One quarter of the 2019-20 Philadelphia 76ers has passed, and the Sixers are 15-6. They are currently fourth in the Eastern Conference (on a technicality because the Sixers defeated the Heat who have a similar record).
If you look at the teams above them, you’ll find the Milwaukee Bucks (not surprising), the Boston Celtics (kinda surprising), and the Toronto Raptors (WTF!). The Sixers are the second hottest team in the East right now and winners of four straight. Four doesn’t seem like a lot, but Milwaukee has won 13 in a row, so we’re just going to have to take that win for now until that first meeting with Giannis Antetokounmpo on Christmas Day.
There have been a couple things of note after the first 21 games. Some have been good. Some have been bad. Some have been frustrating and confusing as all hell.
Ben Simmons’s defense
We at Liberty Ballers — and Sixers Twitter in general — took great pride in the fact that Robert Covington was elevated to 1st Team All-Defense. I took great personal joy and made it a point to remind everyone on Twitter any time Lord Covington made a great defensive play.
Similarly, it’s time the NBA award voters get with the program that Ben Simmons better be at least considered for an All-Defense. Holy crap, he’s been good in the first 20 games.
Let’s start with counting stats. Simmons leads the NBA in steals with 46. He doesn’t lead the league in steals per game because former Sixers wing Jimmy Butler leads in that department by a mere one-tenth of a point. (Boooooo!!) Simmons’s block numbers aren’t strong (10 in 20 games), but that should come along with more time in the season. He’s also second in the NBA in deflections (my favorite stat) with 77 behind Jrue Holiday.
Time for more in-depth stuff.
It’s early, but Simmons’s defensive rating (DRtg) is 100 — which equals his rookie season — and his defensive box plus/minus (DBPM) holds at 3.6. In the half court, Simmons has allowed .752 points per possession (PPP). That puts him in the 90th percentile of that category per Synergy Sports. He’s held opponents he’s guarding to an adjusted field goal percentage of 39.9% and causes a turnover almost 13% of the time.
I was laughed at and scolded last year when I suggested that Simmons deserved a shot for at least 2nd Team All-Defense. Now, I’m going to spend the majority of this season fighting with people who say he shouldn’t be 1st team because he damn well deserves it.
This is from NBADraft.net (because I refuse to pay for ESPN Insider services):
“Weaknesses… Has the ability to make threes, but not yet at a consistent rate.”
Granted, it’s NBADraft.net, but this was something that was said about Matisse Thybulle coming out of college. I think it’s time to squash that notion because Thybulle has shown to be a pretty damn good shooter.
Thybulle averages about two attempts per game, but he’s still shooting over 40% from three. If you jump into the numbers a little bit more, you’ll find that Thybulle is in the 66th percentile on spot ups (1.091 PPP). On a “no dribble jump shot”, the rookie is in the 92nd percentile after 20 games (1.5 PPP). There are struggles on some nights which is common for a lot of rookies coming into the league which led to others getting more minutes (i.e. Furkan Korkmaz, etc.), but he had his coming out party on Saturday against the Sacramento Kings when he went 5/5 from the field including three three-pointers.
I should add that Matisse has been every bit as advertised, defensively (98 DRtg, 29 total steals, 40.9 opponents aFG%). I’ve cooled on my bold prediction that Thybulle will be All-Defense as a rookie, but I’m still excited when I see him come in the game.
This team has been really weird, offensively. I don’t know how long it takes for all these new parts to gel, but 20 games seems like a good amount of games for a sample size, and there are things that are worrisome.
After 20 games, the Sixers are 18th in points per game, 19th in pace, and 17th in team ORtg. It’s only been a little over a month and a half, but it’s worth noting that the Sixers were top-10 in all three of those categories by season’s end the last three years. The only outlier was ORtg in 2017-2018 when they were 12th. They haven’t scored fewer than 95 points this season, but does it seem like the offense is sputtering at times.
If there’s one specific scoring issue I have with the Sixers after 20 games, it’s second half scoring. The Sixers are currently 23rd in that category. They’re 15th in first half scoring, but the average dips from 55.4 to 52.6. That doesn’t seem like much, but in a two- or three-point game, that’s pretty damn significant. They’re average margin after three quarters is +6.1, but they’re second to last in 4th quarter scoring.
This team is absolutely mind boggling to watch when they go into the fourth with a lead because you have to think to yourself: “What the hell is going to happen in these last 12 minutes if we’re not blowing out our opponent?”
Take that game against the Indiana Pacers. That was a tie game at 93 going in to the 4th quarter, and it was back and forth the entire last period until Ben Simmons went all “Peter Quill” on the Pacers getting two steals in six seconds and getting another steal six seconds after that to ice the game. They won that game, but Indiana is sans-Victor Oladipo and is 16th in PPG. They squeaked that game out, but how many games are they NOT going to win under those circumstances against better teams?
(I would also like to point out that the Sixers are once again at the bottom of the NBA in terms of bench production per game – 26th to be specific.)
Three the Hard Way
The Sixers are an enigma when it comes to outside shooting. Kinda figured that would be an issue after the team decided to move on from JJ Redick, right? Depending on who’s doing the shooting, you’re either looking away from the television because you pretty much know it’s in, or you’re doing the “NO, NO, NO!” reaction.
There has been one heavily celebrated three pointer made:
The rest of the team has been hit or miss. Tobias Harris, the new $180 million man, continues to struggle from deep in a Sixers uniform. He’s shooting 29.5% so far this season after only hitting 33% from three after coming over in the trade from the Los Angeles Clippers. Thankfully, Josh Richardson has been making close to 40% of his threes in a Sixers uniform (more on him, later). Everyone else is a mixed bag of good, bad, and “good lord stop shooting threes”:
- Mike Scott: 32.8% on 67 attempts (Yikes.)
- Furkan Korkmaz: 36.2% on 94 attempts (“Pop tha Korkmaz, Bombah!”)
- James Ennis III: 42.6% on 47 attempts (So, death, taxes, James Ennis offensive rebounds AND Ennis threes?)
- Matisse Thybulle: 43.2% on 37 attempts (THREE-bulle!)
- Al Horford: 37.3% on 75 attempts (I appreciate this, Al.)
- Joel Embiid: 31.3% on 64 attempts (Jesus, Jo. Get on the block, already.)
Continued Turnover Bug
This item continues to be a thorn my side. (I could use a more colorful metaphor, but I want to be respectful for my readers under the age of 13.) Turnovers continue to be a bug in this team’s software. No matter how many updates are patched in, it’s still a major problem, and no virus software seems to be able to get rid of it.
Ben Simmons leads the team in assists per 100 possessions with 11.8, but he also leads the team with 5.2 turnovers per 100 possessions. If Simmons could get that number down by one full turnover, it would be incredibly beneficial. (Yeah, I know. That goes in the “eff’ing duh” category.) Joel Embiid has looked much better this season passing out of rotating double teams from opponents’ defenses, but he’s still averaging 4.6 TOV per 100 possessions.
When a little over half of the offense goes through those two guys (31.8 USG% for Embiid/19.4 for Simmons), I need them to do a lot better than 9.8 turnovers per 100 possessions. I need them to do much, MUCH better.
The New Guys
The Sixers distributed $109 million over four years to the old Boston Celtics big man. I have to say. It’s much better watching him play FOR us than AGAINST us. I’ve always had one word to use when describing Al Horford: solid.
Is Horford an All-Star this year? I mean, maybe in the East as there aren’t a whole lot of other big men to choose from.
Is Horford the reason why the Sixers will live to see the NBA Finals or die before such a thing is reached? Kinda/sorta. He’s “Embiid Insurance”. When Embiid needs a breather (which has been two games, so far), that’s where Horford is most important. He’s played 30-39 minutes in 14 of the Sixers games this year. In those games, Horford averages 15/7/4 with a TS% of .559.
As the year progresses, Horford is going to see a lot of games on back-to-backs, for example, where he’ll have to shoulder a little more of the load on top of being in the Sixers “crunch time five”. Solid. Stable. Secure. He’s the Honda Civic of NBA big men.
The other newcomer is Josh Richardson.
Richardson had a slow start to the season, but he has come on in November.
October (four games): 33.0 MPG, 13.3 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 3.0 APG, .485 TS%, .235 3PT%
November (12 games): 31.7 MPG, 17.1 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 3.8 APG, .598 TS%, .424 3PT% (!)
He had his best game as a Sixer against his old team, the Miami Heat. In 25 minutes, Richardson scored 32 points on 15 shots (six of seven from three) and four of five from the line. He was +33 in that game where the Sixers beat the brakes, brake pads, and everything else off the Heat.
What has bugged me about Richardson, so far, are the nagging injuries. He had to deal with a hip injury a few weeks ago, and he’s dealing with a hamstring strain right now that has kept him out of the lineup for the last two games and will miss tonight’s game against the Washington Wizards.
Other observations include the Sixers protecting home court this season yet again. The Sixers are 10-0 so far in 2019-2020. This is no surprise considering the team has a 61-21 record at home during the last two seasons.
It’s only been a quarter of the season, but there has been a lot to like and some things to dislike. Plenty more basketball to go, so stock your liquor cabinets, accordingly.