The Sixers Have the Talent to Make a Title Run (But We Said that Last Year)

It’s impossible to believe that only 11 months have passed since the Philadelphia 76ers were the top seed in the Eastern Conference and sailing into the 2021 playoffs with spirits cresting. Over a scant year, the team shit the bed against the Atlanta Hawks (a fate foretold by this very blog), the fanbase lost its mind, the star forward refused to play, and an unlikely blockbuster trade somehow resulted in James Harden joining Joel Embiid in Philly. So here we are again. 

Since the All-Star break, the Sixers have posted the league's seventh-best net rating while hovering around the top 10 on both sides of the ball. That reads like the resume of a marginal contender, but Philly’s starting lineup has been curb-stomping the opps since the All-Star break. They’ve played an astronomical 323 minutes together over that span, outscoring foes by 20.4 points per 100 possessions (Boston’s starters lead the league at 20.6, but have spent nearly 200 fewer minutes intact as a unit). 

There’s public skepticism towards Philly’s lethality as a title threat—cynics will claim Embiid gets exposed as a foul-grifting huckster, Harden gags in big moments, coach Doc Rivers blows 3-1 leads like other humans inhale oxygen, Furkan Korkmaz drips too hard—but the starters have undeniably been fantastic. And their success makes sense: the Sixers have a pair of superstars, along with the youthful explosiveness of Tyrese Maxey, the sturdy offensive versatility of Tobias Harris, and rubbery defensive genius of Matisse Thybulle.

Shaking the magic eight-ball, the spectacular performance by the starting unit can be viewed as predictive in conflicting ways. On one hand, this group will receive most of the playing time when the outcomes of crucial games dangle in the balance. By the same token, many of the starters are already shouldering an enormous workload, with four of them ranking within the NBA’s top 14 in total minutes played since the break. While other teams can tighten up rotations to keep better players on the floor for more of the game, Philly is nosing up against that ceiling now. 

The most pressing question confronting the Sixers as they enter the playoffs is this: with the starting lineup being transcendent—and most of its key personnel already spending a shit-ton of time on the hardwood—why aren’t other units better? 

Assuming Philly continues to stagger Embiid and Harden, the team will need to tread water against elevated competition for roughly a third of every game with only one of them on the court. Right now, lineups without the star center are getting pulverized. Ones without the star guard have been equally trashy since the trade. This feels like a vulnerability that could open into a mortal wound.

Most obviously, the backup center situation has been less than ideal. It’s a familiar dilemma for the Sixers. Over the years, playoff runs have been undermined by the presence of rinsed or ill-fitting lugs like Amir Johnson, Boban Marjanovic, Greg Monroe, Jonah Bolden, Dwight Howard, and Mike Scott. It is the ironclad belief of this writer that the inclusion of one (1) Mike Muscala in the 2019 acquisition of Harris cost Philadelphia a title.

Similarly, when Andre Drummond was looped into the deadline trade with Brooklyn, the backup center slot was heaved into disarray. Thus far, Rivers has force-fed us a steady diet of Harden-centric lineups aside a hologram of DeAndre Jordan. Those Philly groups are getting reamed by 16.5 points per 100 possessions due to feeble defense, earning them a net rating in the 3rd percentile. 

The unpopular idea of using Paul Millsap as a small-ball center has been scrapped, with the creaky voting rights advocate logging minutes in only two of the last 16 games. He has not looked spry. While lineups with the Harden/Millsap pairing are awful defensively, they scorched opponents with enough lane-vacating space and perimeter marksmanship to have an overall positive impact. At any rate, Millsap has played only nine minutes in the last month, outside of a spot start against Miami when Embiid had the night off.

Despite John Hollinger’s pleas, we won’t see Paul Reed or Charles Bassey either, unless events go super well or super poorly. They’ve brutalized G-League comp, but neither of the bouncy young bigs have gotten an opportunity to play with Harden at all. The team’s casual disinterest in figuring out workable center options has been baffling, and is ominously reminiscent of the lack of curiosity that haunted the team the last time they humiliated themselves in the playoffs. But Rivers has no qualms about painting himself into a corner.

Bundling Harden alongside the team’s two best perimeter stoppers could be the cleanest way to stanch the bleeding in defensive lineups that are among the NBA’s very worst when Embiid is off the floor. But since the All-Star break, Thybulle and Danny Green have shared the court for a total of 24 minutes (Thybulle and Maxey, by comparison, have played together for 447 minutes over that span). So far, the trio of Harden, Thybulle and Green has collaborated for a paltry 27 possessions with a meaningless—yet hilarious—net rating of +54.8. 

The Ben Simmons Experience left Sixers Nation deeply traumatized—and nothing sends them tumbling down a dark mineshaft like a non-shooter who isn’t a traditional center. There are jitters about Thybulle’s unreliable 3-ball, which he’s currently making at a 31.2% clip. Still, the Sixers have an outrageous net rating of +20.7 (100th percentile) and an offensive rating of 123.5 (99th percentile) when Thybulle is on the floor with the other four starters—both marks that are much better than when he’s on the sideline. If the numbers are any indication, the hand-wringing about Thybulle’s jumper is mostly residual baggage from years of sermonizing about the moral degeneracy of anyone standing idly in the dunker spot.

Nevertheless, with huge minutes carved in granite for four of his five starters, Rivers’ primary in-game tweak has been yanking Thybulle off the court. This usually occurs when defenses ignore him for a couple possessions or spring a zone; sometimes it’s when he bricks a few early 3s. Allowing an opponent to dictate the minutes of your freakish All-Defensive Team wing seems unwise, as does employing a “hot hand” strategy with a player who literally has the lowest usage in the league (plus a 60% True Shooting Percentage). It also means that Rivers, by choice, is swapping out the best statistical lineup in the NBA for one that will likely perform worse.

As usual, Rivers is leaning further into his thanatotic instinct for self-sabotage as the season draws closer to its horizon line. Over the last nine games, Thybulle has played an average of only 22 minutes, despite shooting 36.4% from deep, being within the NBA’s top three in steals and deflections per 36 minutes, and having a plus/minus of +7. Although he has flashed wonderful chemistry aside Harden, Thybulle has actually played three fewer minutes a game since the bearded distributor joined the squad.

The lack of tick given to Thybulle, Green, Reed, and Bassey would be easier to justify if Philly wasn’t dedicating heaps of playing time to a troop of defenders who abide by the creed of “leave no trace.” No littering in passing lanes, no pestering opposing wildlife, no building stone cairns in the paint. 

Among players who qualify for the leaderboard, Maxey, Harris and Georges Niang are among the NBA’s bottom 30 in steals per 36 minutes. All of them fail to crack the top 100 in blocks by the same measurement. That threesome, along with Shake Milton—who has mysteriously begun playing around 20 minutes a night down the stretch—have the lowest rates of generating deflections on the Sixers roster.

The Sixers don't have any truly bad defenders getting a lot of burn, but individual inertness turns exponential if a gang of them are in the same lineup. When Thybulle has sat (as the unvaxxed king would be forced to do in Toronto), the team has struggled to get stops and been fully incapable of causing turnovers. This same lack of activity, instincts, and physical snappiness is probably the root cause of the wretched transition defense that infects both Embiid-only lineups and Harden-only groups. Ditto for being the worst offensive rebounding team in the league.

Philly has a reasonable diversity of role players on the bench—iso-scoring gents, ball-handling lads, spot-up shooting chaps, a few defensive-oriented blokes—but Rivers’ lopsided distribution of playing time doesn’t provide many chances for reserves to contribute. While the bench’s production has been the target of scorn, it has collectively played the second-fewest minutes of any team in the NBA. Outside of Green being staggered with Thybulle, the dudes who are currently sopping up the spillage are Milton, Niang, and Jordan. 

If there is a way to spiff-up the Sixers’ auxiliary units, it might start with shifting minutes away from guys who are primarily scorers and towards dudes who focus on tasks like defending on the ball, causing weak-side havoc as a helper, offensive rebounding, protecting the rim, spacing the floor with braindead catching-and-shooting, or upgrading the team’s speed and athleticism. Harris, Maxey and Milton are good players with valuable skills, but they’re different variations of the same prototype. Philly’s secondary lineups aren’t suffering because the team lacks talent or depth—the real issue is a vanilla redundancy of certified hoopers.

Another coach might put Harden aside Green, Niang and Isaiah Joe, the team’s three highest-volume bombers. That hasn’t happened. Could Reed be deployed in the frontcourt like Boston’s Robert Williams, in the role of a rim-protecting giant squid? No clue. How about linking Embiid and Maxey aside the team’s two defensive wings and a stretch four chucker? They’ve done that for 15 minutes, despite those guys being on the team all year. There’s an array of promising lineups that mix up starters and bench specialists—in both obvious and inventive ways—that the Sixers have never bothered to try.

If your team has a superstar, the playoffs are when he should be freighted with the most responsibility. The Sixers are fortunate enough to possess two guys who can carry the weight without buckling. Embiid is averaging more post-up attempts than anyone in the league while on the brink of winning a scoring title. Harden is leading the NBA in isolation scoring possessions per game and second behind Chris Paul in assists. These two don’t need an overabundance of help on the offensive front—they require a support staff who consistently does the grunt work, game in and game out. The goofiest way for the Sixers to lose a series is because anyone other than Embiid or Harden suffers a cold snap of shooting. 

Rivers is known for playing favorites, and it’s easy to identify the guys he’s comfortable losing with. He can reconcile flaming out of a playoff series if his veteran bigs and beloved iso-scorers are on the floor when the buzzer honks. Last year, there was optimism that Rivers would sharpen up in the postseason, but he double, triple, and quadruple-downed on his narrow worldview as the situation grew increasingly dire. Even if Rivers’ job is on the line—which it surely is—there is little reason to believe that he'll flip things up now. Maybe there’s something commendable about that.

For the second year in a row, the Sixers have the pieces to win a championship. But that supremely difficult task will be even more challenging if the man pushing them across the chessboard continues to limit his own moves. 

If you enjoyed this essay and the artwork, you will surely be interested in The Joy of Basketball, by Ben Detrick and Andrew Kuo. Learn more about it here