March 04, 2021
The Sixers are officially at the midpoint of the 2020-21 season, and they are much further along than even an optimist would have predicted. Joel Embiid is an MVP frontrunner, the team is right in the mix for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, and they have gelled quickly under Doc Rivers, adapting to new elements while holding onto what worked from the Brett Brown years.
This far in, they're still a bit tough to get a read on for a variety of reasons, most of them out of their control. The NBA has been chaotic like every other league and industry since exiting their bubble in Disney World, and that has led to a lot of games with half-filled lineups for the Sixers and their opponents. But only a coward would refuse to assess them at the midpoint because of *checks notes* a global pandemic that has changed all of our lives for a full year.
In lieu of doing individual grades — I don't think everyone is worthy of an exhaustive write-up — here are some evals for the separate groups in Philadelphia, in addition to what they might need to change to get things right by the time the playoffs roll around.
What has gone right
If we were doing player-by-player grades, there's one guy who would have earned an A+, and it's the MVP candidate at the center of Philadelphia's universe. No one needs me to remind them of how good Joel Embiid has been, but it's still worth noting for the 300th time that he has taken a leap to previously unseen levels. His down nights in 2020-21 are superior to some of his best nights in seasons past, which says all you need to know about how good he has been.
With Doc Rivers choosing to tie Embiid and Ben Simmons' minutes together more than ever before, Philadelphia's two young stars have responded by putting together some of their best, most in-sync play as a duo. They have to find ways to make each other better because they have had no other choice, and it has allowed them to find variants within looks they’ve played out of for years, like the lob to Embiid out of snug pick-and-rolls that Simmons now looks for more often.
If not for Embiid’s MVP-level play, Tobias Harris’ return to form would be the story of the season for Philly. He has been an ideal third banana as both a player and person, scoring in bunches without dominating the ball and fostering unity without demanding the spotlight. His All-Star bid fell short but it does not cheapen the season he has had to date.
Then there are the new faces, and while Seth Curry has been the more popular of the two additions, he and Danny Green are helpful by simply being on the floor next to paint-dominant players. The Sixers are only ever a pass or two away from a look for a shooter with a terrific track record, which is a powerful change from seasons past.
All of this adds up to a lineup whose indicators are as strong as their position in the standings. Philadelphia’s starting five has been one of the best lineups in the league with no qualifiers necessary — they have played the third-most minutes of any five-man group in the league and have outscored opponents by over 12 points per 100 possessions, putting up elite offensive numbers thanks to an alpha dog and a cast that fits snugly around him.
What needs to get better
The question here is less "what" and more "who" needs to get better. It's a five-man group that works in the regular season, but they've rarely been tested by full-strength contenders during the first half of the season. By the time they learn what this lineup is truly made of, it may be too late to switch it up.
In 2017-18, the Sixers had a winning formula thanks to Embiid and Simmons and a supporting cast that slid into roles around them. Even with Embiid out for the final stretch of that year, they rode a long winning streak into the playoffs and would ultimately dispatch of the Heat easily before being outclassed by an undermanned Celtics squad. It all came crashing down at once when it became clear that the Sixers did not have enough defenders to contain Boston or creators to beat Boston's defensive setup/overcome Simmons' halfcourt limitations.
This is a different group with better versions of Embiid and Simmons, and Harris is better equipped to play the third banana role than anyone was on that team. But there are similar questions looking at the other starters — Danny Green is a useful off-ball defender who might get torched by a team with multiple off-the-dribble threats, and Seth Curry is in even greater jeopardy of being hunted due to his defensive limitations. Those problems get much uglier with the bench, and if the Sixers need to make a trade-off to change the lineup at some point, they'll be taking some sort of hit. Matisse Thybulle has been a popular potential replacement for Green, for example, but the drop-off in shooting there is steep enough to junk up everything Philadelphia does in the paint.
I think Green and Curry are both suited as fifth starter types, with each just a tad too important at the moment for a team that hopes to contend. But ultimately, a lot of concerns right now are about projection rather than anything that has played out on the court.
Role players with value
Shake Milton is perhaps the only guy on the second unit who I think can be viewed as a slam-dunk, no-doubt contributor for the Sixers in the playoffs this season. Everyone else's role will be situational barring dramatic leaps forward between now and mid-May.
So let's focus on Milton, who himself could stand to gain from a change in how the rotation is set up. As the lead ballhandler for a limited supporting cast, Milton has had his best scoring and playmaking season to date, taking advantage of an increase in pick-and-roll frequency and a partnership with Dwight Howard on the bench. Milton still isn't a high-level finisher going to the rim, but he's a nifty enough playmaker and has offset that somewhat by cashing in on mid-range looks — he's shooting almost 47 percent from 16 feet to the three-point line, a career-best mark.
The only thing missing has been proficiency from deep, and that seems to be a result of carrying a heavier load for this year's group. He's shooting right around the same number of catch-and-shoot threes per game (2.6 vs. 2.7 last year) but they're a far smaller percentage of his total attempts. Milton has done well with the responsibility he has been given, and he is better for the experience he has gained over the last couple of months, he just probably has a little too much on his plate right now.
Elsewhere in the rotation, there are certainly guys who are useful on their best night. Tyrese Maxey had a hot enough stretch to convince some that he should be untouchable in talks for James Harden. Matisse Thybulle has pinged between absolute menace and, well, an absolute menace for the wrong team. I wouldn't bet my life against Furkan Korkmaz having one monster shooting night in a long playoff run, but I also wouldn't feel safe relying on him as a night-in, night-out member of a contending rotation.
If they didn't have warts, they wouldn't be bench guys. But this group pretty consistently gets outplayed even with Milton in the midst of a leap on both ends.
Boy, where do you start? There will be an extended look at this topic coming soon, but the Sixers could use upgrades (or at least sidegrades) all over the place, mostly so that they're a more flexible team if their Plan A doesn't work out.
Where they target to change that is an open debate. Dwight Howard has had his nights, but the Sixers could use a player who can help them go smaller with more shooting around Simmons, if not to play consistently at least to be their curveball option. They could use another wing defender (preferably one that can shoot) so that Rivers doesn't have to choose between compromising the offense to play Thybulle or rotating through a series of players who will get blown through by the big, tough wings you see in the playoffs. Maybe the Mike Scott renaissance is enough to get by, but that seems like wishful thinking based on an extremely small positive stretch over the last week or two.
Then there's the aforementioned creative touch that's needed, though you could argue that's more about upgrading the starting lineup than the bench. A starting-caliber playmaker would have a transformative effect on the rotation, allowing for more creative staggering and easing the burden on the lead playmakers of both units. If Rivers wants to attach Embiid and Simmons at the hip, they absolutely must get some help for the limited cast they have on the second unit.
Doc Rivers came to Philadelphia with a reputation for making many of the same mistakes Brett Brown used to make while in charge of the Sixers — he caught flak his final year in Los Angeles for his oft treatment of star players, stubbornness with rotation choices, and his refusal to give young guys a shot over "reliable" veterans. Rivers may not be the hard-charging, red-faced screamer some fans wanted, but his voice has carried weight because he understands the balance between pushing his guys and understanding the ebbs and flows of a long NBA season.
The big positive in my view has been Rivers' increased flexibility compared to previous stops. With some notable exceptions — the recent Cleveland stinker standing out in particular — he has proven more willing to adapt on the fly than his reputation suggested. He has played the hot hand (or benched the cold one) in crunch time, unleashed high-volume zone defense to junk up a game, and made the necessary switches when the Sixers have had to put out defensive fires.
Assistant coach Dan Burke has had a big hand in Philadelphia's defense. As a unit, they have not hit the elite levels they should be expected to, but the staff has coaxed career-best efforts out of players who historically have had varying issues on that end, including Tobias Harris, Shake Milton, Mike Scott, and Furkan Korkmaz. The demand for Embiid to play higher against pick-and-rolls has led to sporadic issues but has ultimately been a positive for their long-term outlook, with the team ultimately better suited to play different styles around their MVP when the playoffs arrive.
It has not gone perfectly during Rivers' opening few months in charge, but the team is in a battle for the No. 1 seed in the conference despite roster upheaval, little practice time, and a deficit of time together compared to their peers.
Reasons for concern
The underlying data suggests the Sixers may settle below their current place in the standings once the schedule toughens up. They've been very good but a touch inconsistent on defense and an extremely average offensive team. True contenders typically clear the top-10 bar for both sides of the ball, and after Rivers boasted of his ability to consistently foster top-10 offenses before the year, they're outside the club and possess a lot of the same problems as they did in years past. When Joel Embiid is not available, this team is still (mostly) a mess, and that has been the case in spite of a relatively friendly schedule.
Chew on this for a second — in the 300 minutes Embiid has been off of the floor and Simmons is on it, the Sixers score just 102.9 points per 100 possessions, a mark worse than the worst offense in the league this season. While we can posit that Simmons should be able to lift the offense more than that almost by accident, it does speak to some of the lineup combinations Rivers has put together. The truly horrific Simmons-Thybulle-Howard combo makes up about a third of those aforementioned 300 minutes, and Rivers has been reluctant to experiment too much with the second-unit groupings until recently. Even though the all-bench group came through for him in Wednesday's dramatic win over Utah, it felt like a fortunate break rather than good process.
Rivers' refusal to stagger Simmons and Embiid was the big mark against him early, and the big question I have on the coaching side moving forward is whether that is a regular-season quirk or a real danger spot to be aware of. The head coach has switched up their patterns recently, a positive sign, but they will not survive with all-bench groups in the playoffs barring a miraculous development or a huge upgrade to the rotation. That brings us to...
What they’ve gotten right
(For the record, I want to start by saying that I think giving front office grades this soon in Morey's tenure is an exercise in futility. We have no idea, for example, what the actual future cost of the pick attached to Horford is going to look like when it comes due. It could be anything from No. 7 overall to the last pick in the first round. Clearing salary was great, but it's one move in a series of a many we can hardly try to predict. In any case...)
With each passing day, the decision to trade Josh Richardson for Seth Curry looks better and better. Richardson was a guy you could have sold as a beneficiary of a fresh start under a new coach, but Daryl Morey correctly identified that a superior-fitting player with a bankable skill was more valuable next to his core duo.
Rather than trying to zig while others zag or assume Embiid and Simmons can adapt around various roster changes, the organization has simply chosen to do what seems obviously correct, spreading the floor around guys who are in especially great need of shooters around them. The direction being simple does not make it any less valuable or impactful, and other small moves suggest wins on the margins could pay dividends over time — they benefitted from standing pat and letting Tyrese Maxey fall to them at No. 21, and with obvious caveats like "It's only the G-League," Paul Reed has nonetheless destroyed competition for Delaware and looks like a diamond in the rough.
While I'm not in the business of giving out brownie points for moves executives almost made (word to Danny Ainge), Morey's involvement in the James Harden sweepstakes should also be heartening to people who want to see this team contend for a title, even if you were against trading for Harden specifically. He is willing to put it on the line in order to take this team to a level where they can potentially contend for a title, and it almost always takes guts to make that happen.
What comes next
It’s easy to dismiss the work already done as the easy part, but that is indeed sort of true. Getting rid of ill-fitting players from a disappointing and miserable team in exchange for high character, excellent fit replacements is a no-brainer. Identifying the expendable players on a team sitting No. 1 in the standings and actively enjoying each other’s company is a bit tougher.
The next part is why guys like Daryl Morey get paid the big bucks. Figuring out the balance between giving Embiid a better shot at a win and not mortgaging the future in case you come up short is the eternal struggle of all executives. Is a run with, say, Kyle Lowry worth sacrificing future outs by way of picks and young players? Can Morey sell ownership on ponying up if he finds a suitable player to absorb into their trade exception? Does his vision of their path to contention sync up with Rivers, who has his own significant voice internally and was hired before him in the offseason? There are a lot of things to juggle and, by virtue of their early success, more pressure and focus on whether the organization gets it all right.
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