Philadelphia 76ers: All Star Break Report
Do not confuse this current Philadelphia 76ers team with the squad that lost in heartbreaking fashion during the final moments of a game seven matchup with the Toronto Raptors. At that time, hopeful Philly fans watched as four slow, simple, and ultimately soul-crushing bounces translated into one of the most historic shots in recent memory and spelled the end of the Sixers season. When the Raptors proceeded to fend off both the Bucks and an injury-plagued Warriors team to capture the NBA championship, Sixers fans realized how close to a ring they may have been. Enter: overwhelming expectation for the next season.
But again, the current rendition of the Philadelphia 76ers are not that team. The shooting and veteran presence of JJ Redick is gone. Jimmy Butler, who had proven to be the Sixers most fearless player during that playoff stretch, now plays for the Miami Heat. Off-season acquisitions included Al Horford and Josh Richardson. Despite the roster being appreciably different, a championship-level expectation remained going into the 2019-2020 season for the 76ers.
Relative to that immense expectation, this season has certainly not gone as planned. Through 55 games, about 65% of the season, the Sixers sit at fifth place in the eastern conference standings. Let’s take a look at what’s worked, what hasn’t, and what storylines to monitor for the team going forward.
Ben Simmons: Levelling Up
No, he still doesn’t shoot from beyond the arc. Even so, Ben Simmons has significantly improved in his third full year, most notably on the defensive end where he leads the league in steals. He has truly matured into one of the game’s elite defenders and often goes out of his way to match up with the toughest assignment on the opponent’s side. One of the highlights of the 76er’s recent victory over the Clippers was watching Simmons’ relentless defensive effort while guarding Kwahi Leonard. Several possessions saw him refuse to switch off the assignment; instead physically barreling his way through attempted picks.
Meanwhile, his command of the offense has improved as well. While Embiid has been sidelined for stretches due to injury (surprise, surprise), Simmons has continued to showcase his generational court vision and all-around game posting statistics of 16.9 points, 8.3 assists, 7.9 rebounds and per game. His off-ball play has also seen positive development as he increased the frequency of both his cuts and screens. Also, no one on the team works harder on a nightly basis. 76ers fans will attest to the fact that he hasn’t taken a game off all season, averaging 37 minutes while playing in 53 of the possible 55 contests.
Home Sweet Home
The 76ers have been near unbeatable on their home floor this year. They’ve gone 25-2 when playing in their hometown, good for the best home record in the league. However, this leads into…
The Long and Winding Road
The Sixers are an atrocious 9-19 on the road this season. That translates to the worst road winning percentage of any team, east or west, in the current playoff picture. Consider that the Sixers post an identical away record as the New York Knicks, a franchise whose consistent ineptitude has led to them existing as the laughingstock of the entire league. In order for the Sixers to move ahead of their current placement in the standings, they’ll need to win away from Philadelphia. Good teams win at home, but great teams win on the road.
Many suspected the Sixers would have a lack of consistent shooting following Redick’s departure, but it’s been far worse than expected. The three point shot has never been as important as it is in the contemporary NBA and the Sixers only have two players (Trey Burke and Furkan Korkmaz) who shoot it better than 37%. Additionally, neither Josh Richardson or Al Horford have found their shooting rhythm this season, the latter posting his worst three point percentage in the last five years. However, it is encouraging that the Sixers organization took steps to address their lack of shooting during the trade deadline, sending second round picks to Golden State in exchange for Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III.
The Roster Puzzle
The decisions made by Philadelphia’s front office in free agency, especially the acquisition of Al Horford, were geared towards having the proper resources to battle with a Giannis-led Bucks squad come playoff time. Consequently, the Sixers are enormous. This has led to lineups that have frustrated many, particularly since the skills of Embiid and Simmons seem to work against, rather than with, each other.
Simmons and Embiid are still effective when playing alongside each other, recently posting a +10 offensive rating against the stout Clippers defense. However, when Embiid was off the floor and Horford was the running mate for Simmons’, that figure jumped to +27. The Sixers two superstars are once-in-a-generation talents and finding a proper balance that brings out both their strengths has been taking a toll for this team.
The recent decision to start Furkan Korkmaz and bring Al Horford off the bench paid huge dividends in their win against the Clippers. Expect the Sixers to continue tinkering with their lineups throughout the rest of the regular season as they explore what works best.
The final 27 games of the Sixer’s regular season are deceptively pivotal for their opportunity come playoff time. At this point, it’s unrealistic that any eastern conference team will catch the Milwaukee Bucks who have posted a league-best 46-8 record while also registering a historic point differential. However, the second seed is still up for grabs with the Raptors, Celtics, Heat, Pacers, and Sixers all within 8 games of each other.
The reason that obtaining the second seed is so crucial, particularly in the eastern conference, is because most analysts agree that the conference is only six teams deep (see paragraph above). Sure, two more teams will slip into the playoffs, but they present decidedly less formidable challenges in a round one matchup. The Sixers would feast on a momentum-building round one matchup with the Nets or Magic. Additionally, the team with the second seed can prolong a meeting with the dangerous Bucks until round three.
Embiid: The Big Question Mark
If Embiid didn’t already possess such a stellar nickname in “The Process” I might go ahead and suggest the one typed out above. On one giant hand, a healthy Embiid’s impact on the basketball court is undeniable. He is beyond a doubt one of the premier big men in the league and a matchup nightmare for almost any opponent. No doubt, the prospect of him taking over in a playoff series is why Vegas still has Philly’s betting odds of coming out of the eastern conference ahead of teams with better records. But on the other giant hand, serious concerns, most notably his durability and tendency to check in and out of games erratically, still plague Embiid.
Coach Brett Brown chose to only play Embiid 28 minutes against the Los Angeles Clippers last week. During that span he still scored 26 points and collected 9 rebounds. That amount of playing time might just be the recipe for keeping him healthy an entire season. His play down the stretch and ability to mesh with Simmons during crunch time will determine the rest of the Sixers 2019-2020 season.