Off to a 6-1 start, it seems like the Sixers’ aggressive offseason is paying off.
Philadelphia overhauled their front office this autumn, adding already-proven names like Doc Rivers as head coach and Daryl Morey as president of basketball operations. In the 2019-20 season, Rivers led the Clippers to a 49-23 record, good for second in the deep Western Conference. Though his squad fell to the Nuggets in a seven-game playoff matchup in the second round, the Sixers hoped he could find a way to utilize Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid to their fullest potential. On the other side, Morey joined Philadelphia after thirteen successful (but championship-less) seasons. He became famous for his analytics-based team building, and the Sixers hired him in hopes of creating better spacing around their two paint-oriented stars.
Once they had their new front office in place, the Sixers started making roster changes. Morey started by trading a grotesquely overpaid Al Horford to the Thunder in exchange for Danny Green and Terrance Ferguson. Green is a 39.9% 3-point shooter over his career, and Ferguson plays solid defense at small forward. Horford was an ugly fit with Simmons and Embiid last season, as they all functioned at the rim on offense. Morey also sent Josh Richardson and the 36th pick in the 2020 draft to Dallas for Seth Curry. Coming into this season, Curry boasted the second-highest career 3-point shooting percentage with 44.3 percent. Finally, the Sixers drafted Tyrese Maxey with the 21st pick in the draft, adding yet another offensive-minded guard to the roster.
Thus far, the Sixers have a remarkable 7-1 record, most recently defeating the Washington Wizards last night 141-136. Though the aforementioned score might not show it, Philadelphia has been downright stifling on defense. The Sixers are holding their opponents to an average of 106 points per game, good for eighth in the league (The Wizards game brought up this number significantly). They also boast a defensive rating of 102.9, the best figure in the NBA. Simmons, Embiid, and Green are averaging a combined 7.3 stocks (steals and blocks) and are wreaking havoc on opposing starting lineups.
What strikes me about the Sixers' offense this year is the balance they've achieved from their starting lineup. Last night against the Wizards, no starter scored less than 17 points. Joel Embiid feasted on Washington's frontcourt with a 38-8-5 performance, but Seth Curry also poured on 28 points (plus 6-for-7 from deep), and Tobias Harris also added 19 points and 7 rebounds. 24-year-old Shake Milton also provided an encouraging 19 points off the bench. Philadelphia's bench isn't quite as deep as you'd expect from a potential Conference Finals squad, but their starting lineup is simply meshing so well.
You may be wondering, "Who did the Sixers lose to?" The Cavaliers trounced them on December 27th by 24 points, the one game that Joel Embiid missed due to a tight back. This is both the encouraging and ugly truth for Philadelphia looking forward this season. The positive spin is that Embiid has been playing some of the best, most efficient basketball of his career. Those people who mark him down each year as a dark-horse MVP candidate are salivating as we speak.
On the other hand, the Sixers tend to fall apart when he isn't playing. In late-game situations, Embiid is the go-to option. He's the glue of the team's defense, and when Ben Simmons is given the keys to the Ferrari, he's likely to crash it. Simmons is too fickle when he drives to the basket; by the time he realizes it would be unwise to hurl a mid-air pass to the corner, he's already throwing up a wild layup.
The 76ers are first in the Eastern Conference, and there's no denying the work that Morey and Co. have done to establish a serious contender. If Embiid misses an extended period of time at any point this season, that gives me pause. But for now, it's smooth sailing in the City of Brotherly Love.