It’s crazy to think that a quarter of the NBA regular season is already over, but here we are. For the most part, the Sixers have impressed. They sit atop the Eastern Conference with a 12-6 record and have gotten some great performances out of faces both new and old. We’ve learned some important things about the team so far. Here are five of the biggest takeaways through 18 games.
Joel Embiid is an MVP contender, but the Sixers still rely too heavily on him
It seems like every year as the season approaches, the same questions circulate around the Sixers’ star center. “Can Embiid’s body hold up through an entire year?” “Has Embiid improved his conditioning?” “Are the Sixers going to live and die by their center again?” These questions are constantly asked, but this year, Joel Embiid seems to have answered two of the three. Seemingly quicker than he has been in years, whenever the center is on the court this year, he has been one of the best players in the league. Embiid has handled double teams exceptionally well this year, something he has struggled with in the past. He has been active on both ends of the court, and when he’s in his zone, there is no player in the league that can truly stop him. The Sixers seem to be taking his health more seriously now. They give him extra rest days and are holding him out of some games in order to keep him ready for the home stretch of the season.
The only issue is that when Embiid sits the team looks lost. An 0-4 record shows that when Embiid isn’t playing the team doesn’t know who to turn to in the guts of the game. Ben Simmons should be that player, but to this point, he hasn’t shown that ability. If the Sixers want to be a true contender in the Eastern Conference, someone else will need to step up and be the man when Joel Embiid is out.
Tobias Harris has looked good thanks to some improved decisiveness
It’s no secret that Tobias Harris has had an up-and-down tenure so far in Philadelphia. Even though he averaged 20 points per game last year, it still felt like every basket Harris made was much harder than it needed to be. That is not the case this year. Playing under his former head coach with the Clippers in Doc Rivers, Harris has reverted back to the player that found so much success in Los Angeles. He is making much quicker decisions and is no longer overthinking everything.
The numbers this year compared to last aren’t much different. Harris is still averaging 20 points, but his feel for the game and fit in this offense is so much better compared to any other year during his time in Philadelphia. Tobias Harris is playing at an All-Star level so far this season, and much of that should be credited to his improved decisiveness.
Tyrese Maxey is the real deal
When Tyrese Maxey fell into the Sixers’ lap on draft night, fans couldn’t have been more excited. The potential of the combo-guard from Kentucky was mouthwatering, and so far all he has done is prove teams around the league wrong for passing up on him. Through the first quarter of the season, Maxey is averaging 10 points, 2 rebounds and 2 assists per game, and has shown off his knack for getting to the rim using his speedy first step. The 3-point percentage is a bit low at only 29 percent, but Maxey is still showing a willingness to shoot the ball even if it’s not always falling. He has settled in nicely to a role as one of the second-unit ball handlers, and has shown the starting upside that many saw in the pre-draft process. Tyrese Maxey is the real deal. He has shown the star potential in his 39-point outburst against the Nuggets, and he is sure to continue to show it throughout the season, even if it’s in a smaller role.
The Sixers finally found a competent backup to Joel Embiid in Dwight Howard
For years, one of the biggest issues the Sixers have constantly faced is what happens when Joel Embiid is off the floor and a backup has to take his spot. They’ve gone down every possible avenue, using former first-round picks in Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel, picking up Greg Monroe off the scrap heap, overpaying Al Horford in an attempt to play the two together, and now paying the veteran’s minimum for Dwight Howard. Thankfully, the team has finally found an answer in Howard, who has been a revelation off of the bench. The future Hall-of-Famer has taken on a mentor role for many of the young players, teaching them the professionalism needed to succeed in the league, as well as how to provide a spark in a moment’s notice as a reserve. Howard obviously comes with his flaws, but for the most part, he has filled in admirably for Embiid, being a terror on the boards as he averages 8 rebounds per game, 2.5 of them being on the offensive end. Obviously, production without Embiid on the court is sure to go down, but Dwight Howard has been able to at least stop that production from completely disappearing.
Ben Simmons’ sudden willingness to shoot 3-pointers hasn’t changed anything
Ben Simmons is such a tough player to really break down. He does a lot of things at a really high level, but at the same time, his complete inability to do other things holds him back from being truly special. Simmons is a menace on the fast break, he plays defense at an All-NBA level and he knows how to get all of his teammates involved. But at the same time, he often dribbles into trouble with no plan, he doesn’t attempt to get to the free throw line as often as he should, and often times, he seems unwilling to shoot any form of jumper. Media and fans alike have pleaded with Simmons to shoot the ball more in an attempt to keep defenses honest, and it seems like Simmons is finally warming up to the idea of shooting from deep more often. Now don’t get me wrong, he isn’t shooting five shots from 3-point range per game, but he is letting them fly a bit more frequently.
Through 18 games, Simmons has shot six 3-pointers, one less than he did in 57 games last year. While the willingness to shoot the ball is nice, it still hasn’t changed how defenses play against him. Defenses simply aren't threatened by the thought of Ben Simmons shooting jumpers, so until he starts making them a bit more frequently and consistently shooting them, nothing much has really changed.