Things are off to a rip-roaring start for Doc Rivers’ Sixers in his first season as head coach in Philadelphia. The Sixers are 5-1, with wins over Washington, New York, Toronto, Orlando and Charlotte. The team’s lone loss was an ugly, Joel Embiid-less blowout at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
While competition hasn’t been the stiffest and we’re dealing with a rather miniature sample size, this sampling has afforded us with a handful of insights to glean.
So here are six takeaways from the Sixers’ first six games of the season.
1. Joel Embiid is ready to take a leap
No sign has been more encouraging for the Sixers than the performance of its best player, thus far. Not only has Embiid feasted on inferior one-on-one competition (Thomas Bryant, Mitchell Robinson, Nikola Vucevic, et al.), but Embiid showed up big time in the Sixers’ biggest test yet, against the Toronto Raptors and nemesis Aron Baynes. The big man was massive in that game, racking up 29 points, 16 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks and 2 steals en route to a +15 in the Sixers’ seven-point, comeback win. It was a game we’ve seen the Sixers lose a thousand times, but Embiid (and standout Tobias Harris) wouldn’t let them.
He seems to be extremely well-conditioned to start the year (conditioning, of course, has long been Embiid’s bugaboo). He’s also scoring efficiently and passing better than ever out of the post. So far, he’s been routinely making smart and effective passes when opponents are forced to double-team him. For years, he’s flirted with being an MVP candidate. This seems to be the season he actually vaults himself into that conversation.
2. Ben Simmons looks like Ben Simmons
- Simmons looks fully healthy and up-to-speed, which is a welcome sight after Simmons finished last season on the shelf following major injuries to his back and knee.
- His defense continues to look tops in the league; he’s shown the attributes that emerged last year to make him a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.
- The Sixers’ new additions have been benefiting from Simmons’ playmaking especially in transition, where #25 is best.
- Simmons’ offensive game is no different than it has been since he’s come into the league. He is no more willing a shooter from any meaningful distance (save for a made corner three versus Orlando), he’s continued to shy away from contact on drives — instead opting for midair passes or fadeaway hook shots — and he’s not improved his free throw frequency or aptitude in any major way.
Simmons continues to be really good, and will be even more effective with teammates that make much more sense this year. He has not, however, taken any big step toward becoming the elite perimeter initiator this team will need in the playoffs.
3. Seth Curry fits right in
It’s not surprising, given his career accomplishments to date, but it has been a joy to watch Seth Curry fit in so seamlessly among the Sixers’ two stars. While Curry doesn’t provide the 100-MPH sprinting off screens and shooting off movement that the Sixers enjoyed with JJ Redick, Curry has shown to be much more adept handling the ball and finding his own shot than Redick.
It’s quite early, of course, but Curry has been scorching hot to start the season, averaging 16.2 points and 4 assists per game on 51.5 percent shooting from three-point range thus far. Curry has quickly become a main beneficiary of the attention garnered by Simmons and Embiid in the half court, and he’s been freeing himself early and often as an outlet from range. As familiarity grows among the threesome, expect Curry’s value to continue to rise.
4. Dwight Howard has been a welcome (if limited) addition
It feels rather odd to be writing about Dwight Howard, glue guy.
Following years of stardom that have pointed Howard toward a surefire Hall Of Fame bid, the big man was pretty universally disliked in NBA locker rooms, as his ego and delusions of grandeur would often irritate those he played with. Prior to last season, Howard was humbled as he agreed to a minimum-level, one-year contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, contingent on Howard not causing any problems off the court. The rest is history, of course, as Howard became a team leader and cog in the machine for the eventual champion Lakers.
Now in Philadelphia, Howard has received nothing but rave reviews for his character and moxy behind the scenes. On the court, he’s become a key member of the Sixers’ bench, bringing boundless energy to the rim on both ends of the court, and injecting the team with an offensive-rebounding threat the city hasn’t seen since Reggie Evans.
As a starter, versus Cleveland, Howard was exposed. He fouls quite often, and wasn’t up to the task of slowing Andre Drummond. He lacks the offensive versatility one might hope for in an Embiid replacement. In my mind, though, if Embiid is out for any meaningful games, this team’s hopes are dashed, anyway.
Overall, Howard has been a wonderful addition both on and off the court since his arrival.
5. Shake Milton is legit
Last season, it was easy to get romanced by the Shake Milton mania. On both sides of the COVID-19 shutdown, the Sixers were a team desperate for a spark and Milton provided just that, with standout efforts against the LA Clippers and Lakers last spring.
Entering this year, Doc Rivers and Daryl Morey lusted after Milton in the media, time and again extolling his virtues and the versatile, fluid elements he brought to the team’s offense.
Milton has not disappointed. While he’s not off to a hot shooting start (only about 30 percent from deep through six games), Milton has shown that his steady hand with the controls of the offense last season was not apparition. Awarded the role of the Sixers’ sixth man, Shake seems fully up to the task. He’s shown value both with and without the ball, and his defense has been much, much improved thanks to the weight he added in the offseason which now better allows him to take advantage of his seven-foot wingspan. Expect Milton’s shooting numbers to rise as he continues to carve out a large role on the Sixers.
6. Tyrese Maxey needs to keep firing
A pleasant surprise in the early-going has been Tyrese Maxey — the rookie guard whom the Sixers drafted 21st overall in November’s NBA draft. Maxey adds an element sorely missing from the team otherwise: penetration. He has the savviness and guile of a player much older, and has already shown real aptitude in getting to the rim and in utilizing his devastating floater in traffic when the defense collapses.
The one thing Maxey needs to improve is his willingness to shoot from beyond the arc. It’s happened a few times this season that the ball has rotated to Maxey with some space to shoot, and he’s instead opted to pump-fake and drive into the lane. The Sixers will need Maxey to iron out the kinks on his jump shot by working through the growing pains that may leave his percentage from beyond a bit lacking. Spacing is vital to this Sixers team, and Doc Rivers needs his guards to do their best to capitalize on open threes when opportunities arise. Despite only hitting bottom on one three thus far, Maxey should trust that the best way to further cement his place in the rotation is to take open looks when they’re in front of him.