Here we are, Sixers fans. Exactly halfway through the abridged and condensed 72-game NBA season, and your Philadelphia 76ers are 24-12 heading into the All-Star break, following a rollicking overtime victory over the NBA-best Utah Jazz on Wednesday night.
The teams sits atop the Eastern Conference by only half a game, as it’s so far been able to fend off the surging Brooklyn Nets.
While I’m sure Sixers head coach Doc Rivers and President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey are far from content, it’s hard to complain about how the first half of the season went. There are strides to be made — Rivers can kibosh the all-bench units that have struggled mightily in recent weeks (save for an excellent stint in the second half against Utah); Morey can either visit the bargain bin for rotation reinforcements, or go big game hunting and try to acquire a starting guard — but the team is in an excellent spot heading into the break.
So let’s take a look at each player who has played meaningful minutes for the Sixers thus far, and suss out how they’ve contributed to the team’s hot start.
The raw numbers, per game: 30.2 pts, 11.6 reb, 3.3 ast, 1.4 blk, 1.2 stl, 33 mp
Halfway through the season, Joel Embiid is the Most Valuable Player in the league. I will hear an argument for Nikola Jokic — yet ultimately argue that Embiid’s massive defensive impact and blistering scoring efficiency give Joel the nod. I will not hear an argument for LeBron James, who is having a perfectly normal LeBron James season. The narrative trumpeted in the national media in favor of James’ candidacy hinges largely on the fact that James is playing great basketball while also being old (36). That’s great, but this isn’t the Cecil B. Demille award for a lifetime achievement in the basketball arts. It’s an award that rewards the player who had the best season, and there is absolutely no statistical case that supports ranking James above Joel. I digress. Embiid is not only having a great season for a 76er or for a big man or for a new dad, he is having an absolutely historic season, period.
Embiid at the All-Star break: 30.2 PPG and 31.2 PER. On pace for an absolutely historic season. https://t.co/L8jgLxVNCo— Andrew Unterberger (@AUgetoffmygold) March 4, 2021
Joel Embiid is on pace to join 2015-16 Stephen Curry as the only players to average 30 points on 50% shooting and 40% on 3-pointers in a season.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) March 5, 2021
Steph was the unanimous MVP that season
(h/t @ESPNStatsInfo) pic.twitter.com/0chMRavhsp
His shooting from every area has been tops, he’s shooting the most free throws in the league, he’s anchoring a top-5 defense, he’s shooting over 40 percent from three. All the usual caveats apply: he must keep it up, he must stay healthy, et al. But Embiid just concluded an unassailable half-season and punctuated it by grinding two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert into a fine dust in an overtime victory. Keep it up, big man.
The raw numbers, per game: 16.1 pts, 7.9 reb, 7.8 ast, 0.7 blk, 1.6 stl, 33.9 mp
Shrouded in swirling rumors of being routed to Houston in exchange for perennial MVP candidate James Harden, Simmons had a particularly rough start to the season. Some guessed that the chatter was in his head, clouding his ability to focus on basketball; others suggested that perhaps he was still recovering from the back and knee injuries which hampered the latter portion of Simmons’ prior season. Whatever it was, he didn’t look himself, and his poor start was particularly disheartening for Sixers fans who’d hoped for an improved version of Simmons this year.
Well, after the Harden trade landed the star in Brooklyn rather than Philadelphia, Simmons has broken out of his slump and looked like a different player. He still isn’t shooting, but what he is doing is attacking the basket with an aptitude and frequency we’ve never seen from Ben. He’s been playing under control, finding his teammates for open threes, and converting free throws at a higher rate than ever before. As for his defense, Simmons has been better than ever, guarding every position on the floor not only willingly but excitedly. This versatility has garnered him some glitzy league-wide recognition, lately:
https://t.co/wWGNmWnCY9’s updated Defensive Player Ladder:— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) March 2, 2021
1) Ben Simmons
2) Rudy Gobert
3) Myles Turner
4) LeBron James
5) Jamal Murray
Time will tell whether or not Simmons can keep up his excellent play on both sides of the ball, but he has been incredibly effective — especially lately.
Last offseason I wrote that the most meaningful improvement that could occur with the Sixers would be internal ‘leaps’ from Embiid and Simmons. Halfway through the season, those leaps have come to pass, and they’re the main reason the Sixers sit atop the East.
The raw numbers, per game: 20.2 pts, 7.6 reb, 3.4 ast, 0.8 blk, 0.8 stl, 34.4 mp
Many fans had hoped for an improved version of Tobias Harris this season, as he was reunited with the coach who’d brought the most out of him in Doc Rivers. Those fans have gotten what they wanted, as Harris is in the midst of his best professional season in year 9. His improved efficiency — coupled with the team’s conference lead — put Harris right on the brink of the All-Star discussion. He sadly fell short of that goal, but has improved his shooting to the degree that he’s become an invaluable member of the Sixers’ core. As one of the few Sixers who can get his own shot, he has become the team’s go-to option from the perimeter late in games (Harris outscored Utah in overtime 11-5, himself). While he hasn’t begun to bomb away 8 threes a game, he is converting his 4 attempted threes per contest at a 40 percent rate, while sinking 88 percent of his free throws. Daryl Morey’s quick expulsion of Al Horford has allowed Harris to play power forward exclusively for the Sixers — the role best suited for his skill set.
The raw numbers, per game: 8.5 pts, 3.6 reb, 1.7 ast, 0.8 blk, 1.3 stl, 28.3 mp
The Danny Green experience is something. Within a single game, he will be in all the right places on offense and defense, hit open shots, defend his man, and then completely forget how basketball is played for 1-2 five second increments. It’s wild. Overall, Green has been a net positive for the Sixers, as his quick shooting (6 attempted threes per game) and semi-versatile defense have been valuable for the team. At this point in his career, Green gets exposed when playing one-on-one defense against a good scorer, but as a good team defender who makes 37 percent of his threes on high volume, he’s fit in quite nicely on most nights.
The raw numbers, per game: 12.5 pts, 2.0 reb, 2.8 ast, 0.3 blk, 0.9 stl, 29.9 mp
It was an up-and-down first half for Seth Curry, who was shooting scorching hot from everywhere on the court to start, then contracted COVID-19, and has been inconsistent since. Overall, Curry has been a positive addition for the Sixers. He’s shooting nearly 45 percent from deep and is an effortful (although not particularly good) defender. A gripe that fans have had is that Curry doesn’t have the quickest trigger, and his slight frame makes it easy for the guard to get bumped off of his spot from beyond, thus settling for more midrange shots than many have an appetite for. He only attempts 4.5 threes per game, so he’s not hoisting them at the rate of JJ Redick in his Sixers heyday. But overall, Curry relocates well off the ball and has hit a few big shots for the Sixers down the stretch, often availing himself of open space beyond the arc during Joel Embiid post-ups.
The raw numbers, per game: 13.8 pts, 2.1 reb, 3 ast, 0.3 blk, 0.6 stl, 25.1 mp
The main improvement I’ve seen from Shake thus far this year is his defense. It hasn’t exactly amounted to big numbers on the stat sheet, but the added muscle that he built up over the offseason has made Milton far more competitive on the defensive end of the court. The added strength allows him to more effectively utilize his long wingspan to effect shots. The one part of his game that hasn’t carried over from last season is his three-point accuracy — he’s at 31 percent on the year, down 12 full percentage points from last season. Milton has remained effective at playing both on and off ball, however, and has entrenched himself as the Sixers’ sixth man. On nights that Shake has it going and a vet like Danny Green doesn’t, Rivers has been willing to let Milton supplant Green in the team’s crunch time lineup. Those lineups (Sixers 4 usual starters plus Shake in place of Green) have been fruitful, thus far:
not 100% sold on curry being locked into this lineup, but last night's closing group has been outrageous pic.twitter.com/SHAIoiUUBR— Ben Detrick (@bdetrick) March 4, 2021
The raw numbers, per game: 6.1 pts, 7.3 reb, 0.8 ast, 0.9 blk, 0.4 stl, 15.9 mp
I may be in the minority, but I am loving the Dwight Howard experience. Every game, Dwight gets in there, fouls everyone in sight, protects the rim, and rebounds like a madman. There are matchups where Howard will get exposed (particularly when an opposing team goes small) and his penchant for fouling might grow more grating in the playoffs, but as a veteran-minimum level signing, Howard has done his job for the Sixers. 7.3 rebounds in 15.9 minutes per game is insane. I’d like for Morey to grab a stretch-5 option for the Sixers to deploy on nights Howard doesn’t have it, but I’m in no rush to spend the team’s precious few tradable assets to do so.
The raw numbers, per game: 8 pts, 2.4 reb, 0.8 ast, 0.2 blk, 0.6 stl, 18.7 mp
Not much to report on Korkmaz. He’s a more than willing shooter from deep, which this team certainly needs. His percentage from beyond has dipped this season to 34 percent on 4.5 attempts per contest. When Doc Rivers has run the all-bench lineup for extended periods, Korkmaz has often been overtaxed by being entrusted with creating offense on his own. I’d expect his shooting percentage to tick up, but given his one-way ability I would be surprised if Korkmaz is part of the rotation come playoff time.
The raw numbers, per game: 3.1 pts, 1.5 reb, 0.9 ast, 0.9 blk, 1.4 stl, 18.1 mp
Speaking of one-way ability, how about Matisse Thybulle? It’s a tale of two players. On defense, Thybulle is a singular talent: stealing from and blocking opponents at unprecedented rates. There are games (like when the Sixers beat the Pacers without Embiid) that Thybulle completely changes the game by creating pure chaos on the court. On others, he gambles too much defensively to make up for being a total zero on offense. He’s athletic enough to convert some straight line drives to the rim and finish some alley-oops, but that’s about it. He’s shooting 26 percent from three-point range and 36 percent from the field. He’s an enigma. His raw talent and defensive versatility likely make it difficult to keep Thybulle out of the playoff rotation. If he could convert a league average percentage from three, he’d be a surefire starter in this league.
The raw numbers, per game: 4.3 pts, 2.8 reb, 0.3 ast, 0.1 blk, 0.5 stl, 17.4 mp
There’s not a ton to write home about in reference to Scott’s first half. He has played better lately (my colleague Daniel Olinger recently chronicled his uptick in effectiveness), but overall has been fairly negative on the court for the Sixers. He isn’t a particularly good defender or rebounder, so if he isn’t making shots from the outside, he isn’t doing you much good. He is up to 38 percent from three on the season, to his credit. The bet here is that Scott isn’t long for this roster, as his $5 million expiring contract makes him a likely fit for most meaningful trade deadline improvements that will be available to Morey.
The raw numbers, per game: 8 pts, 1.9 reb, 1.8 ast, 0.2 blk, 0.5 stl, 16.2 mp
Maxey is now firmly out of the Sixers’ usual 10-man rotation, due in large part to his hesitancy to fire from three-point range (only 27 percent on 1.7 attempts per game), coupled with the rookie blunders that have been unavoidable at times for the 20-year-old. As the Sixers try their damndest to hold onto the #1 seed, there isn’t much opportunity for experimenting with a player like Maxey and allowing for the growing pains that are attendant with any rookie ball-handler. As I’m still bullish on Maxey long-term (he’s shown some awesome flashes so far), I’m thinking this will likely serve as a redshirt year for him to learn to ropes in the NBA and step into a solidified role on next season’s team.