February 21, 2023
The All-Star break is nearly over, and the Sixers are gearing up for perhaps the toughest end to the season of any team in the league. Right out of the midseason rest period, the Sixers draw Memphis, Boston, and Miami before going through a brutal road gauntlet in the month of March, a stretch that could define their season and will certainly decide where they finish in the Eastern Conference standings.
Before things kick off, it felt right to check in with where they sit in the league hierarchy, at least in the eyes of the media. Here's what the power rankings look like in late February.
The 76ers shook off a rough start to go 26-7 in their last 33 games, the league's best record during that stretch. They've been dominant on both ends with Joel Embiid and James Harden on the floor, while Embiid is once again in MVP contention with averages of 33 points, 10 rebounds and four assists per game on 54 percent shooting. Harden is putting up 21.4 points and a league-leading 10.8 assists per game on 39 percent 3-point shooting, his best mark since his final year with the Thunder in 2012. [CBS]
I am not sure we have focused enough on that 26-7 mark over a period that represents roughly 40 percent of the NBA season. It seems that this team’s reputation, at least locally, has been tied more to their tough opening stretch and previous playoff failures than the product they’ve put on the floor over the last couple of months. And that’s really a shame, because I do think there are signs that this Sixers team is different than previous failed editions.
This is the best version of Embiid we have ever seen, with the big man scoring more efficiently than ever and fighting for the league scoring title in a season where numbers are up all over the board. Harden has found his footing and his legs this year, posting some of his best shooting numbers ever while serving as an elite playmaker. Around them are a series of players who have found a niche within the ecosystem — Maxey is finding his stride off of the bench, Harris has bought into a smaller role, Tucker has had some big moments in high-caliber matchups, Melton is a two-way connector, and so on.
They are very good and they are deeper than they’ve been in the past. Will that be enough in the end? Maybe not, but they deserve at least some of your attention until this run is over.
Ranking: 4 (”Tier 1: The Contenders”)
When we checked in on this a little over two months ago, the Sixers were still battling injuries to James Harden and Tyrese Maxey. They weren’t even close to whole. Now? The Sixers have kicked things into high gear and they are kicking teams’ butts to start out games. They maintain in the middle quarters and then they put it away in the fourth. They’ve gone 12-4 in their last 16 clutch games since we last checked in. And they’ve won 26 of their last 33 games. They have become an absolute force. [The Athletic]
For all the pearl-clutching about blown leads and perceived issues on Philadelphia’s end, Harper’s article laid out an important fact regarding these Sixers — they have been strong starters and strong finishers, ranking in the top-five for net rating in the first and fourth quarters. While they have been closer to an average team in the middle portion of games, they have consistently come up big when it counts.
A cynical observer would point out that they’ve had some close shaves and coin-flip games along the way, which is fair to a point. They emerged with wins against Utah and L.A. in a back-to-back where either could have ended up as losses, and the Lakers game ended on a controversial non-call. On the other hand, James Harden looking more like James Harden has buoyed the minutes they play without Embiid to start fourth quarters, and the increased chemistry between their stars has allowed them to simply out-execute (or out-talent) some good teams in big moments. Having a two-star combo to lean on in late-game offense was not a luxury they’ve had often in the Embiid era, but it’s one they have now.
Ranking: 7 (”True Finals Contenders”)
O'Connor's power rankings are technically his post-deadline rankings, so they're ever-so-slightly dated, but close enough to the present day that they're worth counting.
Daryl Morey made a savvy trade deadline move by flipping Matisse Thybulle for Jalen McDaniels while also escaping the luxury tax and adding multiple future picks. Thybulle is an all-world defender, but McDaniels is in the same stratosphere—at least when he’s fully engaged as an off-ball havoc wreaker who can contain multiple positions. And he’s a far better offensive presence than Thybulle, so he could earn more playing time as a reserve. But it’s hard to buy Philadelphia as a favorite with Doc Rivers as head coach; he fails to make adjustments, goes with all-bench lineups, and lacks a feel for rotations. Another playoff loss might be necessary to force Philly’s hand to find a coach who can elevate the players on the roster. [The Ringer]
This is the most controversial ranking of the group here, and it’s worth diving a bit deeper into that.
For starters, O’Connor has the Sixers sitting immediately behind the Lakers (lol) which seems a bit ridiculous even with the upgrades L.A. made at the deadline. Everyone else in that top six — Golden State, Denver, Phoenix, Milwaukee, and Boston — you could make coherent arguments for, either based on the strength of their teams, the relative strength of their conference, or historic trust in the case of the Warriors. Trusting the Lakers enough to call them a true contender, though, is a bridge too far.
On the other hand, O’Connor’s beef seems to stem from his distrust in Doc Rivers. I think it’s slightly harsh given Rivers’ increased flexibility and slightly more aggressive coaching this season, though you can’t dismiss a career’s worth of decisions and/or stubbornness because a coach had a strong first half of the year. There have been numerous gripes from the public about the job he has done this year, mostly centered around fringe roster battles (e.g. backup center or the usage of Thybulle), some of which have been fair and others which hardly matter at all. In any case, it’s certainly fair to wonder if Rivers will push the right buttons when it matters, as he has routinely had elite talent and come up short when it counts.
To the McDaniels point, I wonder just how involved he will be by the time this group hits the playoffs. The “he should start!” crazies among us went a bit overboard over his first few games in Philly, but he certainly looks the part of a useful two-way player.
After losing back-to-back games to the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics last week, the Philadelphia 76ers enter the All-Star break on a four-game winning streak capped off by a statement victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday.
The matchup ran off the same script that has worked for Philly several times this season. James Harden created and dished his way to a double-figures assist total, and Joel Embiid bullied his way to a double-digit free-throw total. When the Sixers check both of those boxes (10-plus assists for Harden and 10-plus free-throw attempts for Embiid), they're 10-5 on the year. [Bleacher Report]
When the Sixers' two best players do the things that make them good, the Sixers win games. #Analysis
Jokes aside, I do think it will be interesting to see exactly how resistant Embiid's style of play will be in the playoffs, assuming he can actually stay healthy. There's a certain segment of NBA fans who think he won't get the same calls in the playoffs as he does in the regular season, and maybe he'll be short a whistle here or there, but he has largely been a free-throw machine in the playoffs, too. Across 44 playoff games in his career, Embiid is averaging 9.27 free throws per contest, a number that only slightly trails his career mark of 9.8 attempts per game in the regular season. I'm inclined to say that hinges on his health rather than how the officials call games — the version of Embiid who is willing/able to bang bodies and force opponents to take fouls is going to be more effective than one who has to play passively to avoid further injury.
Of course, Philadelphia's fate seems to hinge on their defensive ceiling rather than how many points they score or how they score them. At their best, the Sixers have had brilliant defensive moments, but they have struggled with effort, consistency, and finishing possessions while at full strength. To contend for a title, this group needs to be in lockstep protecting their basket, and that's a much bigger question than whether Embiid can score the basketball.
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