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February 08, 2021

NBA power rankings: Sixers settling in as top-five team in the league

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team_huddle_Hornets_Sixers_Frese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

The Philadelphia 76ers huddle before a home game earlier this season.

Sitting at the top of the Eastern Conference standings with a win over the reigning champs in their pocket, you might think the Sixers would be leading most power rankings around the NBA. But some subpar performances and dangerous teams out west have the Sixers trailing the lead dogs by just a hair, in but not leading, the conversation about contenders.

Even being in that top group is a nice surprise for Philly this early in the season. Head coach Doc Rivers and President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey made it clear that their start to the year would largely be a feeling out period, and they've still managed to rack up a lot of wins in the meantime. They have quickly earned some respect around the league, even if it's tentative respect given their schedule quirks and stylistic concerns that could factor in down the road.

Let's take a look at where they stand in the minds of a few major outlets, keeping in mind that recent performances are weighted on top of the season-long stuff, and that each outlet uses different criteria to put these lists together.

ESPN — 4th

Who's in front of them? Lakers, Jazz, Clippers

The reasoning

Despite a disappointing home loss Thursday to undermanned Portland, Philadelphia remains in first place in the Eastern Conference thanks to wins over the defending champion Lakers and the Nets, and Joel Embiid remains one of the front-runners for this season's MVP award with a run of impressive play. Embiid, who is averaging a career-best 29.3 points per game so far this season, has eclipsed 30 points in eight of his past 10 games. — Tim Bontemps [ESPN]

Our thoughts

The Portland loss has stuck in the mind of a lot of outlets this week, and while I can't blame them for taking the Sixers to task for a miserable performance, it certainly seems like a game that we will think very little about by the time the season ends — long season and all that jazz.

If anything, I am interested in seeing how the Sixers match up with a fully loaded (or at least partially loaded) Blazers team during this trip out west. Portland's 1-2 punch of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum offers a fascinating test for Philadelphia's defense, with the Blazers able to send either guard through a maze of ball screens to see just how proficient the Sixers are when Embiid is forced to play up in coverage for most of the game. Danny Green should be able to check McCollum for stretches of the game (as should Matisse Thybulle), with Ben Simmons taking on the more challenging task of guarding Lillard.

It will be a guard-heavy trip for the Sixers, who go up against the young Kings combo of De'Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton, the Suns blend of new and old with Chris Paul and Devin Booker, and the Utah combo of Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley that has been tearing it up on both ends to start the year. There's a lot to learn about the Sixers during this upcoming stretch of games.

Mo Dakhil, Bleacher Report — 3rd

Who's in front of them? Jazz, Lakers

The reasoning

The Philadelphia 76ers fell from the top spot because of their loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, who were without Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. You cannot lose that game, with or without Ben Simmons, and maintain the throne. Even their win against the Brooklyn Nets came with a caveat as both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving missed the game. One interesting stat of note: Philadelphia is 13-0 when its ideal starting five of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Danny Green and Seth Curry plays. 

Embiid is having an MVP-type season. He is fourth in scoring at 29.3 points per game and leads the league in free-throw attempts. Head coach Doc Rivers has the Sixers playing through him in the post, and it is paying off. 

They have the best record in the East, and it still feels like they have another gear to hit. [Bleacher Report

Our thoughts

Almost every year since Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons teamed up in 2017, there has been some sort of stat or indicator that Philly had one of the best five-man groups in the league. When you consider the turnover during that time period — they've gone from Process favorites like Dario Saric and Robert Covington to a spell with Jimmy Butler, last year's misguided experiment, to the Tobias Harris and shooters approach now — it mostly speaks to the ability of the core duo to impact the game.

That's not to say I believe the Sixers are a no-doubt contender just because Embiid and Simmons are on the roster. But whenever the Sixers have been healthy and put a coherent roster around those two, wins have piled up. Now that they've actively catered to Joel Embiid, he has gone from a perennial All-Star to one of the game's truly elite players, albeit with improvements of his own that would have looked better with any set of teammates.

We will see what that starting five stat looks like once they start actually playing good, full-strength opponents, but there will likely be fewer of those this season than in any other year to date. They can only play the team in front of them, and they've done an excellent job of capitalizing on the soft open.

Kevin O'Connor, The Ringer — 3rd

Who's in front of them? Lakers, Clippers

The reasoning

O'Connor's approach to his write up is a bit different from the rest of the pack, with his blurb focused on an Embiid-centric trend that has been a focus for us here during the opening stretch.

One of the key trends to watch in Embiid’s MVP bid is his proficiency shooting off the dribble. Last season, he shot only 33 percent on dribble-jumpers. Through 19 games this season, he’s hitting 53.5 percent of his midrange jump shots off the dribble and 33.3 percent of his 3s, per NBA Advanced Stats. We’re working with a small sample of 111 shots, but Embiid looks more comfortable than ever utilizing crossovers and hesitations to get into smooth pull-ups. 

I’m buying this progress. Last July, I reported that a Sixers source told me Embiid was working on his face-up game and his pull-up jumper. Embiid has a long track record of improvements. Shooting off the dribble was simply his next step. [The Ringer]

Our thoughts

One of the only reasons I'm hesitant about Embiid's MVP case (aside from the whole "games played" thing) is that he is due for regression as a shooter at some point this season. His numbers from 16 feet to the three-point line are basically unfathomable, and a drop from midrange would dent both his raw production and overall efficiency. On the flipside, Embiid could drop in the range of 15-20 percent from that area of the floor and still be an impact player on offense. It would simply be the difference between an all-time season from that area of the floor and a standard, All-NBA type run.

If there's a reason for optimism there, I would point out that most of the shots Embiid is getting from that area are lightly contested, whether because he's catching and shooting on a pass from Seth Curry or pulling off of the dribble. Teams are rightfully concerned about preventing his path to the basket, and the work he has put in on his face-up game will be essential when he can't just bully crappy centers in the playoffs.

Generally speaking, I'm also not especially concerned about what Embiid shoots on pull-up threes one way or another. If he makes them, great. If not, I'd rather his threes be on catch-and-shoot looks and a secondary option on a possession anyway.

Colin Ward-Henninger, CBS — 4th

Who's in front of them? Jazz, Lakers, Bucks

The reasoning

The Sixers' loss this week was truly baffling, as they were blown out by the Blazers without Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum. They bounced back to beat the short-handed Nets on Saturday behind a dominant Joel Embiid, who averaged 34.7 points and 8.3 rebounds this week as his MVP campaign tour continues. Tobias Harris has quietly put together a fantastic season, and he averaged nearly 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists this week. [CBS]

Our thoughts

Not much to add here except to echo the praise of Tobias Harris. I was a noted skeptic of the "Doc Rivers effect" on Harris specifically when it was time to make preseason predictions, and felt slightly vindicated in that belief when Harris sputtered through the preseason and first few games of the year. But Rivers' message of quick decision-making took hold with Harris rather quickly, and his confidence grew exponentially once he started stringing together some hot shooting nights and clutch performances.

We've discussed it in a few recent recaps, but Harris has been an integral part of Philadelphia's fourth-quarter success, helping to lead a lineup with four bench players that Rivers has gone to in the opening minutes of the final period recently. It's not a group that should be expected to win those minutes outright every time, but even playing to a standstill is big for Philly, especially if/when Harris can hit a few shots and start to get rolling. When Harris is in rhythm by the time crunch time begins, which has been quite often this season, the Sixers are tough to beat.

Zach Harper, The Athletic — 4th

Who's in front of them? Jazz, Lakers, Bucks

The reasoning

This Sixers team has been living at the free throw line this season, and they’ve been dominant defensively. Perhaps the free throw shooting won’t be something they can count on during the postseason, but they can count on the defense. Doc Rivers has done a phenomenal job focusing this team. 

Sure, the loss to Portland happened without Ben Simmons, but the Trail Blazers didn’t have their starting backcourt or starting center.

Our thoughts

Living at the free-throw line is one enormous plank of Joel Embiid's MVP case, and I think concern over how it translates to the postseason is somewhat warranted. We can already see stretches of games right now where Embiid skews a little too far toward foul-baiting and throws up some wacky attempts that don't come close to going in, especially late in games when the officials let guys play a bit rougher. That's amplified in the playoffs.

However, it's not like Embiid has had any real difficulty getting to the free-throw line in the playoffs before. In 2-of-3 years, Embiid actually got to the line more in the playoffs than he did in the regular season, and last year's numbers were particularly staggering in the series against Boston, with Embiid marching to the line almost 15 times per game. Doc Rivers has made it clear that one of his guiding philosophies is to just run the same thing over and over again if it's working (not a bad strategy!), and if Embiid is pounding some poor backup center during the playoffs, I imagine the Sixers will keep drawing from that well.

On the other hand, I think we'll have to keep an eye on his turnovers and passing. Hockey assists have been plentiful for Embiid this season, but most of his best work has come when teams double from the strong side, allowing Embiid to react to pressure coming within his field of vision. Though he has flashed the ability to hit open teammates on the weakside if defenders cheat across the paint to help, "feeling" that help has been a trouble spot for him in the past, and it's something he should expect to see more as the season wears on.

In any case, Embiid's impact is not felt solely on offense, so even if things go much differently in the playoffs, he can still provide the backbone of a dangerous team.

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