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December 30, 2020

The most encouraging signs and worrying trends of Sixers' early schedule

Sixers NBA
Ben-Simmons_123020_usat Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons drives to the basket against Toronto Raptors forward OG Anunoby.

Four games and two tight victories into the season, the Sixers are off to a strong start to the Doc Rivers era. The new head coach has not fixed Philadelphia's problems overnight, but his team continues to win even as they struggle to make threes and execute on offense. For that, he is thankful.

"These are the type of wins you love," Rivers said after Tuesday night's win vs. Toronto. "I don't know how many wide-open shots and layups that we missed tonight. But that happens and you got to keep playing, so I was really happy. 37 points in the second half we held them to, on a night when we're struggling making shots, it tells you that instead of falling in love with your offense, you kept playing the game, you hung in there long enough, and you grinded the game out. These games are great for your character."

Character does not win basketball games on its own, but the new Sixers have flashed some wrinkles that show the touch of their new staff and changed roster, even if the trappings of the holdovers remain. As we head toward 2021, let's take a look at some of those early-season trends to keep an eye on.

Stock up — Joel Embiid's offensive approach

This sounds harsher than it actually is, but Joel Embiid is a "my way or the highway" type player. When things have gone the way he has wanted, Embiid's buy-in is sensational on both ends and he can drag the team to victory. Last season, we saw what happens when he's not pleased with the circumstances, mostly a whole lot of drifting through games. This is not unique for big men, who (rightfully) want to be rewarded on offense for anchoring the defense on the other end.

Doc Rivers has challenged Embiid to be the best version of himself even he's not getting the ball in a designed look. The new head coach is trying to end the Sixers' reliance on slow, methodical post-ups, and Philly has a new rule that says they do not re-post after 10 seconds. There's an even simpler request underneath it all — run, Joel, run.

"It's a major point [of emphasis]," Rivers said following Tuesday's win over Toronto, discussing Embiid getting down the floor early. "I think we got one early in the game — he actually missed a shot, if you remember — I think it was early in the game he ran down the court, sealed, got deep, and he even laughed, he's like 'Man, I'm not used to being that deep'. With his size and speed, he can do that. He obviously is not gonna do that every time, I don't want him to, he'd be exhausted, but if he does that four or five times a game, that's huge for us."

The holy grail for the big guy on offense, on the other hand, has always centered around moving the basketball. His biggest weakness, one that burns him in the playoffs time and time again, is his ability to navigate double teams. Amplified by a lack of shooting around him, Embiid would force up bad shots and turn the ball over far too frequently for a star center.

Cutting down his turnovers has been a stated goal for Embiid, who was angry with himself after the Toronto win for not taking better care of the ball. But Embiid did some great work against quick Toronto doubles all night, even if he wasn't often rewarded for it. It has helped the Sixers look more like a modern NBA team, with rapid swings to shooters around the perimeter.

"I love sharing the ball a lot, getting my teammates involved especially for making shots, it just makes my job easier," Embiid said Tuesday. "Now you got to think about doubling me. Like a night like tonight, the way they're doubling and tripling me is like, let's say if you would have made the first 4-5 to start the game, now they got to kind of adjust and allow single coverage where it's kind of hard to stop me one-on-one. So we all work together but like I said, got to give my teammates and the coaches a lot of credit."

Stock down — Ben Simmons in the halfcourt

Doc Rivers continues to insist he is not concerned with Ben Simmons' approach to the game. Every time the subject is brought up, he shoots down the idea that Simmons should look any different. Fair enough.

Even if you're in the shrinking group of people who don't think Simmons' halfcourt style is a problem, it has to be concerning that Simmons is still taking the same looks and playing mostly the same way as he did when he was a rookie in 2017. Teams have learned to live with the occasional blow-by for a finish at the rim, and they show little to no respect to him if he doesn't have a clear shot at the rim.

In the play seen below, Simmons attacks Kyle Lowry (who he is nearly a foot taller than) and decides to shoot a runner across his body fading away from the lane. Aron Baynes, who is stationed under the rim the whole time, hardly even budges:

This play should be a wide-open attempt from three, but even if we concede that's not a realistic expectation for Simmons at this point, there's no reason for so many of his attempts around the basket to look like this. It's a running theme and quite a contrast to how teams react to other guards attacking the paint on a nightly basis. 

In theory, Simmons should be considerably more dangerous than most guards in these situations because of his height and explosiveness. It rarely plays out that way on the floor. I get that this is caveman analysis to a certain extent, but it doesn't make it less true — he is bigger and more athletic than most guys he matches up with, and he rarely even makes the attempt to exploit that.

At least an attempt is being made on plays like the one above. I would argue the bigger issue comes on plays where Simmons doesn't make an attempt in the first place. He must be the league leader in 180 degree passes in mid-air, plays that teams are increasingly sitting on as he gets deeper into his career. Transition, the area where Simmons is supposed to thrive, is still not enough to get him to challenge guys at the summit. He has been very good on defense to start the year, but there's no dressing this up.

Stock down — Offensive cohesion/changes to the offense

Changes were promised to Philadelphia's offense, and this is not the same old Sixers we've seen in years past, but there are a lot of the same hang-ups this season that have been there for years.

Four games into the year, the massive change to offensive style hasn't happened quite yet. The Sixers still rank near the bottom of the league in pick-and-roll volume, leaning heavily on handoffs and holdover plays to set up their offense in the halfcourt. Post ups, as you might expect, are frequent for this group, and probably always will be so long as Embiid is the man in the middle. And the switch to a new head coach has not alleviated concerns about their halfcourt execution, with Philadelphia still going through long swoons on offense.

I don't mean this as a criticism of Rivers or even to suggest he's not making a difference. In a different year with a longer training camp, Rivers likely would have had more time to implement his playbook and test out rotation tweaks throughout the preseason. They were afforded no such luxury this year, forced to figure it out on the fly. The head coach correctly judged that a drip-feed of new stuff was the way to go, and was smart enough to recognize that some continuity from last year isn't a bad thing. 

That does mean we've seen the Sixers run into a lot of the same problems as they have in years past, albeit with Embiid playing with more space in/around the paint. When your primary ballhandler isn't a threat to shoot, it doesn't matter much whether you're running a pick-and-roll or a handoff, teams are going to sag toward the paint and wall you off. Philly has countered that strategy with some staples of the past, using Seth Curry in handoffs with Simmons to prevent teams from dipping too far under the screen.

If you can't tell from the wave of blowouts sweeping the league, the strange start has been an issue for almost everybody in the league, and a team with so many systemic changes is particularly vulnerable. It won't be the end of the world if the dribble handoff is still an integral part of Philadelphia's gameplan, I'll say that.

Stock up — Benefits of playing Embiid up vs. pick-and-roll

Former nemesis Dan Burke has been asked to lead Philadelphia's defense, and so far the results have been pretty good. Through four games, the Sixers are giving up a shade over 100 points per 100 possessions, good for the fourth-best mark in the league behind some teams that feel like prime candidates to regress to the mean. Embiid believes they should be setting their sights on a lofty goal as a group.

"Our philosophy is we’re more worried about protecting the paint first, making sure we don't give up easy buckets, and then just scramble and try to limit on those opportunities from three as much as we can," Embiid said Tuesday. "Going into every game, we obviously want to be the best defensive team in the league."

He's not wrong for thinking that way, and even if they don't win the defensive rating title in the regular season, the style we've seen them play bodes well for their future playoff success.

This is not the relentless drop coverage you've seen the Sixers play in the past. Burke is challenging his all-world center to play further up against pick-and-rolls, pressuring ballhandlers before they can turn the corner and necessitating engaged help from everyone else around Embiid. That second part is important — all five guys have to stay ready in a way they didn't when they were asked to just hug shooters on the perimeter, and while mistakes have been made behind the big guy, you've also seen a consistent defensive effort from players who were question marks on that end in years past.

The straw that stirs the drink, however, is still Embiid. Philadelphia has successfully used the big man to cut off angles and force offenses to reset, often putting the ball in the hands of less capable players. 

With the big man on the back end, the Sixers are never going to play an ultra-aggressive blitzing scheme a la the LeBron-era Heat. But bringing him up closer to the ballhandler has already made a difference, and with Embiid still protecting the rim at an extremely high level, this will bring him closer to the Defensive Player of the Year award he covets.

Stock up — Tobias Harris playing decisively

The holy grail for Harris, as Rivers has told reporters since the beginning of training camp, is quick-decision basketball. When Harris plays naturally instead of overthinking a possession, the head coach believes he can be a completely different player.

They got that player in an excellent performance against the Raptors. The points (26) and efficiency (11/20) will be enough to please most people, but Harris has the talent to get hot on a random night regardless of how he plays. This is the sort of performance he should watch over and over again on tape, committing it to memory until it becomes the everyday reality for Harris.

Rivers' favorite moment of the game for Harris came on a second-half possession where he took the ball out of Simmons' hands, not because he wanted it himself but because they had a post-up opportunity for Embiid that he wanted to make sure they hit and hit early. The head coach and I differ on this subject — if there's one play that should live on from the Raptors win, it's this one:

From the initial read of the closeout to the timing (and placement) of the pass to the corner, Harris reads this quickly and instinctively, the pass delivered as soon as Toronto is least equipped to recover. The shot clock situation prompts a little of the urgency here, no doubt, but this play is representative of a great night for Harris against the Raptors.

Harris is going to have rough nights shooting the ball like any other player. Defense is always going to be somewhat of an issue, and the Sixers would be fortunate if he was a net neutral there this season. He can make up for the ebbs and flows by simply playing with pace and purpose. It's early, but Rivers' message does seem to be getting through.

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