SACRAMENTO — In any of the past three seasons, the Kings beating the Sixers would have been seen as simply business as usual. After all, Philly — which had been mired in one of the worst stretches of any team in history — was liable to lose to just about anyone, even lowly Sacramento.
When it happened Thursday, though, it was surprising. The Sixers entered the contest as one of the NBA’s hottest teams, riding a five-game win streak. Somehow, expectations had been born.
That’s a key difference between the Sixers of yesterday and the Sixers of today: We actually expect them to win sometimes. The other distinction — the team’s two young potential superstars — means it’s finally possible to see how Philly could someday reach the point where it’s always expected to win.
It’s impossible to overstate just how bad the Sixers were until very recently. That was mostly by design, of course — an elaborate rebuilding experiment under the direction of former general manager Sam Hinkie — but it still resulted in the Sixers’ exploration of the extreme depths of North American team sports. Here’s Philly’s decline in graphical form, tracing its trajectory using our Elo ratings (which measure a team’s strength — or, in this case, weakness — over time):
Philly hit its peak Elo of the past five seasons — 1485, nearly a .500-caliber team — early in Hinkie’s first season at the helm, but then quickly dipped to its Hinkie-era nadir later that same season with a rating of 1175, which is good for about 13 wins per 82 games. From there, most teams tend to improve their rating just by sheer regression to the mean, but the Sixers found a way to drop back below 1200 again in April of 2016. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the 2015-16 season was Hinkie’s last as GM.) Over the past couple seasons, though, they’ve managed to climb back toward the league-average mark of around 1500. Philly’s trajectory has few parallels in NBA history; they’re only the sixth team ever to start at an Elo above 1440, dip below 1200 within two seasons, and then rise back above 1440 within the following two seasons:
|YEARS||TEAM||HIGH IN YEAR 1||LOW OVER NEXT 2||HIGH IN FOLLOWING 2|
This may be only the beginning of the Sixers’ rise. Going into the season, ESPN ranked Philly sixth in its NBA future power rankings, representing each team’s potential over the next handful of years. And since the start of the season, only two teams — the Magic and Celtics — have tacked more points onto their Elo ratings than the Sixers have.1
We asked Brett Brown, who’s in his fifth season as Sixers coach, about that unusual transition.
“I do it multiple times every day,” he said when asked if he’s already given serious thought to making a title run with this core group at some point. “But I also feel incredibly grounded, because I’ve seen four championships, and my Spurs life helped me understand how hard it is and how long a process it is. You cannot skip steps, and you need some luck with health. I’m not young anymore, so the excitement of what could be is always with me. I think about it all the time.”
And for good reason. In Joel Embiid and rookie sensation Ben Simmons, the Sixers appear to have finally found what The Process ordered: a duo that has the advantage of both being very young and having the sort of size and skill that can’t be taught, a rare combination that the league has seldom seen.
Since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976, only five teams have had a pair of players age 23 or younger who each logged at least 25 minutes per game and posted a Box Plus/Minus of +3.5 or greater: The 1984-85 Portland Trail Blazers, with Clyde Drexler and Sam Bowie2; the 1993-94 and 1994-95 Orlando Magic, with Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway; the 2011-12 Oklahoma City Thunder with Kevin Durant and James Harden; and, if they keep it up, the 2017-18 Philadelphia 76ers with Simmons and Embiid.
Somewhat lost in the wild stat lines Simmons and Embiid are compiling is the fact that they excel by going against today’s NBA grain. The 6-foot-10 Simmons, much like scoring leader and early MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo, has managed to foil defenses and log triple-doubles without the threat of an outside shot. In fact, through 11 games, Simmons hasn’t even attempted a true jumper3 of 20 feet or more, yet he is skewering foes with nearly 18 points and eight dimes a game while shooting 50 percent.
Embiid, on the other hand, would appear to be a bit of a throwback. He’s most comfortable in the post with his back to the basket — his 22.5 post-ups per 100 possessions lead the NBA by far, according to data from Second Spectrum — even as he possesses the new-age ability to spot up.
The two display good chemistry, scoring an above-average 0.94 points per pick-and-roll they orchestrate, according to Second Spectrum data. They sometimes catch opponents off guard at the start of possessions, when defenders expect Simmons to come to the 3-point line to get the ball and initiate the offense, but he darts backdoor instead, with Embiid finding him for an easy bucket.
On a separate play against Dallas, Simmons calls Embiid over to set a screen for him, prompting Dirk Nowitzki to take a step or two forward in anticipation of the pick. That allows Embiid the space he needs to dive behind the future Hall of Famer for an easy lob.
In the nearly 200 minutes Simmons and Embiid have shared the court, the Sixers have played like a contender, scoring 106.2 points per 100 plays while surrendering just 97.2, marks that would rank them inside the NBA’s top 10 on both ends of the court.4
This duo is clearly the source of Philadelphia’s new identity, but a number of other factors also help explain the team’s promising start.
The club — which for years might have had better shooters in the stands than it did on its bench — is lighting things up from deep, thanks to free-agent addition J.J. Redick and two-way stud Robert Covington (who’s outpacing Klay Thompson as the NBA’s best high-volume catch-and-shoot 3-point gunner so far5). The Sixers have made their plays following timeouts count, scoring 1.05 points per possession in those situations, second-best in the league, per Synergy Sports. And the young defense, still holier than a bible at times, is making an extraordinary effort as it learns the ropes. Philly boasts the NBA’s best defensive efficiency after committing live-ball turnovers, per Inpredictable; that’s noteworthy because the Sixers fumble it away more than any other team.
To be clear, no one is saying that Philadelphia, at 6-5, has it all figured out. Forward Dario Saric and Embiid ranked worst and second-worst in turnover rate, respectively, when being aggressively doubled in the post last season,6 per Synergy, and Brown said his team still needs to reduce the number of “my bad” situations it finds itself in over the course of each game. Simmons’s reluctance to pull the trigger on jumpers may be an extension of him still figuring out which hand he wants to shoot with on a primary basis. (Simmons, who shoots free throws left-handed, spent time during Thursday morning’s shootaround in Sacramento practicing midrange jumpers with his right hand. He missed the rim four times during a two-minute span.)
Philly’s rim protection crumbles into dust when Embiid goes to the bench, as opponents shoot just 57 percent from the restricted area with him in the game, yet hit a whopping 71 percent — which would rank worst in the league — when he’s sidelined, according to NBA.com. Then, obviously, there’s the question of whether the team’s key pieces can stay healthy, which is far from a given considering their injury histories. (The calculus could also change for the better depending on the status of No. 1 overall draft pick Markelle Fultz and what he’s able to give the Sixers once he comes back.)
But make no mistake: A healthy Sixers team — with Simmons infusing life into the offense by forcing help when he drives to the basket and Embiid bringing the sort of post D that makes players think twice about shooting — will factor into the playoff race this year, with a chance to do far more damage going forward.
Simmons’s creativity on offense is bolstered by his ability to see over the top of the defense. His 10.6 assists per 100 possessions and 2.1 assist-to-turnover ratio compare favorably to the first few seasons of LeBron James’s career. And the Philly point forward, who leads NBA ballhandlers in passes per game, at times has flashed a James-like ability to spray the ball around to shooters.
As for Embiid, whom Brown referred to as his “crown jewel,” his impact can’t be overstated, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. As ESPN stat guru Micah Adams pointed out, teams have seemingly avoided trying to post up Embiid at all this season, perhaps aware of how effective he was at the rim last season, even when compared with the league’s other elite bigs.
Asked if it’s difficult to stay focused on what’s right in front of the team rather than thinking big-picture, Embiid smiled. “I guess I’d just say that I have to trust the process,” he said.