Nine games into the ‘21-’22 NBA season, the Philadelphia 76ers have an impressive 7-2 win-loss record that puts them on top of the Eastern Conference standings.
The Sixers, who lead the league in field goal percentage and are third in both three-point and free throw percentages, have put an emphasis on their system over the season’s first three weeks to manufacture open looks in the continued absence of star point guard Ben Simmons.
There continues to be no timetable for Simmons’ return to the floor following an offseason trade request and subsequent holdout, though he is already with the team and seeking professional help to prepare him for a supposed return to the court one day.
The whole situation with the 25-year-old Simmons has been a pointless distraction for a franchise that has title aspirations this season, but it has also provided the rest of the team with a chance to embrace larger roles.
Sophomore guard Tyrese Maxey has taken on the most added responsibility, stepping into the starting slot vacated by Simmons. He has averaged 14.7 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 4.3 assists in 32 minutes per game which are almost double his numbers last year.
The 6’2 Maxey has scored in double figures in eight out of Philadelphia’s first nine games, highlighted by a 20-point performance on opening day where he also recorded seven assists and five rebounds. The 21-year-old is a fearless slasher which also helps him drive-and-kick to the Sixers’ perimeter shooters.
He remains a reluctant three-point shooter himself, although his aversion for taking shots behind the arc is nowhere near the level of Simmons’ disdain for the long ball. Maxey has attempted 2.6 threes per game this season on a 34.8% clip, a clear aspect of his game that he needs to work on if he is to continue his upward trajectory in the NBA.
The 21-year-old guard has made promising strides, yet more will be needed from him following the tumultuous developments within the Sixers over the past few days.
Power forward Tobias Harris entered the league’s health and safety protocols briefly before their eventual 113-103 win over the Portland Trailblazers and is expected to miss a few more games before he can return to action.
Harris is the team’s second-leading scorer this season behind Joel Embiid, putting up 19.8 points per game along with nine rebounds and 4.2 assists.
The Sixers’ bad luck was further compounded during the match when small forward Danny Green had to exit during the third quarter with hamstring tightness.
Philadelphia used a team effort–seven players finished with at least 10 points–to overcome the Blazers.
They leaned on one another once again in their next match with the Chicago Bulls where they survived with a 103-98 win. The Sixers almost squandered an 18-point lead which was whittled down to a mere two points, 100-98, with less than 30 seconds remaining in the fourth period following a jumper from DeMar DeRozan.
Seth Curry responded with a mid range jumper on the following possession to extend their lead to four, 102-98, before Embiid blocked a DeRozan dunk to help seal the victory.
Picking up from where he left off prior to his own scare with COVID-19 last season that derailed what was looking like a breakout campaign, Curry racked up his fourth 20-point game of the year with 22 points, five rebounds, and three assists.
His steady presence as a floor spacer and smart cutter have been invaluable for Philadelphia though the lack of height that his backcourt with Maxey poses may prove to be a point of exploitation versus this team come the postseason.
Matisse Thybulle and Furkan Korkmaz drew the start and contributed solid minutes in the absence of Harris and Green.
The defensive specialist Thybulle collected three steals and two blocks to go with eight points and a season-high two three-pointers while Korkmaz chipped in with 11 points and five rebounds.
The revelation over the past few games, however, has been reserve stretch forward Georges Niang. Now with the Sixers following four seasons with the Utah Jazz, Niang has scored 21 and 18 points, respectively, in the two games since Harris was sidelined. He has hit seven threes over those two contests and his shooting ability has allowed their offense to continue to operate smoothly.
Though it may seem that Philadelphia cannot catch a break these days, their team’s “Next man up” approach has bailed them out so far. Their supporting cast seems to feed off Embiid’s overflowing confidence and it shows in their on court results. Any player whom head coach Doc Rivers has fielded in, even their back-up center Andre Drummond who was notorious for his antics and behavior at previous stops, is ready to play and execute their role to perfection.
This Sixers team is far from perfect, highlighted by their penchant for losing focus and blowing sizable leads, but the heart and grit that they have shown despite all of the off court developments cannot be taught and should not be discounted. If they can get Simmons to return to the court free of drama or miraculously find a way to trade him, it should only boost their strong start and help them progress towards their goal of a higher seed come playoff time.
The past few weeks that the Sixers have lived through were enough of an excuse for them to mail it in or descend into chaos, yet they have done the opposite. The additional playing time and exposure that this has afforded their role players, who have responded in the most positive of ways, will only augment their depth and bodes well by all means for their future.