November 07, 2022
With a record 4-6 after their first 10 games of the season, this not where the Sixers, their fans, nor prognosticators thought they would be. Save for their first two games against the Celtics and Bucks, games against legit contenders to open the season, the Sixers have had a case to be favorites in every single other game they’ve played. On the road, down a star or two, playing a back-to-back, this group has the firepower to inflict pain on opponents.
That’s the message they sent you themselves well before the season started.
“We aim to be the best defensive team in the league, that’s going to take all of us,” Joel Embiid said on media day. “I’ve got to get back to not waiting until the fourth to be that guy, and then doing it all game.”
Setting aside his absences, Embiid has not lived up to that mantra on anything close to a consistent basis. Blame his conditioning, his offseason bout with plantar fasciitis, bumps and bruises during the early season if you must, but he has come nowhere near that self-described standard.
“I believe this is the best talent I’ve had since I’ve been here. We have to learn how to become a team,” Doc Rivers said on media day. “I love who we are.”
With the best talent they’ve had since he has been here, the Sixers have lost games to the Spurs (not trying to win), the Wizards (maybe the league’s most middling organization), and the Knicks (whose only other wins are vs. horrible teams). They were not particularly well set up while doing so.
Go on down the list and you can find a list of claims about individual growth or team excitement to bury these guys if you want. Matisse Thybulle, he of the big summer in the gym, is shooting worse from three than ever before, albeit on a sample of attempts that’s so small it’s basically irrelevant. But the state of Thybulle’s game is a snapshot of the problem facing this team — he looks about the same as he always has, and the same as he always has is not going to cut it.
Trying to pinpoint an individual for their failures sort of misses the point.
Embiid, proud to crow about his growth and leadership when things are going well, has reverted back to some of his worst tendencies in tough moments, bad body language and poor effort aplenty. James Harden has looked better as a scorer night to night, but his career habit of loafing off-ball and leaving teammates to figure out defense has not disappeared. P.J. Tucker has been a vocal presence in the locker room and on the court, leading as they hoped he might, but it’s tough to lead when your slow start to the year on defense is contributing to the team’s problems. On down the line it goes.
Amongst the fanbase, it’s Rivers who has the biggest target on his back, perhaps rightfully so. His allegiance to familiar vets puts them in situations where a defensively challenged lineup subs in Montrezl Harrell at the five, compounding the problems brought on by the rest of the lineup. In fits and starts, they show flashes on both ends, particularly on offense, where they have essentially been a top-five unit with everybody healthy. Even still, the team goes through periods where they simply forget how to play basketball, standing around and hoping the star du jour will bail them out of a motionless, purposeless set. Rivers and his staff cannot take credit for Tyrese Maxey’s growth and then throw their arms up in confusion when a Maxey-led team doesn’t run any offense for the entire fourth quarter of a loss to the Knicks. That in itself is the m.o. of this team: wanting credit for successes and protection from failure.
(Maxey, for what it’s worth, has mostly been a train wreck defensively but is one of the few guys on the team who has earned time and patience for living up to what he says he has done and what he wants to be.)
These guys are right to tell you contention-level play was all expected to take some time. Putting Embiid in a more switch-heavy scheme is a big adjustment from the coverage he has played historically, and it was going to lead to some growing pains even if he came into the season in career-best shape. Asking him to thrive in that scheme on a consistent basis is not the same as occasionally having him defend a smaller player, which he has obviously shown he can handle in the past. Trying to build an identity when his very presence in the lineup is uncertain is a struggle, but it is fair to point out they’ve never been better equipped to do so.
The suggestion that this group is incapable of winning now and later, though, is silly on its face. 4/5 of the healthy starting lineup played significant minutes together down the stretch last season. The roles of the players not named Embiid/Harden/Maxey are about as clear-cut as could be on offense: space the floor, set screens, and stay ready. Simplicity on offense is not a problem and can actually benefit the team, in the sense that spending less mental bandwidth on those Xs and Os should free you up to exert energy (physical and mental) on the other end. But that hasn’t shown up, inspiring questions about the power players in this organization.
Philadelphia’s lack of early season motivation/effort has been pinned on the coach, and that’s one area where I’ll push back. Sure, a team’s effort level over time might be a reflection of tuning out a coach’s message, and it’s something to monitor so long as this group is in place. But this isn’t Little League nor CYO basketball, where little Timmy is only playing the sport so his parents can get him out of the house, and has to be reminded by the coach to give a damn. Night-to-night inspiration should nearly all come from within for professionals, let alone professionals who want to be considered MVP candidates, future Hall of Famers, present-day All-Stars, and leaders of contenders.
Already, one example has been cited as a reason not to panic: the dramatic turnaround of last year’s Celtics, dead in the water midseason before going on a torrid run and making the Finals. An important detail left out there is that Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum already had two Conference Finals appearances in four seasons together prior to last year. Comparing these Sixers to a group with a track record of success together is a fool’s errand.
Months before the season began, the leak-off from players and their camps hinted at what they thought they were worth. Two years out from the expiration of Tobias Harris’ deal, reports conveniently mentioned he was eligible for a $152 million extension. Thybulle has struggled to get on the floor, much less make a case for the big-money extension that was floated by one or two interested parties in the offseason.
At least in Harris’ case, there has been an effort made to shift with the team’s needs, his improved volume and efficiency on three-point shots living up to his promises made at media day. But as a whole, the image the Sixers conjure up at this moment is not one of toughness, buy-in, cohesion, or success, but rather the t-shirt Mario Balotelli famously wore under a jersey in 2011, growing weary under the glare of the press, soccer fans, and in fairness to him, abuse from racists in Europe:
I don't come here to tell you I have a solution for this team, that someone could be fired or traded to fix this all in one fell swoop. But it is often made to seem like things are simply happening to the Sixers, rather than the Sixers failing to work as well as they can with what they have.
Why are we talking about Embiid’s conditioning and availability for another year? Why are we discussing funky and frankly absurd lineup choices with such a supposedly deep roster? Why are there missed rotations and miscommunications happening all over the court? Why do I have to read things like, "The Sixers need a point guard" or "The Sixers need a sixth man" when at full strength they have one or both of Harden or Maxey on the floor at all times? It’s not because it’s particularly fun to pile on the Sixers, or because this is an especially tough situation to navigate, or because a group of good defenders suddenly unlearned how to play basketball.
We can say things like, "It's early!" and be correct in thinking 10 games do not define a season. But this group has not earned the trust or forgiveness to sleepwalk through the start of the season doing the same things we’ve come to expect from them. Until they resemble a serious team, the scorn and skepticism have been well-earned.
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