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The Sixers Seem Like They’re Underachieving. They’re Not.

It was just over a week ago, on Christmas Day, that the Philadelphia 76ers played their most complete game of the year. The sometimes-shooting-challenged Sixers drilled a season-best 21 triples, turned the ball over a season-low seven times and forced reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo into his worst game so far, holding him to 18 points on 8-of-27 shooting from the floor.

The performance, a convincing win over the league-best Milwaukee Bucks, was a terrifying glimpse into what Philadelphia could, and arguably should, be at its very best. Which is why, three consecutive losses later, the club’s season has been so hard to understand.

Heading into Friday’s matchup with Houston, the Sixers, who were expected to go toe-to-toe with the Bucks for Eastern Conference supremacy this season, find themselves in just fifth place — a half-game behind the Raptors, a half-game ahead of the Pacers and a whopping eight games behind Milwaukee, which, barring injury, almost certainly will land the top seed.

But for how frustrating Philly has been at times, the reality is that much of what we thought about the club before the season began is still true: The Sixers are often annoying pests on defense but highly imperfect on offense, as they continue to try to find the right roles for multiple players in a lineup that’s undergone three significant overhauls the past 14 months.

Much of the problem, to this point, lies in the things we didn’t necessarily see coming. There likely weren’t many people who saw the Bucks, minus Malcolm Brogdon, on pace for 70 wins to start the new year. And most didn’t suspect that there would be four teams aside from Milwaukee and Philadelphia — Boston, Toronto, Indiana and Miami — in the mix to win 50. In a way, those factors seem to be putting a retroactive set of regular-season expectations on Philadelphia that perhaps shouldn’t be there.

For what it’s worth, here at FiveThirtyEight, our preseason forecast pegged the Sixers as a 53-win team — almost precisely the pace they’re on at the moment — with a 35 percent probability of reaching the NBA Finals. Today, even with our model saying they’re likely to finish slightly better than expected, with 55 wins, their odds of reaching the Finals have fallen to 28 percent — a function of the other top teams in the East being stronger than initially thought. (Even with that decrease, it’s worth noting that Philly’s probability of reaching the finals, per FiveThirtyEight’s model, is still more than twice that of any East team aside from Milwaukee.)

Philadelphia still has major issues to resolve to get that far. Arguably the one that’s gotten the most attention lately: the on-court fit, or lack thereof, for newcomer Al Horford, the 33-year-old who left Boston to sign a four-year deal with the Sixers.

While the acquisition might have seemed like overkill for a team that already had a franchise big man in Joel Embiid, Horford’s presence was meant to solve what might have been the Sixers’ biggest problem last year: Giving Philly good, respectable minutes at center while Embiid rested, when opponents often went on scoring runs. (Embiid was a plus-89 in the playoff East semifinals series with the Raptors and finished with a positive plus-minus in six of the seven games. The problems came when he went to the bench.) Horford, a five-time All-Star in his own right, has helped plenty. The Sixers went from a -3.5 per 100 possessions last season without Embiid to a plus 0.8 per 100 possessions without him this season, largely because of Horford.

But Horford’s individual stats have taken a precipitous tumble as he tries to find his way at power forward while playing next to Embiid. He’s shot just 36.5 percent from the floor and 24 percent from 3-point range in his minutes with the All-NBA center, a stark contrast from the 47 percent he shoots overall without him, and the 36.5 percent he shoots from three.

“I’m out [there] for the team and doing what I can to help us. But offensively, I’m very limited with the things that I can do,” Horford told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “So I can’t control that stuff.”

Coach Brett Brown has talked about possibly using Horford in more pick and rolls, which could help. But the obvious problem there, as we’ve seen with Dallas, is that doing so would put Embiid, the team’s best player, in a spot where he’s not being utilized much. On some level, this is the same issue we wrote about last season, when the team traded for Tobias Harris despite already having Jimmy Butler: There weren’t always enough basketballs to go around for all the scorers the team possessed.

Just as important to figure out, both this season and long term, is the synergy between Embiid and Ben Simmons, whose individual offensive numbers have looked the same for three years. When those two are paired together, the Sixers score just 105.8 points per 100 possessions — barely better than a bottom-five offense, as ESPN’s Zach Lowe pointed out recently. Yet with Simmons on and Embiid off, the offense produces a far more efficient 110.4 points per 100 plays. So there’s ample room for that first unit to grow together, but at least they’re not falling off a cliff the way they once did with Embiid sidelined.

Even in losing six of their last nine, including losses to the Pacers and Heat, the Sixers (23-13) are a respectable 6-4 against the other top-six teams in the conference, suggesting that they shouldn’t be overly concerned just yet if they fail to finish with the No. 2 seed.

While a handful of the NBA’s best defenses have grown comfortable with allowing opponents to shoot large numbers of threes, Philadelphia has done the exact opposite, limiting 3-point attempts more than any other club. The Sixers force the highest share of long, midrange 2-pointers in the NBA. For all his offensive shortcomings, Simmons has taken his defense to another level this season. (And they should get rookie Matisse Thybulle, who may already be one of the NBA’s premier defenders, back from injury sometime this month.) The Sixers have more size than just about anyone, and they have used it to become the league’s best defensive rebounding team. They play with a scrappiness, grabbing the most loose balls in the NBA.

Maybe most interesting, given the preseason concerns: Philly has shot the ball well. The team ranks just outside the top 10 in 3-point percentage even after losing sharpshooter J.J. Redick in free agency.

But there’s a catch, and it’s one that will almost certainly be a factor come postseason: The Sixers make a decent percentage of the threes they take, but they aren’t really taking that many. They rank in the bottom five in the share of their shots that come from behind the arc, and teams, essentially daring Simmons and other Philly players to shoot, have often used zone against them. In fact, the 191 possessions the Sixers’ offense has played against a zone defense this season are almost 60 more than the next closest team, according to Second Spectrum — a pretty firm indication that teams don’t fear Philadelphia’s ability to hurt them from the outside.1

That’s what made the win over the Bucks so intriguing: With how the Sixers defend, they can blow great teams out when they shoot well from outside and take care of the ball for a change.

We know they won’t do that every night, or even most nights. But in the meantime, finding a way for their All-Star frontcourt players to jell would help raise the floor for a team that has a high ceiling — even if it’s being obscured somewhat by an unexpectedly strong Eastern Conference.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. While it may be a sound strategy against the Sixers as a whole, Harris has a blistering effective field goal percentage of 75 on 26 shots this season when facing a zone, according to Second Spectrum.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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