November 09, 2023
Cohesion typically takes time: coalescing into a coordinated unit with little experience is no easy task. Yet for the 6-1 new-look Philadelphia 76ers and first-year head coach Nick Nurse, the transition with a brand new coaching staff and several players recently acquired via trades and free agency has been as rapid as it has been impressive.
"I like this group a lot," Nurse said after Wednesday night's statement victory over the Boston Celtics. "They're playing hard, they're playing together, and they're fun to be around right now."
It starts, of course, with the NBA's reigning MVP, Joel Embiid. Embiid, who averaged 32.8 points per game during the home-stand, including more than 25 points in each game. He has been his typically extremely efficient self, leading the team in scoring with ease and ranking among the NBA's best. He continues to improve as a shot-blocker, diversifying his defensive portfolio to include yet another elite skill.
Embiid has been dominant on both ends of the floor for the Sixers, as he has been for his entire career. What has not existed for his entire career, though, is a viable path to surviving when he is not on the floor. Rather than just survive, the Sixers are now thriving when Embiid hits the bench. Multiple times already this season, the team has put games away early in the fourth quarter, when he receives his customary rest. It may seem trivial in the moment, but in the long run it can have tremendous value for the Sixers.
"These guys have come in and have done a great job, not only holding [leads], but extending [them]," Embiid said. "They call it 'old school load management.' I want to play every game, so if we can do that every game, I'll probably have that chance."
Embiid's supporting cast is plentiful right now. First there is the young guard Tyrese Maxey, whose blend of patented scoring and newfound facilitation have him among the league's best ball-handlers in the young season. Maxey, 23, is averaging 25.4 points and seven assists per game through seven contests. Despite the point guard's critically-acclaimed performance, Nurse sees significant room for improvement.
"I think there is a lot of room for growth with him," Nurse said Wednesday night, zeroing in on Maxey's ability in facets of the game typically forced upon point guards, such as play-calling.
Tobias Harris has given the Sixers the exact kind of consistent offensive punch they hoped during the offseason they would receive from him once the season began. Harris is averaging 19.2 points per game on the season and has scored at least 15 points in every single game. Perhaps what is most impressive is the variety of ways in which he is doing it— Harris has thrived as a spot-up shooter, as a self-creator, a free throw shooter and a play finisher around the rim.
"It's just taking advantage of different matchups out there and being put in different positions," Harris said after the team's October 29th victory over the Portland Trail Blazers. "That's from the staff, the type of offense we are running and the type of opportunities that are being presented to me. Just taking advantage of them and just playing with that type of flow and that type of energy."
The top of the Sixers' roster may be performing well, but it is not a top-heavy roster. That became even more true when the team traded James Harden, PJ Tucker and Filip Petrusev to the Los Angeles Clippers for Robert Covington, Nic Batum, Marcus Morris Sr., KJ Martin and considerable draft compensation. Most contending teams are searching for viable rotation pieces. The Sixers are searching for rotation spots for the pieces already in place.
Whether it's Kelly Oubre Jr., who has shined and given the Sixers essential jolts of energy in a timely manner all season long, Paul Reed, who continues to build off the momentum he built late last season, or Batum, who played more than 26 minutes Wednesday night and, according to Nurse, is set to fill a major role moving forward, the Sixers come at teams from a position of power with their impressive depth.
Nurse raved Wednesday night about his second unit players: Batum, Covington, Reed and Patrick Beverley.
"They're going in there to give you some rough, tough, hard play," Nurse said. "That's their role, and they really excel at it."
All of this was punctuated by the win over Boston, in which all of these pieces converged to take a conniving, albeit stressful, victory over one of the NBA's established elite teams.
"We've got an interesting team. We've got emerging young star in Tyrese, we've got an unbelievable, unbelievable player in Joel, and we've got a lot of athletes that are pretty talented around them that give us some depth.," Nurse said.
"I just focus on the team I've got, and I like this group a lot."