Temple of Doom: The Sixers' Death Cult
Judging from the subhuman yowls that echo up from the Delaware Valley, the 76ers’ season has descended into nightmare territory. The team's two young pillars are toppled by injury. One high-priced free agent failed to elevate his game to match his maximum contract; the other has been ousted from the starting lineup. Trade deadline acquisitions intended to shore up the team’s perimeter shooting bricked 30 of their first 39 attempts from beyond the 3-point arc. Hope does not live long in Philadelphia.
At press time, it appears the Sixers are on pace for another mortifying, 50-win season. Even worse, there is only a razor-thin, 14-game margin separating these pathetic underachievers from the humiliation of falling out of the playoffs entirely. Someone must pay the price for this indignity.
For the most part, Sixers Nation has responded to a season of moderate frustration by twirling in circles with a flamethrower. The first target of wrath was Ben Simmons, a 23-year old two-time All Star, defensive phenom, Genesis-level creator and a futuristic basketball genius. He was sentenced by the court of public opinion to be ripped apart by hounds for refusing to take bad shots. Then there was Joel Embiid, a 25-year old three-time All Star, defensive phenom, paint-dwelling scoring machine and spiritual bearer of the Process torch. People were furious because he returned too soon after dislocating his finger and played wearing an oven mitt. In a biweekly ritual, everyone juices up the Trade Machine to ship one or the other off to Charlotte for Terry Rozier and Miles Bridges.
Do you hear a whining drone in the background of every conversation about the Sixers? That’s the vespine buzz of Brett Brown’s critics. It doesn’t matter that Philly will win a stack of games for the third consecutive season. Or that Brown has helmed teams which have excelled on both sides of the ball, despite continuous roster churn. So what if he is respected by players and contemporaries alike, and acts as the moral core of a franchise that has been characterized by greasy deceptiveness since Sam Hinkie was bullied into resignation?
Brown’s critics never articulate exact grievances—it is all vague muttering about unmet expectations or playoff seedings or “more pick-and-rolls”—but their bitterness runs together like the fuschia river of slime in “Ghostbusters 2.” Let’s not forget the speculation about how the locker room might respond to a new voice, although Embiid and Simmons are the only guys who have been part of the rotation for longer than a calendar year. Brown’s detractors even took up pitchforks when Glenn Robinson III, a replacement level swingman who went 0-10 from behind the arc over his first eight games in Philly, voiced confusion over his role. Bremt Brawn must go, because accountability.
When it comes to the Sixers, fury seeps from the groundwater. Despite owning the finest home record in the NBA at 28-2, Philly was booed three times on their own court in February—incredibly, all during wins. Both Al Horford and Embiid indicated that they did not appreciate crowd-sourced criticism by making shushing gestures after scoring buckets. Following the second incident, Embiid flirted on Instagram with former teammate Jimmy Butler about leaving Philadelphia to play in Miami, then laughed it off as trolling. One newspaperman responded by trashing Embiid as a “mercenary millionaire temporarily transplanted to Philadelphia to maximize his revenue stream” who has “won absolutely nothing.” A week later, Sixers fans cascaded their team with more boos, this time in an 8-point victory over the Nets. Critics are free to voice displeasure however they choose, but infantilizing Millennial athletes in an era of cresting player mobility seems unwise.
The national media, crawling with Beantown loyalists, retired Celtics journeymen and Dropkick Murphys fans, will do the Sixers no favors. Their wall-to-wall Jayson Tatum coverage is only interrupted by helpful suggestions for how a dangerous Eastern Conference threat should dismantle itself. But Philly's local press has also been jackhammering the self-destruct button all season (the maniacal obsession with Simmons' jumper looks especially berserk as Zion Williamson dunks his way into America's heart). "I predicted years ago that the media would try to drive us apart," Embiid said in mid-February. "And I was right." Anyone who is skeptical of how hateful media members can sculpt national coverage and poison the relationship between a team’s players and its fans should bone up on Portland’s so-called Jail Blazers.
It is difficult to reconcile the crescendo of seething hostility towards the Sixers with an unremarkable 2020 season that can best be described as “bumpy.” The team is good but not great, virtually unbeatable at home and possesses enough reactor-grade talent to go nuclear against any playoff enemy. Right now, there is nothing to be particularly upset about.
In reality, the Sixers have performed precisely as one would expect of a jumbo-ass roster with an inexplicable lack of guards. Anchored by center Embiid, power forward Simmons and bonus center Horford, Philly ranks 6th in defensive rating, 2nd in defensive rounding rate, 5th in steals rate and 6th in blocks rate. The frontcourt is huge, disruptive and smart; Embiid finished 4th in 2019 Defensive Player of the Year voting and Simmons has emerged as a breakout candidate for the award this season.
Point of attack issues that hissed air last season were patched up by the addition of swingmen Josh Richardson and Matisse Thybulle. According to NBA.com, the Sixers have improved against isolation attacks and pick-and-roll ball-handlers, and match Utah for allowing the lowest frequency of spot up attempts by opponents. No team surrenders fewer 3-pointers. With J.J. Redick now feasting at Donald Link eateries in New Orleans, it is tougher for foes to pinpoint a weak defender. By allocating the lion’s share of resources to defensive needs, the Sixers went from middle-of-the-pack to exceptional on that side of the ball.
If upgrading the defense was part of a coherent plan, Philadelphia has not been as adept at solving puzzles elsewhere. The offense is ranked 18th, and the Sixers are in the league’s bottom third in 3-point rate and free throw rate, 25th in drives per game and dead-last in pull-up 3s—knocking down only 1.5 of 5.0 attempts per game. Philly scores out of the post more frequently than any other team and is the best in the league at it, but force-feeding the pivot like a foie gras duck for 1.0 points per possession is a challenging diet to subsist on.
Every offensive shortcoming is a consequence of last summer’s decisions. By ushering out Jimmy Butler and Redick, two efficient scorers with rare perimeter skill-sets, and bringing in Horford and Richardson (who are not those things), Philadelphia smooshed clunkiness into the starting lineup. Partly due to a bizarre reluctance to classify Simmons as a big man, the Sixers entered the 2020 season with a starting lineup that included two centers, two power forwards and a small forward.
Because it is not 1997, there was little reason to suspect Philly would be good at scoring. Embiid and Simmons are the team’s interior players in halfcourt sets—leaving 33-year old Horford to absorb the duties of a small forward. Richardson and Tobias Harris, who are the de facto “guards” in this kinky pentad, share deficiencies in terms of passing off the dribble, seeing the floor and making snappy decisions. Nor are they the kind of sadists who get off on spanking opponents with 3s. Despite the transparent lack of ball-handling and basketball IQ, the Sixers stood pat until the February deadline and finally added Alec Burks, a combo-guard whose 2020 numbers were goosed by the Warriors in hopes of plucking 2nd-round picks from a desperate suitor.
If you’re squinting for a bright spot, look no further than the maligned pairing of Embiid and Simmons. These large lads are superb basketball players. This season, in games where the two stars have both logged at least 15 minutes, the Sixers have a winning percentage of 67.6%—comparable to a 55.5-win team. In the 359 minutes that Embiid and Simmons have coexisted without Horford on the court, they have posted cartoonish True Shooting Percentages of, respectively, 65.7% and 68.3%. Not only can they co-exist, they flourish.
In lineups with Embiid and Simmons—but no Horford—the Sixers have posted an offensive rating of 116.6, which swoops into the 93rd percentile of NBA groupings with 100 possessions (via Cleaning the Glass). In comparison, the Bucks have an offensive rating of 114.0 when Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton are on the floor, the Clippers have an offensive rating of 113.9 when Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are together and the Lakers have an offensive rating of 113.7 when LeBron James plays with Anthony Davis. The Philly duo has a less impressive Net Rating than those other power couples, but it indicates that offensive bullion is buried somewhere in these hills.
Barring any modest acquisitions on the late-season buyout market, this is who the Sixers will go to war with. The die has been cast. All you can do is root for the boys and see what happens. In any Eastern Conference playoff series, they will have two of the best three players on the court.
Despite four years of front office pratfalls, Philly is still among the handful of teams in the NBA with two top-15 players—and they’re still improving. For the foreseeable future, every year that Embiid and Simmons remain together is one in which the Sixers will have a chance at winning a title. It might not happen this season, just like it won’t for 29 teams. It's not the end of the world. The real danger is that a whirlwind of rage, impatience and stupidity splinters apart a duo that has at least half a decade to bring a championship trophy to Philadelphia.