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Sixers Check-In: Seventh 10 Games

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Philadelphia appears to be rounding into form at the right time

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Philadelphia 76ers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Every ten games, we’ll be checking in with how the team has been playing recently, looking at trends in style of play, shifts in the rotation, etc. You can look back at past analyses: first ten games, second ten games, third ten games, fourth ten games, fifth ten games, sixth ten games.

While there has curiously been as much hand-wringing as bell-ringing during this Sixers season, the team looks to be inarguably rounding into form at the right time. Entering the home stretch of the regular season, Philadelphia has notched yet another winning 10-game stretch of basketball, going 7-3 across their last 10 games, the first six occurring without the services of Joel Embiid.

The Sixers now hold a 45-25 record on the year, 1.5 games ahead of the Indiana Pacers for the third seed in the East. The Pacers finally look to be feeling the impact of Victor Oladipo’s injury, as they have entered a brutal part of their schedule and gone just 4-6 across their last ten games.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia has won four straight games since Embiid’s return to the lineup, including wins over Indiana and Sacramento at home, and Milwaukee on the road. Sunday’s high-profile win over the Bucks seems to have re-established Philadelphia as a legitimate threat for contention in the eyes of the national media, but last weekend’s victory over the Pacers was perhaps more crucial, as it secured the season-series tiebreaker over Nate McMillan’s club.

The new starting lineup continues to rain hellfire on the opposition, now sitting with a plus-17.2 net rating across 116 minutes of action. James Ennis III won the quiet tournament, rounding out the rotation with solid contributions off the bench and in his lone spot start. Mike Scott has emerged has a cult favorite. Zhaire Smith almost played in an NBA game. The third seed is firmly within the team’s grasp, vitally meaning Philadelphia would avoid the Kryptonite-lined green jerseys of the Boston Celtics in a first-round matchup. To paraphrase Liberty Ballers alumnus Mike Levin, this is as good a time as any to enjoy a sport in Philadelphia.

With those good tidings out of the way, let’s take a look at the numbers (stats are for the last 10 games, compared to the season as a whole, and as of 3/18/2019):

Offensive rating: 107.8 - 22nd in NBA (Season: 111.2 - 10th in NBA)
Defensive rating: 104.6 - 3rd (108.0 - 10th)
Net rating: +3.2 - 10th (+3.2 - 10th)

Pace: 103.30 - 6th (102.71 - 7th)
eFG%: 50.7% - 26th (53.4% - 8th)
FTA rate: 0.262 - 17th (0.314 - 2nd)
TOV%: 15.3% - 29th (15.0% - 26th)
OREB%: 31.2% - 1st (27.8% - 11th)
OPP eFG%: 49.8% - 4th (50.8% - 2nd)
OPP FTA rate: 0.259 - 14th (0.266 - 20th)
OPP TOV%: 11.9% - 28th (12.7% - 27th)
OPP OREB%: 24.1% - 3rd (26.2% - 8th)

What jumps out to me here is the drop-off in free throw rate, which you can almost directly point to Joel Embiid’s extended absence as a cause. The big man is second in the league to James Harden in terms of free throw attempts per 100 possessions. However, Embiid himself has even been less present at the charity stripe since his return, going from 13.5 FTA/100 possessions on the season, to 10.4 across the last four games. On the eye test, he has seemed to spend more time on the perimeter rather than taking increased physical punishment down low, which may be a product of wanting to stay healthy for the postseason.

Such a strategy would make all the sense in the world, given the fact that Embiid being at full strength is the most important factor in the Sixers making a deep playoff run. It will be interesting to see if this reduction was just a small sample size, or if it persists throughout the rest of the regular season, and if so, whether Embiid returns to his significant foul-drawing ways come the postseason.

James Ennis III — The only tournament winner in March we care about

Heading into Philadelphia’s March 6 game against Chicago is when Brett Brown seemingly made up his mind to go with Ennis as the team’s backup wing the rest of the way. Emerging ahead of the injured Furkan Korkmaz and the consistently frustrating Jonathon Simmons as the quiet tournament victor, Ennis has received at least 14 minutes of burn in each of the six games since then (all subsequent stats listed refer to that six-game stretch unless otherwise specified).

Ennis has averaged 7.5 points on 50.0 percent shooting, and 5.2 rebounds; if you want to pinpoint why the Sixers have been so excellent on the both sides of the glass of late (see the team numbers above), look no further than Ennis. His 10.7 OREB% is third on the team, only behind backup centers Amir Johnson and Boban Marjanovic, and his 15.8 DREB% is fifth on the team, with only centers ahead of him again in Embiid, Boban, Jonah Bolden, and Johnson.

Now, Ennis is by no means a perfect player. While a willing defender, his 5.8 fouls per 36 minutes is only ahead of deep bench guys Justin Patton and Amir Johnson. At that rate, you’re not going to be able to see extended minutes from him. He’s also not a knock-down shooter, only shooting 28.6 percent from 3 (26.1 percent overall as a Sixer). Still, Ennis has shot 35.7 percent for his career from downtown, so there’s hope this is just a slight cold spell for him. And anyway, you can deal with below average 3-point shooting if all a guy does is shoot 3s and dunk — that Daryl Morey-esque philosophy is why Ennis has a team-best 56.3 eFG%.

Elton Brand’s much-publicized deals for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris rightfully receive much of the attention from media and fans alike. However, his relatively under-the-radar pre-deadline deal with Houston for James Ennis is also having a positive impact on the team as it prepares for playoff action.

Stats courtesy of NBA.com/Stats.