Philadelphia 76ers fans suffered through years of seemingly unapologetic tanking in the mid-2010s to draft high-potential youngsters like Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. It paid off quite well but disappointment grew again as the team kept getting bounced in the playoffs in frustrating fashion.
Last season was such a roller coaster that suffering a sweep in the first round of the postseason was probably for the best. It ran the oft-criticized head coach Brett Brown out of Philly, and brought the more established Doc Rivers in the fold. Rivers has his own good share of playoff shortcomings, but he’s a brilliant basketball mind regardless, the new voice that the down-trending team needed. Things are pointing upwards so far.
It’s only seven games, but…
Though the sample size is small, you have to give credit where credit is due, and it’s not like they’re going to get a pass had they started poorly. The Sixers currently own the best record in the league at 7-1, certainly higher than expected considering the way their 2019-20 season played out.
We can even argue that they’d still be unbeaten if not for some necessary precautionary measures. That one loss was mostly due to Embiid’s absence, coupled with playing on the road, and the grind of playing on the second leg of a back-to-back. Besides, they’ve racked up five consecutive wins after that, three of which were by 24, 15, and 17 points. In their most recent victory, they beat the Washington Wizards, 141-136, and spoiled Bradley Beal’s career-high 60 points.
So… what changed?
The Sixers’ Embiid-Simmons era have always been a tough defensive team, but its impact continuously weakened towards the second half of last season, which continued into the bubble and that disastrous playoff match-up against the Boston Celtics.
Beginning January 30, 2020, up until they got eliminated on late August, Philly ranked 19th in points allowed, far from where they ranked prior to that stretch.
This season, through Doc’s guidance, the team has jumped into the top defensive rankings by only giving up 105.9 points per game and only allowing opponents to shoot a subpar 40% range, which also places them in the top tier. They’re the best at protecting the lane too as they swat 7.1 shots per game.
Better scoring guards
The lack of scoring guards was among the many problems that frustrated Sixer fans in the previous campaign. It heightened further when they shockingly waived Trey Burke in February – the only guard who has inside-out scoring ability, considerable experience, and ball-handling skills.
Today, Sixers have a good collection of scoring guards. Aside from third-year guard Shake Milton, who’s now the sixth man and bound for a nice progression, there’s also off-season acquisitions Seth Curry and rookie Tyrese Maxey.
Curry is actually Philly’s third-leading scorer at 17.0 PPG, and Milton’s energy off-the-bench is chipping in 12.8 points, 2.9 assists, and 1.1 steals. Maxey is still trying to earn more minutes but he was able to showcase his potential on Tuesday’s 118-101 rout of the Charlotte Hornets. He had 11 points, two assists and one steal, with two three-pointers, and all of it were highlight-worthy plays.
Better line-up flow
Everyone’s playing well for the Sixers, as evident in the numbers. Embiid is at 25.2 PPG, 11.7 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.8 BPG on the season, Tobias Harris has 22.2 PPG on 55-plus FG% over his last four, and Curry is at 20.2 PPG on 65-plus FG% in his last four. Simmons’ scoring is down (13.6 PPG), but his rebounds and assists are still as advertised (7.6 APG and career-high 9.3 RPG), all while the elite defense being fully intact, so he’s as impactful as ever.
Then, there’s veteran big man and off-season signee Dwight Howard. The 35-year-old is providing valuable minutes as Embiid’s reliever, tallying 14-plus points and 14-plus rebounds per 36 minutes.
It will be interesting to see if the Sixers can keep this up throughout the year. Hopefully, the guys from last season still remember how they started 5-0 in 2019 before going on consistently inconsistent run.
The Sixers will be back in action Friday against the Brooklyn Nets. They’ll have a good chance to continue streak as Kevin Durant is out due to COVID-19 protocols.