We made it through the All Star Game with no injuries to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons… because they didn’t play.
Contact tracing kept them from participating in Sunday night’s pointless exhibition, and while that may have been disappointing for them as individuals, it was good for the Sixers because they’ll be back healthy and fresh, hopefully on Thursday night. That depends on when the NBA rules them as eligible following a brief layoff due to contact tracing rules.
In the meantime, we get a bit of a breather as the Sixers sit atop the NBA’s Eastern Conference with 24 wins and 12 losses, two games ahead of Milwaukee and a half game in front of the Brooklyn Nets, who went out and acquired Blake Griffin via buyout. It should be a fascinating run to the playoffs, with fans returning to the Wells Fargo Center and a slew of games just jam packed into the schedule, so enjoy the time off now, because it’s going to be a fast and furious ride in these next two months, co-starring Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez.
Here are 46 observations on the team:
1. A closing combo of Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris is going to be feasible. You saw in the Cleveland and Utah games where Joel was able to create looks for himself off not-very-well executed plays, which was crazy, considering the fact that he was catching the ball on the perimeter as a seven-footer. His starting points are extended this year and he’s shown an ability to get to his spots without needing post ups that draw digs and double teams, which can force the ball out of his hands. This is a very interesting and unexpected development.
2. Ben Simmons is fine offensively right now. As long as Embiid and Tobias Harris are the 1a and 1b scorers, and can carry the fourth quarter load, they’ll be just fine putting Simmons in the dunker spot during those critical, half court sets.
3. They still need to shoot more three pointers. They are the 15th best three-point shooting team (36.5%), but only shooting the 28th most threes in the NBA (28th). They’d benefit from bringing those numbers more in line.
4. Along those lines, the Sixers only score 27.8% of their points from three, which is second-last in the NBA.
5. Similarly, they need to get their free throw numbers to be more congruent. They are #1 in the league, getting to the line 27.3 times, but only shooting 78.5% when they get there, which is 13th.
6. Doc Rivers isn’t doing anything crazy from an Xs and Os standpoint. We’re not seeing complicated ATOs or Spain pick and rolls or hammer action. He’s used some multi-option sets late in games, but otherwise he’s keeping things relatively simple and just letting guys make the right decisions when out on the floor.
7. One of the biggest differences between Doc and Brett Brown is that Doc just seems to have a better overall “feel” for the game. Knows when to call timeouts, when to let the guys play, and when to insert himself or stay away.
8. I thought the Sixers’ offensive rebounding numbers would drop this year, but it’s not too bad at all. They went from 12th to 14th despite adding shooters and playing a little smaller.
9. Turnovers are still a problem. 15.6 per game is 27th in the league. It’s the worst number since the 2017-2018 season and it would appear as though this is not a Brett Brown-created problem.
10. 19.3 opponent points off turnovers is dead last in the league, tied with Chicago. Need to clean this up.
11. Also dead last is opponent fast break points, which is 16.3. They really get punished when they’re sloppy with the ball.
12. Steals per game: 8.6 is 4th in the league and really helps them out-volume teams by building possessions.
13. They’re a bottom-half team in committing fouls. Gotta try to drop that number slightly, because they’re ranked 20th right now. Dwight Howard’s individual numbers probably influence this stat.
14. The Sixers’ defensive rating is better than their offensive rating. Nothing ever truly changes with this team; it’s still going to be the defense that wins in the playoffs.
15. You can see the discrepancy between three-point shooting and free-throw shooting when you compare their effective field goal % to true shooting numbers. The foul line is really important for the Sixers on every night, and they score more points there than any team in the NBA.
16. Transition is still a massive part of what the Sixers do. They’re #1 in the league with 16.7 fast break points per game.
17. Along those lines, the Sixers score 17.9 points off turnovers, which is 10th. Defense creates offense, especially when you are deflecting passes and forcing live ball turnovers.
18. They are very reliant on good two-point shooting. 12.1% of their points come from mid-range twos, which is third in the league, and something that the analytics types would absolutely hate. They’d detest this.
19. I’m fascinated that Joel Embiid is playing this well and this consistently without fans in the building. He had previously been much more of an emotional rollercoaster type of guy in, riding the wave and feeding off the crowd. It’s much more straight-forward and automatic this season, which is so impressive.
20. Defensively, no real concerns. They are top 12 or top eight across the board, limiting opponent field goal percentage, rebounding, points in the paint, all of that stuff. It’s just the turnovers/FBPS that kill them.
21. Sixers are #1 in the league with 6.2 blocked shots per game.
22. This team really shines in the fourth quarter, and is 15-5 in “clutch” games, which is defined by any contest where the score is within five points with five minutes or less remaining. They are #1 in the league with a .750 winning percentage. They are excellent at closing and executing, which is CRUCIAL for the playoffs.
23. No surprise, but under Doc, pick and roll possessions are WAY up from the Brett years.
24. Post up numbers are excellent. The Sixers post up more than any other NBA team and score 1.04 points per possession, which is third-best.
25. Good news for people who hated Brett’s dribble hand offs! They are bottom-half of the league in running those this season.
26. More specific with the three-point problem, the Sixers shoot 38.1% on catch and shoot threes, but only take 25 per game, which is bottom-eight. They really looked good early in the season with Simmons on the drive and kick, and Harris hitting that trailing three right at the break line, but haven’t been doing as much of it lately. They are very good at it and should add volume there.
27. This team still throws the third-most passes per game. They really have not changed too much from the squad that Brett tried to build, which shows us that Doc and Daryl Morey tried to match the scheme to the personnel instead of trying to ram a square peg in a round hole. That’s the right way to do it, especially with Simmons being such a unique player.
28. When you look at the shot plot, the Sixers are really good from the right corner and near the break on that side, but they struggle from the left:
I’d assume this has a lot to do with the way Joel prefers to post on the left side of the floor, and you see that in the frequency of those orange dots in that area. Oftentimes he and Ben are throwing those cross-court passes to the right side of the floor, resulting in open catch and shoot looks.
29. Ben Simmons has improved his game, though marginally, and in areas where he was already pretty damn good. People just get hung up on the shot because it’s the most glaring absence in a game where the point is to shoot the basketball into the hoop. But when he’s off the floor you see how the Sixers struggle in the areas of pace-setting and rhythm. Simmons is a metronome who improves the guys around him and connects the parts, and we should know this by now. Too much of the good things he does are hard to parse via strict numbers.
30. It should be noted that Ben’s free throw attempts (per 36) and free throw percentage are both sitting at career highs.
31. Say what you will about Joel Embiid dominating in all phases, but I think the most understated thing this season is that the individual turnover numbers are down. His per-36 turnover number of 3.5 is a career low.
32. Not sure people even realize this, but Embiid’s free throw shooting is up a full five percentage points this year (81 to 86).
33. Per-36 minutes, Embiid is getting to the line 12.7 times. That is an absolutely insane number, and might be a record dating back 30-40 years. I went back 20 years and not even prime Shaq or prime Dwight Howard were getting close to that number.
34. Embiid’s three point attempts are at a career low. That’s a victory for all the people on Twitter who wanted him to “get his fat ass on the low block.”
35. Reunited with Rivers, Harris is shooting 40% from three and scoring a career high 21.2 points per 36. He’s been so much better under Doc, and his scoring has taken a huge burden off of Simmons and allowed the latter to just play his game.
36. I still think Tobias would benefit from shooting more threes. He shot almost five per 36 minutes while playing for Doc in Los Angeles, but that number is down even though he’s been more accurate this year.
37. The other thing about the three-point shooting is that we know Joel and Ben are only shooting something like two of those per game. So the other guys need to overcompensate to balance out the efficiency. You could make a case that Furkan Korkmaz and Danny Green should literally be doing but standing in the corner and shooting catch and shoot threes.
38. Seth Curry needs to shoot more in general. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be taking 10+ field goals per game, nor is there a reason why his two-point attempts should be up and three-point attempts down. I sometimes think he’s hesitant to fire when coming around those Embiid screens, and a more assertive Curry puts this team over the top.
39. I know people are down on Danny Green, but he’s 33 years old and the fifth scoring option in the starting lineup. All he needs to do is be a 3 and D guy and pace himself until the playoffs, and then you hope the veteran savvy kicks in.
40. If Toronto wants a first round pick and a player, I absolutely would not do the Kyle Lowry trade. I think this starting lineup is good enough to beat anybody. Honest to God. I’d add a buyout or two and try to beef up the bench for the stretch run. You really just need another ball handler and then your postseason rotation is set. You only are going to be rolling 7-8 in the playoffs anyway, and when you look at the Toronto series from two years ago, it was James Ennis, a little bit of Mike Scott, and Greg Monroe coming off the bench. The rest of the group was mostly unplayable, and the reality is that you aren’t going to be using guys like Furkan Korkmaz and Tyrese Maxey in the playoffs anyway. It’s gonna be Shake Milton, Howard to spell Embiid, and then some second quarter slop minutes just to get by.
41. Biggest need besides a ball handler is another stretch big. A backup power forward. P.J. Tucker fits the bill as an experienced glue guy.
42. George Hill makes sense for this team.
43. There’s nobody in the East that should scare Sixers fans. The Nets are damn good but play zero defense. This Sixers team should absolutely be able to keep pace and put stress on them defensively, get some of their guys in foul trouble. If you gotta’ win 140 to 137, it’s still a W.
44. Rivers really hit on something with that 2-3 zone featuring Matisse Thybulle pairing Simmons at the top. It has been incredibly effect in limited deployment.
45. As always, the biggest issue for the Sixers is the Sixers. It’s about staying healthy and delivering Joel Embiid to the playoffs intact. They’re going to have to rest him in the second half of the season and manage the load a little bit, because there are a lot of games and not a lot of days. Just be ready for it and understand that it’s best for this team and for him as an individual.
46. If fans come back and the team starts to struggle, we should once again ban supporters from the building. I’m not superstitious, but they’ve played damn good ball in these empty arenas, and I’m actually 50% serious with this observation.
(Why pick 46 observations? Isn’t that a weird number? Yeah, but there’s no real reason. I just wrote everything out and the final number came out to 46.)