The Sixers Have the Right Pedigree Papers, But Do They Have that Dawg?

The Philadelphia 76ers are embossed with the waxy seal of a contender. They have a top-five record, the sixth-best offensive rating, the fourth-best defensive rating, and the second-best net rating. They get to the foul line more frequently than any other team, rarely commit turnovers, and are among the league’s leaders in steals, blocks, and creating turnovers. 

Philly has the reigning MVP in Joel Embiid, who is posting one of the greatest scoring seasons in the history of the sport. There is also guard Tyrese Maxey, a grinning blur who may make his first All-Star team, and Nick Nurse, who won a championship in 2019 and Coach of the Year in 2020, both with the Toronto Raptors. At the moment, the team’s healthy starting lineup has an otherworldly +33.3 net rating in 467 possessions.

According to the documentation, the Sixers appear to have their paperwork in order. But are we ready to notarize it?

For most of the season, Philly has not felt like a contender. Part of the skepticism is because the circumstances are achingly familiar, like the perfumed pillow of a former lover who fractured your ribs with a tire iron. This is the seventh year in a row that the Sixers have paraded around waving a résumé with various championship qualifications, but they have failed to reach the Eastern Conference Finals six times running. And, in comparison to prior teams, the current manifestation lacks the brawny malevolence of the version with Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons or the creative potency when the cast included James Harden. 

After the recent win over Denver on national television—which coincidentally came a day after the local football team was eliminated from the postseason—Sixers loyalists began inching back out over the ice, however wary of spider-webbing fissures. They are almost ready to be hurt again.

If unmoved hearts can be stirred, it is because of Embiid. The ravenous god of earth and sky leads the league in points per game, total free throws made, and usage rate. He is sixth in rebounds per game, 10th in blocks, and averaging a career high in assists. His Player Efficiency Rating of 34.43 is the highest ever, topping not only contemporaries like Nikola Jokić and Giannis Antetokounmpo but also Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James. Embiid’s vectors of scoring volume and points per possession are mythological.

When Embiid plays, the Sixers are 25-6. That winning percentage of .806 would represent the highest in the NBA. They have beaten almost every top team in the league except Milwaukee, who they lost to by one, on the road, on opening night. That being said, Philly has mostly preyed on the league’s vulnerable underclass like the Boxcar Killer—during a four-game stretch in December, the Sixers battered Washington, Charlotte and Detroit (twice) in the railyards by an average score of 33 points. Their strength of schedule has not been brolic.

Despite Embiid’s sensational play, there is another caveat: he needs to produce like this in the playoffs. If you listen to the detractors, his postseason struggles have exposed him as a choker, a freethrow chiseler, and a flopper who requires conspiratorial referees to succeed. To his defenders, those disappointments have always been the result of an unforgivable betrayal by a saboteur in the same uniform: Harden, Simmons, Matisse Thybulle. But whatever their minor treasons, none of them are the common denominator. 

Over the years, Philly routinely comes up short against teams with elite defenses and, specifically, elite post defenders. It has happened three times against Boston and Al Horford, once against Toronto and Marc Gasol, and once against Miami and Bam Adebayo. That group of centers has six combined All-Defensive team commendations and a Defensive Player of the Year award. They were strong and disciplined enough to hold their ground against Embiid without fouling, which turned him into a midrange jump-shooter, eroded the shot-clock, and made him susceptible to double-teams from blind angles. For similar reasons, Antetokounmpo has lost in the playoffs to everyone on that list at least once.

This is neither an excuse nor a condemnation. When excellent teams throw the kitchen sink at Embiid, Philly has not pivoted to an alternative plan. Part of that was the incuriosity of former coach Doc Rivers, a man with a knack for grinding uniquely-skilled players down into smooth tapioca for his halfcourt pudding. Part of it is Embiid’s style of play. Perimeter superstars can use a carousel of screens to hunt weak defenders in space; the court geometry is different for a giant who is most comfortable operating deliberately from the elbow. But, as evidenced by Jokić’s transcendent play last postseason, a hulking superstar who embraces the judo of gravity and unselfishness is extremely hard to beat.

There is no doubt that future playoff opponents will swarm Embiid like ants on a dropped popsicle. Rivers’ employment was too intertwined with Embiid’s approval to suggest a contingency tactic—and both Harden and Simmons departed muttering similar complaints about their former coach’s disregard for their ideas. Nurse has preached sharing the rock since his arrival, but Embiid is currently putting up career highs in points, field goal attempts, and usage rate. Inevitably, teams are going to force someone else to beat them.

If the Sixers hope to make a run, much of that responsibility will land on the youthful shoulders of Maxey. His game may not be as expandable as Embiid’s co-stars of the past—he is neither a defensive menace nor a “system” unto himself—but he is nitroglycerin in a squeeze bottle. Currently 13th in the NBA in scoring and 12th in assists, he provides a frenetic contrast to Embiid’s calculated power. We have seen guards like Jamal Murray, Jason Terry, Tony Parker, and a young Kobe Bryant act as complementary scorers on championship teams aside dominant, Hall of Fame-caliber big men. 

Maxey has wonderful individual attributes like whistling speed, arcing floaters, and impeccable stewardship of the ball, but he is not an asymmetrical weapon overall. About half the teams in the NBA have combo guards who provide 20-plus scoring, some playmaking, and above-average efficiency, whether the comparison would be seen as flattering (Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving) or disparaging (Terry Rozier, Tyler Herro). It is a position of importance but not scarcity. Throw a rock and it bonks off the fluffy dome of a Collin Sexton.

Harden’s departure gave Maxey the opportunity to be a marquee star, but the increased budget has made the fourth-year guard more of a normie than an auteur. There are hints that he might be slightly overextended in the dual role of ball-handler and secondary scorer. During the last 10 games, he has shot 41.2% from the floor on 20.1 attempts a night, with a Cam Thomas-ian 53.5% True Shooting scoring efficiency. Not everyone can go from the arthouse to the multiplex with the ease of Alfonso Cuarón. 

Maxey is a deadeye catch-and-shoot marksman from deep, but the larger role has not created more of those opportunities. He is shooting 47.7% on that type of shot this season, but only takes 3.3 per game—about the same as last year, despite the spike in field goal attempts. He took proportionally three-times as many corner 3s last season but has hoisted up just 20 this year, despite being a 56% career shooter from that spot. Meanwhile, Maxey is shooting 31.1% on 4.9 pull-up 3s per game, by far the lowest percentage among the 20 players who take those shots the most frequently (with the exception of Jayson Tatum, who is only slightly better).  

Should Philly enlist any reinforcements before the deadline, a big guard with some on-ball facilitation skills might liberate Maxey to do more of what he does best. Last season, his True Shooting was 63.4% with Harden on the floor and 58% with Harden off the floor—which is virtually identical to this season. An ideal fit like Alex Caruso of the Bulls might have too steep a price, but Brooklyn’s Trendon Watford, Washington’s Delon Wright, or Minnesota’s Shake Milton check the boxes of Price Chopper affordability, expendability with their current team, and contracts that expire after this season. Buyout market Gordon Hayward, come on down.

If the Sixers make a splashier move, it could involve Tobias Harris, whose half-decade max contract is mercifully drawing to an end. During the broadcast of the game against the Nuggets, announcer Stan Van Gundy mused that the veteran power forward might be the “most underrated player in the league.” That is untrue, but illustrative of the odd haziness surrounding a 13-year pro who plays 34 minutes a game and is in his sixth season with the same team. He has gotten buckets a bit more efficiently, but his numbers are in lockstep with his career averages in virtually every category except for bumps in 2-point FG% and FT%. It is weird that a player this predictable is so divisive. 

The spectrum of emotions fluttering around Harris is mostly because his surrounding personnel have an outsized influence on his performance. He is frequently described as a “third option,” but that is a rung in the offensive hierarchy—not a role. If we scour the league for lads who are the third-leading scorers on their team, they usually fall into definable categories: microwave bench bucket (Cole Anthony), facilitator (Fred VanVleet), stretch five (Kristaps Porzingis), or volume 3-point threat (Michael Porter Jr). 

The reality is that Harris is basically Kyle Kuzma with more talented teammates and less pink Raf Simons knitwear. Overqualified for the job of auxiliary scorer and underqualified for the job of a starting role player, he can not magically transform into a brainless deep chucker, an agent of offball chaos, an intuitive passing wizard, a voracious rebounder, or a rim-protecting pterodactyl. That is not who he is.

After a four-game stretch in which Harris poured in 25.8 points on a 68% True Shooting Percentage, pundits such as Stephen A. Smith and Shaquille O’Neal declared that he was the key to the Sixers’ championship aspirations. Ignore that those numbers would make him arguably the most lethal scorer in the entire NBA—the crucial takeaway is that the two games where he scored 32 and 37 points both occurred with Embiid sidelined. 

On a menu where Embiid and Maxey are the meat and potatoes, Philly ideally would plate side-dishes with crunch, acid, and sugar. Harris is a fine slab of shepherd’s pie.

Over the last few seasons, teams like the Celtics, Nuggets, Timberwolves, and Knicks have made bold moves to surround their best players with more complementary pieces: athletic forwards, floor-spacing bigs, heady facilitators, hyenas at the point of attack. The Clippers, Bucks, and Phoenix have aggregated superstars in hopes of outclassing the field. 

Meanwhile, the Sixers have dealt away Harden and tinkered with long-toothed role players. The good news is that one of those codgers is Nicolas Batum, a lanky, borderline basketball genius who has the best plus-minus on the team. Here is an insane stat: the Philly starting lineup which is absolutely massacring opponents has a net rating of -1.0 in 562 possessions without Batum. Vive la différence!

Out of the most notable players rumored to be available, two of the four major pieces have been cleared from the table. After OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam found new homes with teams willing to pay them US currency instead of Loonies, Chicago’s Zach LaVine and Atlanta’s Dejounte Murray remain as a pair of 2022 All-Stars on the trade block. Both are saddled with hefty contracts and concerns about how much they actually contribute to winning basketball games. Each has only had one legitimately great season. 

While the Sixers have $110 million in expiring contracts of various sizes that can be used to match salaries with potential trade partners, they also want to keep their powder dry for the upcoming offseason. It might not be worth dipping into the war chest for a wing like New Orleans’ Herb Jones or Brooklyn’s Dorian Finney-Smith—but, then again, there is not a clear target in free agency either.

Considering how well they have played, Philly is not under any pressure to make a ballsy, imperfect shakeup for the sake of activity. At the same time, they may not be as optimized or talented as teams they will need to beat in order to make a serious playoff run. Embiid’s staggering excellence gives the team a chance—while playing it safe risks squandering another year of his finite prime. The Sixers have some difficult choices to make over the next two weeks.

You can trust the numbers, trust the net ratings, and trust the Process, but it is impossible to win a championship on paper. 


If you enjoyed this essay and the artwork, you will surely be interested in The Joy of Basketball, by Ben Detrick and Andrew Kuo. Find it where you buy books.