After two games against their top opponents in the Eastern Conference, and two of the league’s best defenses, the Sixers are 0-2 to start their 2022-23 campaign.
The Sixers clearly have a ton of offensive potential this season, but they haven’t been at their best just yet. A lackluster first two games from Joel Embiid has been at the forefront of this so far. He simply hasn't looked nearly as sharp as his MVP-runner-up self, at either end of the floor. And on offense he’s committed some careless turnovers and forced some bad shots in isolation. We’ve now found out from Doc Rivers, though, that Embiid had plantar fasciitis this summer which has hindered his conditioning to start the season. There are still some changes Embiid could’ve made to his approach the last two games, but hopefully he can get back into top shape soon. He’s also had slower starts to previous seasons before settling into dominant form. Right now, it looks like he just needs some time.
The obvious offensive highlight for the Sixers so far is how good James Harden has been. Over the first two games of 2022-23, he’s looked like a different player compared to last season. After a 35-point showing in the season opener, he tallied 31 points, eight rebounds and nine assists against the Bucks on Thursday.
Harden looks a bit quicker and more aggressive attacking downhill, his shot creation from three has been effective, his passing has been stellar as usual, and he’s importantly mixed up his shot profile by using quite a few more mid-range jumpers and floaters to good effect. Having comfort with these shots (should this shot diet continue) will be so helpful in giving him more counters to beat defenders inside the arc — rather than relying too much on drawing fouls or forcing contested finishes at the rim.
The biggest concern for the Sixers' potential entering this season was Harden's physical condition and performance. Through the incredibly early sample of two games, he's been fantastic.
James Harden in his first 2 games this szn— NBA (@NBA) October 21, 2022
Game 1: 35 PTS | 8 REB | 7 AST | 5 3PM
Game 2: 31 PTS | 8 REB | 9 AST | 2 STL pic.twitter.com/2vzJ5iqR12
Defensively, the Sixers have had some sharper spells but they clearly need to tighten things up. Unsurprisingly, with a few new players as key parts of the rotation in P.J. Tucker, De’Anthony Melton and Danuel House, the team needs time to polish chemistry and communication. In time, that should help reduce the number of breakdowns they’ve had with their rotations and switching. And again, Embiid hasn’t been at his best either. As the backbone of the defense, who’s typically made the Sixers into an elite defense when he's on the floor, Embiid having more lapses in activity and awareness than you’d expect hurts the team’s interior defense a great deal. If he just needs time to work out his conditioning levels, though, after dealing with an injury this offseason, then understandably this should correct itself soon enough. The personnel is still in place for the Sixers to be an elite defense this season once their communication and connectivity with their scheme clicks.
It also helps that the Sixers are facing a far easier opponent for their third game of the season. After trading Dejounte Murray for a bunch of draft picks, the young Spurs are firmly in rebuilding mode — perhaps with the hope of entering the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes in next year’s NBA draft.
With Harden and Tyrese Maxey both playing well to start the new year (or more so the preseason for the latter), they look primed to make the most of their matchup against San Antonio’s starting backcourt of Tre Jones and Devin Vassell. It’ll be most interesting to see how Harden operates the 6-foot-5 Vassell, a quality young defender and growing shooter/scorer. Vassell is shifty defending on the ball, but Harden has the strength advantage if he’s going to embrace bullying drives down the lane.
One change the Sixers could make is getting Maxey more involved after he had a quieter night against Milwaukee with only 13 field goal attempts and less time handling the ball. Given how exceptional he was in preseason and his solid 21-point outing against Boston to open the season, he looks ready to go off at any moment if he can simply get the touches. Let Maxey be the lead initiator with more bench-based groups at times, and give him more opportunities if Embiid is off to a slow start as well.
6-foot-9 forward Jeremy Sochan is one new Spur to keep an eye on. The ninth overall pick in this year’s draft, Sochan has intriguing upside with his athleticism and mobility, especially on defense. It’ll be interesting to see how he fares against Tucker and Tobias Harris.
Ultimately, this Spurs team doesn’t have much offensive firepower and ball-handling. And as good as Jakob Poeltl is defensively as one of the NBA’s most underrated centers, he hasn’t always had enough strength to hold up one-on-one against Embiid before. After a tough two-game slate to open the season, Saturday night’s game should give the Sixers a good chance to bounce back and find some momentum.
When: 6:00 pm ET, Saturday, October 22
Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia, NBA TV
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic