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February 16, 2021

Are the Sixers as good as their record suggests? The case for and against

A disappointing road trip notwithstanding, the Sixers have been one of the real success stories of the 2020-21 NBA season to date. Changes in leadership and on-court personnel have been enough to push them to the best record in the Eastern Conference, taking advantage of a wild start to the year with postponements and complications galore.

Still, questions loom about their viability as a contender, rightfully so to some extent. Their pristine record with all their starters available went up in smoke last week, and as the schedule has gotten tougher, the Sixers have looked more like a good, but not especially great team, as flaws begin to show the more games they play.

Just 28 games into their season, I'm not prepared to make a ruling one way or another. But for the sake of discussion, here are a few major points in their favor and a few red flags that could spell doom.

The Sixers are for real because...

They have an MVP-caliber leader

We could probably start and end an article about their chances right here. Joel Embiid is a legitimate MVP candidate with almost 40 percent of the schedule in the rearview. We are in uncharted territory for Embiid and the team, even if a lot of other things have remained the same.

Embiid has been a two-way force in past seasons, but he has never put together a season like this one. Averaging nearly 30 points per game on excellent 54/40/85 shooting splits, Embiid has struggled a bit lately with turnovers but has otherwise made massive strides on offense. Trusted by Doc Rivers to initiate the offense from the top of the key, Embiid's ability to hit pull-up jumpers has added a new layer to the offense, making it easier for their franchise player to dictate terms of the game without posting up on every possession.

He has remained plenty good on the block, where Embiid has forced teams to choose between contesting elite midrange shooting or stopping him from getting to the rim. On the rare occasion when Embiid is struggling from the field, his career-high in free throw attempts per game is making up for the difference, thinning out the rotation of his opponent.

Though Embiid has downplayed the difference between his conditioning this year compared to seasons past, the proof has been in the pudding on both ends. Philadelphia has asked Embiid to play up further on defense, demanding more movement out of him than he's used to, while expecting him to lead the offense and play longer stretches of minutes than in years past. He has met the challenge, looking like a new man for various reasons (including his own self-proclaimed desire to set a great example for his newborn son.)

When your best player is capable of hitting this level, little else truly matters for a team. 

They have personnel that makes sense together

I have been harsh on some of Philadelphia's role players this season, including Danny Green, a guy who has been a consistent winner on a variety of different teams. What I don't discount, however, is the importance of all the pieces fitting together to make life easier on the stars.

Green is a good example of how fitting into a role can be as important as someone's individual output. He has been overextended at times due to injuries and COVID, but there is something to be said for having a willing shooter and credible team defender who basically never needs to touch the ball. There is only one ball to share, and that means guys are going to have to be willing to live on the outskirts of the offense and still buy-in. For the first time in a while, there is a natural pecking order in Philly, thanks to roster fit and the ascension of their best player to an MVP level.

Outside of Dwight Howard, whose lack of shooting makes him a clunky offensive fit with Ben Simmons, the Sixers have been rearranged to best suit Embiid and Simmons. Embiid has had easier reads out of double teams, easier catches in the post, and has been open about having more trust in his teammates to make shots, which in turn has prompted him to get rid of the ball instead of trying to sledgehammer his way through traffic on every possession.

There has been a clear thesis among Sixers fans and many analysts over the years — put shooters around Embiid and Simmons and they will win games. That has largely been proven correct and proven correct quickly, with Daryl Morey putting a better-fitting group around his stars while simultaneously moving on from players who made their lives more complicated. Doing so in such a short amount of time provides hope that he can do it again before the deadline, lifting them up another level before the season is over.

Are there looming concerns on both ends of the floor? Certainly. Philadelphia has not been at their best lately. But they have flashed plenty despite an influx of new personnel, a new coaching staff, and little practice time to sort through new concepts together. There is room for growth.

Their two best players are more in sync than ever

In just about every way, Embiid and Simmons are combining more often and more effectively this year. If Philadelphia's two best players are able to succeed as a duo playing off one another, rather than simply existing on the same team, they're already that much closer to a championship.

Both men are more aware of what does and doesn't work for their counterpart after years of playing basketball together, and the improved ecosystem is helping to facilitate growth. Even when things are going well for both players individually, they have spotlighted missed opportunities and communicated about they can help one another more, a positive sign that the best could be yet to come. 

"The other day he texted me and said, 'I missed you too many times on your duck-ins. I'm going to find you.' Little things like that continue to help the team chemistry grow," Simmons said after a win over the Celtics in January. "And it just shows guys are willing to make plays. Even if guys don't make the right pass or miss something, guys want to make the right plays and things like that. So our relationship continues to grow."

They are teaming up in all sorts of ways this year. There's Embiid blitzing pick-and-rolls with Simmons for the first time ever, an increase in pick-and-rolls run together, and smart movement away from the play from Simmons, neutralizing the effectiveness of things like zone defense that used to give them fits in the past.

There has long been an assumption that keeping Simmons away from Embiid post-ups is the best order of business so that teams can't immediately hard double him. It hasn't been a staple of Philadelphia's offense by any means, but the Sixers have shown flashes of effective offense out of that look, with Simmons taking advantage of real estate conceded when the double comes.

If there's a positive of not staggering these two much, it's that they're spending more time on the floor together than ever, working through concepts and reads that will be critical to their success in the postseason. Becoming partners instead of just teammates is an essential step of their path to contending. 

The Sixers are frauds because...

Their shot profile is bad and tough to sustain at a high level

You may have noticed a flurry of stories lately about the Sixers not shooting enough threes relative to their competition. Fears on this subject are justified — the Sixers are currently bottom three in the league on total attempts from three per game, and even if you adjust to consider it as a percentage of their total shot attempts, they only move up one spot to 27th. Each of the teams below them (Cleveland, New York, San Antonio) boast bottom-10 offenses with all other factors put together.

This is a product of several converging factors. Philadelphia's best player is a post-up big who should be closer to the basket than the average player, but he also happens to love and thrive from mid-range. Simmons' aversion to the three-point line is well-documented, even if he creates three-point attempts via passing. Tobias Harris has seen his efficiency rebound playing more decisively under Doc Rivers, but he is shooting more long twos as a percentage of his attempts than he has since he was with the Magic in 2014-15.

Doc Rivers has been clear that he only cares whether they're scoring at all, not where the points come from or who scores them. Before their game against the Jazz on Monday, Rivers also insisted that this is a product of Philadelphia's poor defense, rather than a reflection of their philosophical goals. 

But while most fans do not like to think of sports this way, it puts the team on the wrong side of a basic math problem. Teams can shoot less efficient overall and still beat the Sixers by simply attempting more threes than Philly does on a given night. The Sixers have not done a particularly good job of preventing threes from happening, so this trend could continue long-term.

It could get even uglier if the Sixers simply fall back to Earth from midrange, a subject I've written about a decent amount this season. Embiid has been putting up staggering numbers between the painted area and three-point line, and even with Embiid putting up all-time level numbers from 16-22 feet, the Sixers have only been slightly above average on offense. A dip for Embiid could still result in an extraordinary individual season for the big guy, but it could also put the Sixers in greater danger to lose the close games they have triumphed in.

Here's the real concern — this may be an everlasting feature of an Embiid/Simmons team. When you are built around a post-up center and a player who avoids the three-point line like the plague, there's only so much role players can do to make up for it. They can make up for this in other ways to some degree, especially if Simmons routinely generates free-throw attempts at a higher clip, but they may always be up against the evil forces of math.

They have benefitted from a soft schedule

I am not in the habit of scolding teams for how they get their wins, especially after watching the Sixers punt game after game against lesser opponents last year. You play who is on the schedule and try to take care of business no matter who you're up against. But it does feel like we know little about how this team will fare against high-level teams because of how few they've played.

The Sixers have done what they needed to do, but many of the games we would have looked it in the preseason as statement games have been dampened by injuries. They have yet to face the Celtics with Jayson Tatum, the Nets with Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving, or even the Heat with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, Miami's struggles this season notwithstanding. An early-season battle with the Raptors looks far less important as the season has gone on, and dates with teams like the Clippers, Bucks, and more still loom on the horizon.

Guard-heavy teams have posed problems for the Sixers in recent weeks, and that problem will be amplified in the playoffs, where high-level guards are basically a requirement for entry. As good as Embiid and Simmons have been in their defensive roles, they have not been able to solve every problem by themselves, though perhaps you could make a case that they will when the bench is marginalized come playoff time. 

The counter-argument? It's hard for anyone to actually be a high-level team this year, with COVID disruptions, injuries, and changes to rosters keeping most good teams within an arm's reach of one another in the standings. The Sixers may not have many wins against full-strength contenders (the Lakers game is the big feather in their cap to date), but you could say the same for many teams even if their strength of schedule is superior on paper.

This is something we'll have to monitor all year, and even that might not be enough. It's a weird season that will produce weird results, and even the start of the playoffs could bring more chaos. If fans are back in the stands in greater numbers by that point, who knows how that shakes up an already turbulent year. But even if we make caveats to account for COVID absences and the like, the Sixers are just 2-6 against teams that are over .500. Not good. 

Their bench is missing a piece or two (at least)

With due respect to Shake Milton, whose absence has created a major void on the second unit over the last few games, a Finals hopeful should probably not be banking on him to be the maestro of a second unit that often plays with no starters on the floor. This is a lineup problem and a personnel problem at the same time.

Every player on the bench is probably one spot too high in the rotation, something that doesn't seem like a big issue but can leave you stretched thin over a full season. Doc Rivers told reporters following the Jazz game on Monday night that he believes it's too early to proclaim the bench a problem area, but when leads routinely evaporate once starters are pulled from the game, there's only one conclusion to make.

Rivers has shown an inclination to abandon all-bench groups recently when things aren't going well. To open fourth quarters in Phoenix and Utah, Rivers subbed in Embiid and Simmons to try to avoid the game getting out of reach with bench groups on the floor. A lack of staggering, however, was a feature of Rivers' Clippers teams in L.A. Old habits die hard, and banking on Rivers to fix everything through rotation changes alone might be unrealistic.

Even if Rivers decides to stagger more, an ineffective bench also threatens to overexpose their starters. Leaning on your stars to play more minutes than is necessary might get you a few extra wins in the regular season, but it can strain their bodies and put them at increased risk of injury. Embiid's track record speaks for itself, and Simmons is coming off an injury-plagued season of his own. Without a trustworthy bench, the Sixers have to be careful not to wear down too early.

On top of that, upgrading the rotation via trade may end up exacerbating some of the perimeter defensive issues they've had so far this season. A jolt to the bench might be worth the hit, but throwing a new, major piece into the mix midseason threatens to compromise their communication and coordination even more.

These Sixers do not feel complete, and any trade that brings them closer likely requires the sacrifice of what little quality depth they have. They've been a feel-good story so far this season, but it takes more than good vibes to win playoff series. 

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