away, though. They're a middle-of-the-pack rebounding team, one that has to sacrifice size, athleticism, or often both with some of their most-played lineups.  They give up the third-most points on fast breaks of any team in the league, and the pack of teams around them isn't exactly heartening (Utah and Houston are the only worse groups, with the below .500 Lakers and tanking Spurs right ahead of them). 

Most notably, can you trust their three-point defense? The Sixers have actually defended the arc well by the numbers this season, allowing teams to shoot just about average from three (35.1 percent). But this seems divorced from their general defensive process, which has been littered with overhelping and poor situational awareness in big matchups this season. Offense is up leaguewide this season, but Philadelphia has allowed several teams to have all-time shooting or scoring performances against them, left to rely on shotmaking to pull them out of it.

It is a topic worth 10,000 words or maybe fewer than 10. Do they have an extra gear for when it counts, as it has seemed throughout the year? Or should a season of up-and-down results offer proof they aren't consistent enough, not athletic enough, not good enough to get stops in the playoffs? Time will tell.

Who plays backup center?

At practice on Thursday, Doc Rivers noted that the Sixers had plans for the road trip behind Joel Embiid that never came off.

"We only did [PJ Tucker] at the five once, but it's funny, we had planned to do it in the Indiana game and he didn't play, and then the Minnesota game that was our gameplan," Rivers said Thursday. "But it was his first game back, so we didn't want to do it again. Our plans kind of got thrown away for that, because we thought those were two great teams to go small, Minnesota getting Gobert away from the basket, we won the games, we'll take 'em. There are things we didn't get to work on that we thought we would."

Philadelphia's road trip seemed to represent something of a breakthrough for Paul Reed, who looks increasingly comfortable on offense while cutting down on the fouling defensively. And Rivers has acknowledged Reed's uptick in play, so it's interesting to see that he still has an eye on the need to tinker with their small-ball lineups, especially when you consider that he's said (for whatever that's worth) that he wants to save Tucker's legs for the playoffs.

Really, you could break this discussion into two different questions.

  1. Will Doc Rivers trust Paul Reed when it matters?
  2. Will Paul Reed deserve trust when it matters?

Reed's numbers for the season are still way underwater, as the Sixers have been outscored by roughly 5.1 points per 100 possessions whenever he is on the floor. That's over a sample size of close to 1000 possessions, which gives us a reasonably large sample size to work with, and for a skeptic to point to and say, "No thanks."

That said, Philadelphia's increased star staggering could loom large here. In lineups with James Harden on the floor, the Sixers have only lost Reed's minutes by 0.7 points per 100 possessions. None of those groupings have played enough minutes to get a real handle on their playoff viability, but Reed is an on-paper fit for switch-heavy lineups built around Harden's ability to carry the offense and a bunch of like-sized players to trade off assignments. Putting together that kind of group while still maintaining a bit of rim protection sounds ideal, it just hinges on Reed holding up his end of the bargain.

On that subject...

Will Jalen McDaniels sink or swim?

Philadelphia's recent road trip felt like a breakthrough moment for McDaniels in Philadelphia, featuring a 20-point outing in Indiana two days after he played huge minutes in the second half against Milwaukee. McDaniels has probably been about as good as could be expected, though swapping him in for Thybulle does pose some interesting questions for the second unit.

Here's the main one — are the Sixers equipped to defend guards in backup lineups? De'Anthony Melton's move back to the bench has given them some more defensive punch, though Melton's strength has been hanging with wings rather than chasing smaller, quicker players around. McDaniels' length has proven formidable on three-point closeouts and weakside rotations, though he's certainly at the big wing end of the defensive spectrum. Philadelphia has experimented with different looks and reintroduced deep bench players, most notably Danuel House Jr., who fits in the 2/3 slot defensively and adds another switchable guy to the rotation. As you watch the Sixers tinker around the edges this deep in the year, you wonder how they looked like a semi-competent team while introducing a team-altering star like James Harden at the deadline last season.

Notably, McDaniels' three-point numbers have dropped since coming to Philly, admittedly on super-low volume (10 total attempts) across 11 games. He has been able to make up for that with improved efficiency elsewhere, making an impact as a cutter, transition attacker, and putback threat on offensive rebounds. That said, his ability to make shots will play a role in his playoff viability the same as it would have for Thybulle, even if McDaniels has more offensive utility without shots going down.

Seeing McDaniels start against Indiana was a bit of an eye-opener — there haven't been many times in recent Sixers history that they've had a high-level athlete on the wing while also boasting a top-shelf guard and a superstar on the interior. In some ways, a player like McDaniels is who they've needed for a long time, a gap-filler who is good enough at multiple things to tie together lineups. 

And still, we're talking about a 25-year-old player who has never sniffed the playoffs. While teams continue to defend him like a real shooter, a heartening sign for the future, it's more likely than not that they'll shrink the floor and make him beat them the same they would any other role player in a big moment. The Sixers need to get the most out of McDaniels during his first-ever playoff run, which is a big ask even in a small role.

Fighting both ends of the seeding battle

Things are not so dire for the Sixers on the strength of schedule front anymore. They're down to the fifth-toughest schedule remaining with 17 games left to play. Progress!

The problem for Philadelphia is where their rivals in the seeding battle sit right now. They're two games back of the Boston Celtics, and you could spin this one of two ways — the Sixers are effectively three games back because they've lost the season tiebreaker to Boston, but they're only one back in the loss column with the Celtics having played two extra games. Unfortunately for Philly, Boston has a relatively easy road home, clocking in with the 23rd toughest schedule from this point onward.

The discrepancy is even larger between the Sixers and Cavs, with Cleveland boasting the league's easiest schedule for the rest of the year. Next Wednesday's matchup in Cleveland is one of the biggest games left on the Sixers' calendar, the decisive third meeting that will determine the head-to-head tiebreaker. A win for the Sixers would all but lock up a top three seed, assuming they don't fall apart elsewhere, but a loss would put them in jeopardy of sliding into the 4-5 matchup in round one, providing them with a better, tougher opponent in round one and what would likely be the most draining road to a Conference Finals (or better!) appearance.

Just looking at a schedule on paper doesn't necessarily mean much, and the current form for this group of teams has to be factored in. The Celtics have sputtered as of late and have lagged behind both the Sixers and the Bucks from December onward, coming back to Earth after a menacing start to the season. The Sixers may well catch some lucky breaks with games that look tough on paper, with Kevin Durant's availability for their late March meeting with Phoenix suddenly in question.

But that brings us to the top priority for Philly in this final run of games...

Above all else, health

Fresh off of five games in seven nights, Doc Rivers was honest about where his team was at after a grueling road trip.

"We're tired. I mean, I'm tired today. So if I'm tired, they're exhausted. We did a lot, but no running,'s just a tough stretch, and we know it, it's going to just require us to have as much focus as possible and try to maintain our legs."

Philadelphia is opting against a shootaround the morning of Friday's game against Portland, noteworthy in that shootarounds have basically been de facto practices for the Sixers this season. This deep into the season, the team is betting that a bit of extra rest is more important than what they might get done the morning of a game against the Blazers.

They are battling through plenty of aches and pains right now. Embiid's foot soreness lingers. Tobias Harris is battling a calf issue. Tucker missed a game after suffering back spasms. Harden sat on Tuesday with foot soreness of his own. It's that time of year, when rookies have long since hit the wall and the experienced vets have all picked up one issue or another that they simply have to play through.

Tyrese Maxey is a rare exception, though he admits that part of that comes down to his midseason injury putting him on the couch for a while. And even the young guard admits his habits have changed during his third season in the league as he has gained a better understanding of his body.

"What's most different for me from my rookie year is like the blackout days, the days they really don't want you in here, I really try to take those days and rest at home," Maxey said Thursday, "and not leave my house or not leave my couch. Because those are good for you, really good for you. I'll take that as my own growth, because that was hard for me, blackout didn't mean anything to me my rookie year."

We can argue about rotations, defense, execution, and 100 other things, but nothing matters more than this group making it to the playoffs healthy. As we saw last year, Philadelphia went from well-positioned for a playoff run to basically cooked before they played a single game in round two. There's a fine line between gearing up for the playoffs and overdoing it, and the Sixers will have to find that middle ground.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports