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January 13, 2023

Grading the 2022-23 Sixers at the halfway mark of the season

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Sixers-Joel-Embiid-James-Harden_122422_USAT Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports

Sixers stars Joel Embiid and James Harden.

If you can believe it, the 2022-23 Sixers season is halfway over, 41 games away from the start of the NBA playoffs. Given the injuries they've dealt with, a slow start, and poor seasons for a couple of their offseason additions, they sit right about where they probably should be in the standings, right on a 50-win pace but a few games removed from the group at the top of the conference.

As a thought exercise, let's grade each member of the team for their contributions so far.

Joel Embiid — A

Embiid is averaging 33.5 points, 9.9 rebounds, 4.4 assists per game on 53.6 percent from the field. Those are video game numbers, absurd even for a player who has been in MVP conversations each of the last two seasons. Factor in the other side of the ball, where Embiid has led Philadelphia to a top-five defense so far this season, and you’d be overthinking it giving him a grade lower than an A.

Did you feel the, “Yeah, but…” coming?

The only complaint you could lob at Embiid is for a crappy start to the year, with his sluggish start almost forgotten about at this point. That, or we could moan about how many games he has missed. Neither are compelling/important enough to write off the absurd level of play he has offered this season.

James Harden — A-

It has probably been taken for granted that Harden missed about a month due to a foot injury and then basically immediately offered elite production once he rejoined the lineup. Having Embiid on the other side of so many passes boosts his assists total, but his playmaking has been transformative for the team whenever he’s on the floor. They look like a completely different offense/team without him, and he has been a more effective scorer than he was last season, a huge deal looking toward the playoffs.

Harden’s off-ball play has also been considerably better this year, with the veteran guard growing more comfortable in a role where he’s asked to launch catch-and-shoot threes and space the floor after getting off-ball.

I still don’t trust him on defense. There are too many bouts of apathy, and he takes poor angles on potential drivers that cause breakdowns for the entire group. I think the offensive ceiling has been worth it, but it’s a blemish for sure.

Tyrese Maxey — B

On the surface, this looks like a great on-paper season for Maxey, and I don’t want to overreact to his play since coming back from injury. But Maxey’s sensational shooting to start the year has taken a nosedive since he returned to the lineup at the end of December, and that is a gigantic part of what makes this whole thing work.

Maxey’s absence also invited questions about whether he should be the fifth man in the starting lineup, given the success of the Embiid/Tucker/Harris/Melton/Harden group. The starting group with Maxey in it has closed the gap between those two versions of the starters, and individually, he has been quite good this year, improving on his scoring average from last season, albeit with a dip in efficiency. But you can’t escape the nagging feeling that the defensive combo of Maxey/Harden in the backcourt could be problematic when it counts.

This is probably a bit harsh on him, and I think better days are ahead.

Tobias Harris — B

Harris still deserves his praise for being a more willing shooter this season, and he was critical during stretches where they were missing other starters, reverting back to more of an on-ball creator and scorer in those moments. He’s been far more important than I think people have given him credit for, and any trades that hinge on moving Harris in the deal shouldn’t be taken lightly.

That said, I do think he owns some of the responsibility for their most glaring issues. He’s probably a worst defensive rebounder than he should be with his size and athleticism, prone to getting beat by more attentive players on the glass. His defensive ceiling is pretty high, but it’s a guess whether we’ll see him reach it nightly, and their perimeter fortunes often rise and fall based on how he’s going.

His shooting has also come back down to Earth recently, with Harris shooting a respectable 38.1 percent, good but not great from deep. As that makes up a lot of his value, that’s an important number to track.

PJ Tucker — C-

I couldn’t decide exactly how negative to be with Tucker, who was excellent to start the year and has looked like a shell of himself ever since. There have been some great moments/games for him on defense, with Tucker providing credible defense against the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, but it’s hard to view his first half as anything but a disappointment.

It’s not like Tucker has been an efficient scorer during his career, but he has compounded that problem by being uninvolved for much of the game, gun shy at his worst. Tucker’s three-point shooting suggests he’s having a decent year there but the raw percentage doesn’t account for frequent pass-outs or stall-outs on clean-ish looks. With Harris eliminating a ton of record scratch moments from his game, Tucker adding them back to the team has dragged them back toward where they came from.

Even with all of that, the Sixers have been ever so slightly better with Tucker on the floor, and I do think injuries have played some role in his down year.

De’Anthony Melton — B+

Two big gripes for Melton this year: I think he is probably a worse on-ball defender than others think, and he has missed approximately 3,000 layups. Even as a big Melton booster, I worry about the former in a reality where he’s asked to take high-leverage assignments in the playoffs, as there’s only so much damage one can do as a team/off-ball defender.

That being said, the Sixers have to be nothing short of thrilled with the Melton acquisition, as he has given them a little bit of everything this year. He’s shooting more threes than ever and making a higher share of his attempts than last season, averaging more steals per game in his biggest role ever, and as his nickname suggests, he’s always making something happen. He has hit big shots in big moments and has made a real case to start for this team. Melton has had a bunch of chances to close in the games/moments that matter, and he deserved them.

Melton can get a little too confident in himself at times, pulling an early-clock three with a hand in his face, but you’d rather have that problem than an indecisive player.

Georges Niang — B

When the shot is on, he basically can’t be taken off of the floor. When it’s not, there’s not a whole lot he’s offering to the team.

Good news: the shot has been on for most of this season, and he has given them a big lift off of the bench.

Shake Milton — B

This has been a really good bounce-back season for Shake, who is posting career-best efficiency from the field and has finally rediscovered his outside touch after a miserable year from deep last season. He helped them get through a rough, injury-plagued period in November and December, and as I knock on wood while writing this, he has managed to stay healthy, which has been a big part of him staying in rhythm.

I still think he’s a defensive liability, though the Sixers have figured out ways to at least mitigate his issues there, with Milton effectively using his length at the top of zone looks this year (which have been more common for Philly in general).

Matisse Thybulle — C

If you were asking me to grade him for what I feel in my heart, Thybulle would probably barely get a passing grade. But the Sixers have handily won his minutes all season, so that feels harsh. A firm C feels like a fair compromise.

After an offseason filled with crowing about the work he put in, this is arguably his worst offensive season ever. Most teams are content to simply ignore him on the perimeter, so it’s not just that he’s missing shots, it’s that he’s missing shots that are (on average) as open as an NBA player can get. 45 percent of his total attempts are considered “wide open” threes, per NBA tracking data.

I also think there are some underlying issues with the defensive gains you get from putting Thybulle on the floor. His ability to create events is offset by how many fouls are committed as a result of his methods of madness — opponent TOV% jumps by 3.8 percent with Thybulle on the floor, but opponent free-throw rate climbs by 4.9 attempts per 100 possessions, those marks in the top 10 and bottom 10 percentile respectively.

It feels like the same part of the fanbase that dismissed offensive concerns for Simmons is convinced Thybulle is the magic bullet to fix this team. He’s a weird, situational player, and not much more for me.

Danuel House Jr. — D

Just hasn’t been good. Funny guy in the locker room, though.

Paul Reed and Montrezl Harrell — C

I want to lump these two together to say that if you believe these guys are even close to equal over the course of the season, you basically have to play the younger guy. I’m under no illusion that Reed is a finished product or even actively good a lot of the time, but I’d rather live with his issues than Harrell’s.

With Reed, you can see that a lot of his problems come down to inexperience. The tendency to foul too much, the clumsiness while running certain sets with Harden, most of what you see is a young guy trying to figure things out. His spirit is always there, and I think there has been a noticeable improvement in craft around the basket. But we do have to acknowledge the fact that the Sixers have been absolutely bulldozed with Reed on the floor this year, 16.3 points per 100 possessions worse than their opponent per Cleaning The Glass.

Still, I would take the gamble instead of hoping Harrell’s career of poor defense/attentiveness will suddenly turn around overnight. Harrell has had some legitimately good games lately, earning crunch-time reps and the night-to-night role as the first big off of the bench, and he offers a combination of skills that are helpful on offense. I’m just not sure they’re what Philadelphia needs the most, given the number of non-defenders on the second-unit and their team wide issues on the glass.

Furkan Korkmaz — C-

Korkmaz has just sort of been there.

Jaden Springer — INC

One game in garbage time against the Pistons is not really enough to move me one way or another.

Doc Rivers — B

This will be the most controversial grade on the list, but nobody has ever liked my coaching takes, so who cares, I guess.

I’m under no illusion that Doc Rivers is suddenly going to shed his playoff hang-ups in the spring, and skepticism about him is warranted. That said, I don’t view many of the shortcomings of this team as a result of his coaching. This isn’t CYO basketball or a sports movie, so motivating the players for a game like Thursday’s loss to OKC isn’t a core responsibility of his (IMO). Their late-game offense has had some real issues, and while we can’t absolve him there, a lot of that just comes down to execution from their stars.

His lineups have, a few weird quirks aside, been mostly fine. He has a fairly deep group, and I don’t think he’s been especially stubborn about any particular player or group, benching guys like Tucker in crunch time while using three-guard lineups and rolling with hot shooters. Rivers has been more proactive on small-detail things, like offense/defense subs at the end of the first and third quarters. Perhaps most importantly, he kept these guys together and made sure the bottom didn’t drop out when they were plagued with injuries.

I think he has been mostly fine, truthfully. As we are already in mid-January, it would take a dramatic turn of events to unseat him this year, so I think you’ll all have to hope that he has learned enough from past mistakes to be the man they need in April, May, and June. I have my doubts, but it’s why we play the games instead of declaring paper champions.


Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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