Is the Sixers' Offense Good Enough to Win a Title?

As the top seed in the East, the Sixers have a path to the conference finals that looks strewn with rose petals rather than choked with thorns. Their route avoids the gnarlier side of the bracket with Brooklyn and Milwaukee, and, unlike in the West, there is no team with a championship pedigree slumming within the ranks of mangy play-in dogs. Philadelphia is healthy and well-rested. Since clinching the best record in the conference with a win against Orlando, the starters have had nine days to marvel at Furkan Korkmaz’s torrential drip and binge local child-murder comedy The Mare of Easttown between games.

From all appearances, the Sixers are capable of winning the franchise’s first chip since 1983. They have an MVP candidate in Joel Embiid, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Ben Simmons, a borderline All-Star in Tobias Harris, and an army of solid role players. Philly finished with the NBA’s second-best defense, two-tenths of a point behind the pace-setting Lakers. The team went 27-7 at home and 27-5 when the starting lineup was together. In a bootleg season perverted by coronavirus protocols and injuries, the Sixers were denied measuring-stick showdowns against teams like the Nets, Bucks, or Clippers, but there is no concrete evidence that anyone is better than they are.

It is hard to believe the Sixers’ charmed 2021 season came on the heels of such a disappointing one. Last year’s squad was a mutation of furrowed brows, bulging shoulders, belches, and farts. They wedged two centers and two power forwards into the starting unit, rarely took 3-pointers, turned the ball over a lot, and labored to score in the halfcourt. Everyone hated Al Horford, who was honestly fine. According to numbers from Cleaning the Glass that dispose of garbage time, the 2020 Sixers finished 12th in the NBA in points per possession. 

But that blighted era of futility is over. Brett Brown, the coach hand-selected by Sam Hinkie to cultivate his organizational tree into fruition, was finally shoved out. With a retooled roster, a new coaching staff, and a crafty Director of Basketball Operations, professional roundball in Philadelphia has entered an age of enlightenment and innovation. An attack force of leaky triremes has been replaced by destroyers and nuclear submarines. Unlike last season, the current Sixers rank a glorious, uh, hmm, well, 13th in points per possession

How is it possible that Philly went 49-23, smartly added a bunch of complementary parts, and boasted a center who spent the season devouring opposing bigs like Titan Cronus—while getting slightly worse offensively in proportion to the rest of the NBA? And, more importantly, is the 13th-ranked offense good enough to win a title? Since the 2004 Pistons, no team with an offense ranked lower than Philly’s has carried home a ring.   

This is not a call for doomerism, kings and queens! Far from it. There are many reasons for optimism. Unlike last season, a haphazardly-assembled roster does not present an unsolvable puzzle. The Sixers have two All NBA-caliber studs and a legion of shooters to fan out around them. There is an array of useful ball-handlers and perimeter chuckers who can hop on the floor without compromising the defense. In terms of personnel, there is no good explanation for why the Sixers have not been better at scoring this season.

At times, Philly has shown the ability to get buckets at an exceptionally high level. In the first half of the season, the starting lineup had an offensive rating of 120.1 (as a comparison, the Nets set an NBA record with an offensive rating of 117.3 this year). Over a 15 game stretch starting on January 1st and ending at the All-Star break, it mushroomed to 122.9. When playing its best ball, the starting crew had Embiid marauding in the paint, Simmons shredding transition defenses, Harris slashing to the hoop, and Seth Curry and Danny Green spotting up for 3s. After last season’s swampy congestion, the newfound spacing was a breeze of cleansing oxygen. 

Yet in the 268 minutes that starting group has shared the floor since the All-Star intermission, the Sixers have posted an offensive rating of 114.1. The unit’s net rating remains fantastic due to spectacular defense, but the scoring hiccup dovetails with the eye test. In halfcourt sets, Simmons spends more time rotting in the dunker spot and Embiid is hovering more around the perimeter—as a consequence, both players have scored less efficiently and drawn fewer fouls in the second half. With more possessions funneled into the hands of perimeter players who are not snappy decision-makers, the Sixers have resurrected some of the stinky phantoms from last year’s constipated offense. 

Philly coach Doc Rivers has been credited as the “Tobias Whisperer” and his sweet nothings helped unlock Harris as a consistent offensive threat in an impressive variety of roles. In a season with dizzying league-wide scoring inflation, his 19.5 points per game places 33rd among qualifying players and his True Shooting Percentage has jumped from average to excellent. Harris has been very good at doing whatever he has been asked to do. At the same time, his presence as Rivers’ security blanket has unfolded in ways that do not necessarily benefit the greater mission. 

In the second half of the season, Harris is dribbling more and posting up nearly twice as much. Meanwhile, his catch-and-shoot 3s have dwindled from 3.1 attempts per game to 1.6 an outing. A guy who drills those shots at 43.2% should be hoisting up more, not fewer. Lineups with Embiid, Simmons and Harris have been wonderful, registering a net rating of +15.2 in 1,929 possessions. But surprisingly enough, when Harris is removed from that trio, the numbers get even better: groups with only Embiid and Simmons are +18.9, placing them in the 99th percentile of all lineups with 100 possessions played. Despite the endless fixation from Sixers Nation on acquiring ball-handlers and guys who do stuff, the Sixers’ easiest recipe for success is still Embiid, Simmons, and three shooters. Dumb it down, lads. 

While Embiid is an MVP candidate, the Sixers have still not figured out how to optimize Simmons. The team lacks a backup center who can chuck up a handful of treys like Horford, and Simmons has gotten gummed up aside fellow non-shooter Dwight Howard. In the first half, he averaged 7.6 assists, 13.7 potential assists, and 20.4 points created off assists per game, similar to what he posted in each of the previous three seasons. But after the break, those numbers dropped to 6.1 assists, 11.5 potential assists, and 16.5 points created off assists—all of which represent career lows when compared to every season of his career. When you have a dude who was the most efficient creator of points via scoring and assists in the NBA last season, taking the ball out of his hands is not wise policy. 

There is an inclination to blame Simmons’ dimmed brilliance on contemporized euphemisms about wanting it more—a crisis of “confidence” or a deficiency of “aggressiveness”—but he is not a quixotic riddle. If you clear the lane and give Simmons the ball, he will play like a superstar. Use him as a screener and traditional post player a la Brandon Bass or Big Baby Davis, and he will not. Sixers’ executive Daryl Morey has suggested on several occasions that the team could deploy Simmons as a heliotropic point-center, which hints at why he acquired deadly spot-up shooters like Curry, Green, and George Hill. “There’s a chance to play really unique, uptempo, sort of spacing, shooting lineups [around Simmons],” Morey said after last November’s draft. For whatever reason, they have not.

Like teens with a ouija board, the Sixers summon demons by their own trembling hands and then avoid taking a shortcut through the cemetery. They refuse to experiment with non-traditional lineups, despite center-less, Simmons-led units posting a respectable 110.3 defensive rating in 419 possessions. They decline to play Matisse Thybulle serious minutes, despite him being one of the most uniquely disruptive defenders ever (when he is with Embiid and Simmons, groups have an offensive rating of 119.3 and a net rating of +10.4). The team’s four best defensive players—Embiid, Simmons, Thybulle, and Green—have only shared the court for 76 possessions, mostly in late-game situations where guards toggle on and off the floor between timeouts. Philly is undoubtably leaving money on the table.

Rivers deserves credit for overseeing a throttling defense and creating an atmosphere where players unselfishly inhabit their roles for the sake of the collective organism. Doc is a legend and he rules. But his hesitancy to get a bit freaky (no kink-shaming) has left the Sixers without a reliable offensive unit that does not include Embiid. As goofily joyful as Howard has been, a contender’s lineups and rotations should not be molded around the contours of a 35-year old backup center with the most negative on/off splits in the rotation. The team’s best players will be on the court even more in the playoffs, but the specter of Greg Monroe posting a -9 plus/minus in 101 seconds of Game 7 action against the Raptors lingers as a bearded reminder of squandered opportunity.

Are the Sixers good enough to win a title playing conservatively? Probably. This is a very good team that will only need to defeat two legitimate contenders to claim the throne. It is there for the taking. Regular season strategies will inform how Philly operates in the postseason, but they should not act as boundaries. There will inevitably be moments where showing more creativity and nimbleness could be the difference between another excruciatingly toxic offseason and capping a magnificent campaign with the ultimate prize. There is still plenty of time to get weird.