The Sixers now have the best starting five in the Eastern Conference was something more than one analyst or talking head said in the wake of the Sixers’ trade for Tobias Harris. That may continue to be the case even though the trade came before the Toronto Raptors made a couple seismic additions to their bench by adding Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin and before starter Pascal Siakam erupted for 44 points last night. It remains to be seen how the Milwaukee Bucks will look when Nikola Mirotic is healthy. Recent play by Boston’s Gordon Hayward suggests there may be room for growth in their core as well.
Philadelphia’s roster still feels a bit incomplete. They may have overestimated their ability to add a difference maker in the buyout market. They could still really really use a two-way back court player to slow down opposing guards and knock down open shots.
The team doesn’t have a ton of time to gel either. At 37-21 there are just 24 games left. It would help if the Indiana Pacers begin fading down the stretch so Philadelphia could lock up home court for round one and possibly avoid their nemesis the Boston Celtics.
Let’s put things in perspective though. The Sixers new starting unit has only played 4 games and just 73 minutes on the floor together. Can we fairly evaluate them at all? Probably not. But as Sixers fans we have been pretty patient for a long time so you’ll forgive us if the expedited timeline Elton Brand has pushed for has made us less patient and we’re already wondering about playoff basketball.
So where do they stack up?
Per Nate Silver’s model at 538.com the 76ers have an 11% chance to make the finals. Surprisingly, that’s higher than the Celtics’s 10 percent and maybe more surprisingly it’s about 4 times lower than the Raptors’ 42 percent. Silver’s model gives Milwaukee a 37 percent shot to win the East. Per some betting markets like Mybookie.ag the Sixers’ odds of +290 trail the Raptors and Bucks (+220 each). Boston comes in 4th here as well (+320).
So if some statistical models are giving the Sixers an 11% shot at making the finals and some betting markets are suggesting their implied odds are closer to 26% maybe the truth is in between those figures. Because they trail Milwaukee and Toronto in the standings and have to do some lineup experimenting they’ll probably be on the road for at least two series should they make the finals. Somewhere in between 16 and 23 percent maybe? That feels about right to me.
How has the starting unit fared?
The starting group of Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, JJ Redick and Ben Simmons together played 17 minutes in their debut against Denver and finished a +14. They played 13 min vs the Lakers and wound up a +3. They logged 23 min vs Boston and finished as +4, and vs. the Knicks they outscored New York by 23 in their 20 total minutes.
So in total they’ve outscored opponents by 44 points in 73 minutes. If you don’t count the Knicks as an NBA team because they’re finally trying to imitate “The Process” it’s still 53 min for a +21.
Not bad. In 51 minutes over the last week a starting unit of Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Danny Green and Serge Ibaka posted a +4.
The playoffs will be different
But the pace of basketball slows down as the weather warms. Pace data from 2018 courtesy of Liberty Ballers own Andrew Patton:
You can see that as the season progresses the game slows and when the playoffs begin (the dotted line) it grinds to a near halt.
Half court offense and defense becomes more important when you’re playing against a very motivated elite team with at least one day’s rest. That is where the Sixers will need to improve as a starting (and more importantly closing) five.
Film: playoff type plays
Here was a bit of chemistry displayed by the starters in the second quarter against Boston. Nice two-man action between Simmons and Redick which creates a good look, and Rozier forgets about Jimmy who gets the one handed tip-jam. The Sixers create some matchup issues because of all their size:
And here below are two possessions that really resemble the NBA playoffs. Let them both play in a row. On the first, Al Horford gets a mismatch and uses his size to pound Butler. Followed by a shot-clock beater from Harris operating on Marcus Morris, where he wins by getting to his spot and stopping on a dime. Hitting lots of well contested shots is part of winning in April through June:
Here is one for the Sixers to address below. Terry Rozier uses a screen, waits for Embiid to help then buys all day for Al Horford to shoot an open 3. This is really difficult for the Sixers to defend and will become exponentially harder to stop if Kyrie Irving replaces Rozier:
Three in a row vs the Lakers from last weekend. Let the video below play:
The first is something we’ll see plenty of in the playoffs. Simmons occupies the “dunker” spot with shooters giving Joel room to work. McGee is huge but can’t hold his ground like Al Horford can.
On the next the Sixers display beautiful passing in a slow-developing transition opportunity. The unselfishness results in a wide open triple for Harris in the corner.
And on the third, a defensive mistake. Joel is anticipating that Simmons and Redick won’t be able to slow the side screen-n-roll and he’s right. But he leaves McGee who offers plenty in vertical spacing. I’m not sure if Brett Brown would like Harris to leave Kyle Kuzma to help but I doubt he’d have time to anyway.
There isn’t much data or film to work with yet and Brett Brown will certainly continue to tinker with his rotations, in hopes of finding winning lineup combos. The team can enjoy a well-deserved break, rest up and study some film. They don’t play again until they host Miami next Thursday (aside from All-Star appearances for Embiid and Simmons).
The Sixers front office prioritized star power, and they have not yet been able to consistently bolster the backcourt with the requisite help they need. They’ll certainly need one of Jonathon Simmons, James Ennis or eventually Zhaire Smith to provide reliable two-way play Brown can turn to in the playoffs.
But because their starting five is now so good and will likely continue to gel with practice, hitting on even a couple of these bench players could be the difference between another second round exit or the Eastern Conference Finals and beyond. That’s a position lots of teams would like to be in.