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Checking in on where various Sixers fall across The Athletic’s NBA Player Tiers

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2021 NBA Playoffs - Philadelphia 76ers v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

This week, Seth Partnow of The Athletic is releasing the site’s top-125 list of NBA players. Interestingly, rather than going through and ranking every player 1-through-125, Partnow opts to separate groups of players into tiers — he even goes as far as to include a paragraph entitled “THESE ARE NOT RANKINGS(!!!).” You can read Partnow’s full explanation for doing so in the opening section released Monday, which is all rather analytical and well-thought-out, but in his heart, I imagine he just wanted to cut down on the number of comments along the lines of “You ranked Player A 48th, and Player B 41st?!? What an idiot!!!” As someone who has written on the internet for a fair amount of years now, I applaud the thinking.

Anyway, the Philadelphia 76ers have all five starters ranked within the top-125 (at least until some team meets Daryl Morey’s asking price in a Ben Simmons trade). The series is not complete, but we can all assume MVP runner-up Joel Embiid will be found somewhere in Tier 1 or 2, among the top 19 players in the league. Distinctions between individual spots get very fine when you approach the apex of the NBA pyramid, so it’ll be interesting to see how those top two tiers shake up, and anything but a Tier 1 rating for Embiid will warrant pitchforks.

For now, though, let’s go through the other Sixers starters and see where they shook out.

Danny Green — Tier 5: 80-125

This tier is interesting as it’s a random hodgepodge of youngsters clearly on their way up (Tyrese Haliburton, Anthony Edwards, Kevin Huerter), fading, but still useful veterans (Blake Griffin, Marcus Morris Sr., Nic Batum), and role players, of which Green would be classified as a quintessential 3-and-D archetype. I have no problem with Green here as the fifth-best starter on the one-seed in the East.

Tobias Harris — Tier 4B: 57-79
Seth Curry — Tier 4A: 37-56

Partnow likely goes against the grain here with having Curry a subtier higher than Harris. I’ll include his quick explanation of the subtier system:

“As with Tiers 2 and 3 to come, Tier 4 is split into multiple — in this case, two — subtiers. This is meant to signify that most team constructs would prefer the players in Tier 4A to those in Tier 4B, but in the right circumstances, it might go the other way. A team with plenty of shot creation already might prefer Mikal Bridges to Julius Randle, but with primacy and outsized importance of Randle’s creative abilities in today’s games, more would probably prefer him. But regardless of circumstances, the preference for players in 4A over those in 4B is not nearly as strong as for those in 4B over Tier 5 or for those in Tier 3 over Tier 4A. The subtiers signify a difference in ability and contribution that should be recognized, but not of a size that puts the groups in completely different strata.”

Harris was grouped with the Bogdanovics (Bogdan and Bojan) in the “Wing almost-stars” group. Here’s Partnow’s breakdown:

“This is a group of players who can get efficient buckets in a variety of ways. They may even do a little playmaking and run a second-unit offense, but there’s just a little something extra missing. In the case of Tobias Harris and Bojan Bogdanovic, they may not have quite the same impact in the postseason both have been about 30 points less efficient in terms of True Shooting Percentage in the playoffs relative to the regular season. In the case of Bogdan Bogdanovic, we need to see a higher overall level of involvement considering his surprisingly low 21.6 career usage rate.

In a way, this group represents the entire purpose behind this sort of comparative exercise; if a player at this level is a team’s second-best player, he probably isn’t going anywhere. Third-best and it could go either way. Fourth-best and now we’re cooking. At present, Bogdan Bogdanovic appears most likely to be able to slot into that kind of role should some of the young Hawks continue to take steps forward, while the other two have been relied upon perhaps a little too much to the detriment of their current team’s postseason progress.”

Meanwhile, Curry was placed in the “Stars in their roles” group, alongside Fred VanVleet, Joe Harris, Joe Ingles, and Robert Covington. We’ll again go to Partnow to read his thinking:

“The term “role player” is so expansive and malleable it has lost all meaning. If everyone from Duncan Robinson to elite defensive centers like [REDACTED PLAYER IN FUTURE TIER!] are included in the category, what can it possibly mean? Still, there is some distinction to be made, at least on the perimeter. This division is primarily between guys who can operate as primary, ball-in-hands offensive engines and those who can’t. The latter are termed “role players” for lack of a better term.

This group represents the best of that class, with two of the elite all-around shooters in today’s game (Joe Harris and Seth Curry), two others who combine deadly open shooting with high-level secondary creation skills (Fred VanVleet and Joe Ingles) and one of the elite off-ball defensive swingmen (Robert Covington). A common danger with players such as these is they are so good at what they do well — all are in the top 75 in 3-year RAPM, indicating their high degree of effectiveness in performing the roles assigned to them — that there is a temptation to ask them to do too much.

Perhaps the best case in point is with Covington, whose defensive reputation is appropriately robust but often misunderstood. Several times in recent playoff runs, he has been asked to be an on-ball stopper, which is a misuse of his talents. His length and defensive feel make him a great passing lane irritant and weakside rim protector, but his relative lack of lateral quickness and slight frame leave him as a less than ideal candidate to lock a top scorer down.”

The relative value debate between Seth and Tobi is a fascinating one. In the regular season, everyone would have placed Harris above Curry in a landslide, but as Partnow pointed out, Tobias has a poor history in the playoffs, where we just saw Seth act as the team’s second-best player. Curry’s gravity as a shooter obviously helps an offense in ways that Tobias, while generally an effective offensive player himself, doesn’t. However, with the size and strength advantage, Tobias is much less likely to be exploited on the defensive end, something that did hurt the Sixers in regards to Curry in the Atlanta series (which we obviously forgave Seth for because he was one of only two guys doing anything for the team offensively for long stretches). I would still probably slot Tobias higher, but I could see it going either way, which I probably wouldn’t have said before reading this series.

Ben Simmons — Tier 3C: 31-36

You see that, rest of NBA? Tier 3C!!! Give us your superstar and/or all your draft picks!!! Thanks to the playoff performance from hell, Ben has dropped from last year’s Tier 3A: 20-23. There is a lot to digest in Partnow’s analysis of Simmons:

“I think the pendulum has swung much too far against both Ben Simmons and Pascal Siakam in the public consciousness, both being defined much more by who they are not and what they cannot do. So let’s start there.

Neither player has demonstrated the ability to carry a team’s offense on his own. For the second straight season, Siakam was asked to do so by the Raptors, and while he made a good show of it in 2019-20, the jump shot that largely deserted him in the Orlando bubble did not much resurface in 2020-21. So it’s been pretty conclusively demonstrated that he can’t be the alpha scorer on a contending team. But it has been equally well-illustrated that, asked to be an opportunistic scorer and highly impactful defender — Siakam is 14th in dRAPM over the last three seasons — he can be an enormously positive presence as the second- or third-best player on a title team. He’s already done it!

In an informal poll of some league folks over the first few days of summer league, I learned there was some consensus that, ignoring contract status, Siakam would be more helpful to a team with genuine title aspirations than the forwards in Tier 4 such as Randle and Brandon Ingram, which is the entire point of this endeavor. As mentioned earlier, it is a given that players in this tier need to be sidekicks, not the main superhero, and that’s a role that, to this point, fits Siakam perfectly.

Simmons is a bit more extreme both in terms of the positives — he is quite possibly the most versatile and valuable perimeter defender in the league — and the negatives. You may have seen, heard or read that he struggles to shoot and at times avoids even attempting to score out of apparent skittishness over getting fouled. The pairing with Joel Embiid is highly imperfect, as the same spacing ability Simmons lacks is among the skills most needed to play with and off the most dominant post scorer in the game today. But the lack of fit between the two is far from total.

They make a formidable core for having a top defense, and when right and engaged, Simmons can drive transition offense about as well as anyone else in the league aside from Westbrook. Moreover, attempts to integrate the two stars into the same offensive concept could have been more creative over the last few years. I don’t know if the Sixers’ present roster will permit the sort of experimentation needed to allow the pair to fully succeed, so it is possible Simmons needs a fresh start somewhere else, but whoever trades for him could reap the benefit of unlocking his multitudinous talents in a more space-heavy system and context.”

I agree that the perception around Ben has dropped too far because of recency bias, given how terribly he played against Atlanta. People were throwing out trades like “Average Player X and a late first-round pick,” as if he weren’t still just 25 years old, having made the All-Star game in three of his four seasons.

However, I hate how the “lack of fit with Embiid” is still used as a crutch for Simmons. Embiid has done what he needed to do to help alleviate the issue, improving his outside shot to the point where he made 37.7 percent of his 3s last season (and 39.0 percent in the playoffs). On the other hand, Simmons simply refuses to even attempt outside shots despite shooting them during every summer, practice, and warmup session. He regressed to historically bad levels at the free throw line, and was so in his head about things that he stopped even driving to the hoop, only attempting a total of 14 shots across the final three playoff games. I’m sure a change of scenery will help, but those things aren’t due to the fit with Embiid.

Be sure to read this entire series on The Athletic, as just thinking about these Sixers was extremely thought-provoking, and there are, you know, 29 other teams to consider. Also, keep a lookout for the final section to drop tomorrow so we can all defend The Process (Joel, not the Hinkie movement, hopefully we don’t have to do that again tomorrow).