There was a movie that came out in the year 2000 called The Replacements. It was loosely based on the 1987 NFL strike and the football team from Washington. It stars Keanu Reeves, who is an absolute king, as a former star college quarterback leading a band of replacement players.
At one point, Gene Hackman, who apparently has cornered the market on being a head coach in sports movies, asks his team what scares them on the field. Reeves’ character, Shane Falco, describes the abstract concept of “quicksand” while playing:
You’re playing and you think everything is going fine. Then one thing goes wrong. And then another. And another. You try to fight back, but the harder you fight, the deeper you sink. Until you can’t move... you can’t breathe... because you’re in over your head. Like quicksand.
Ladies and gentlemen, your 2022-23 Philadelphia 76ers.
Let’s preface all of this by saying it’s early. We’re just five games into this season and these early losses are not likely to dash the Sixers’ championship aspirations. Plus, the team does have a few new pieces — and old pieces that are still trying to find the best way to coalesce.
But this 1-4 start is far from encouraging.
After an offseason where we all wondered what version of James Harden the Sixers would get, most would’ve signed up for what we’ve seen thus far. The Beard is averaging a near triple-double with 25 points, 9.6 assists and 8.2 rebounds on 63 percent true shooting. And he just looks better, making it clear health was his biggest issue last season.
“Yeah. I can move now,” Harden quipped after a 31-point performance against the Bucks last week.
But as everyone started feeling better about Harden, Joel Embiid got off to an ugly start. It was then revealed that he dealt with plantar fasciitis during the summer, preventing him from being in optimal shape. Embiid repeatedly saying on media day that he spent his summer “on the couch” felt like a bit. Obviously, it was not. But even Embiid’s issues seem to be behind him, as he’s averaged 32.3 points and shot over 60 percent from the field over his last three games.
Even in the team’s loss to Toronto Wednesday, Embiid had little trouble navigating the Raptors’ aggressive double teams that had given him so much trouble in the past, while punishing their lack of size.
“Joel had a clear advantage tonight,” Doc Rivers told reporters in Toronto, per Keith Pompey. “I thought we didn’t get him the ball four, five times early in the game. Every time he touched it, something good happened. So we’ll see that and we’re going to be better at that for sure as the season goes on.”
Tyrese Maxey, who seemed to be feeling out his place in the pecking order through the first four games, was also excellent Wednesday. He topped the 30-point mark for the first time this season and hit a season-high four threes.
Outside of Wednesday’s loss, Tobias Harris has been strong in his role. After a slow start, newcomer De’Anthony Melton has scored double figures the last two games while his defense has shined through. The backup center situation ... yeah ...
So, what the hell is happening?
Well, being the worst transition team in the league certainly isn’t helping matters.
Through five games, Sixers opponents have added 9.2 points per 100 possessions through transition play (@cleantheglass).— Noah Levick (@NoahLevick) October 27, 2022
That's easily worst in the NBA. Hornets are currently 29th at 6.2.
The bottom transition defense team last season was Houston (4.5).
If this sounds familiar to you, it’s because the same issues plagued the Sixers last season under Rivers. And the year before. My former teammate Noah Levick at NBC Sports Philadelphia, who is the master of resurfacing old quotes at the most relevant times, wrote an extensive piece on the issue.
He dug this up from Rivers ahead of the 2021 postseason:
There’s no tricks to transition,” he said. “It’s so much about habit and discipline, and we’ve had bad habits all year. We’ve gotten better as it’s gone on, but it’s such an individual-team thing, if that makes sense to you. We’ll have three guys that’ll do it and two guys that’ll break the habit, and then it kills the entire transition D.
Now, “habits” and “discipline” are something you shouldn’t have to teach professional athletes. Also, it’s fair to note that transition defense is in part a personnel issue. Whenever Embiid misses a shot from in tight and falls down, there’s a great chance the other team is going to get a great look. That’s not a knock on Embiid — he’s just a big guy and falls a lot (sometimes on purpose to prevent injury).
With that said, here we are, nearly two seasons later, and Rivers’ team is off to an epically atrocious start when it comes to transition defense.
The Sixers have had their issues on offense, but are still in the top 10 in offensive rating. Which makes sense. There is far too much talent and firepower on this roster, even if the offensive scheme can lack creativity at times, a critique of Rivers since his Celtics days. The concern is their pace. They are dead last in the NBA in that regard, often taking things right up to the shot clock buzzer and waiting for one of their supremely talented players to bail them out.
Dead last in transition. Dead last in pace. This is a slow basketball team through five games.
That’s not to say they can’t win while being a plodding team. When a big is the focal point of your offense it’s bound to happen. And if you look at teams like the Mavericks, Heat and Celtics, who all made the conference finals, they joined the Sixers in the bottom third last season in pace.
But this feels different. Something is off. There is a general malaise. Whether it’s not getting back on defense, seemingly never knowing when to switch on screens or four players standing around while someone dribbles the air out of the ball, there is a stagnation amongst this group.
You don’t expect the Sixers to run people off the floor like the Warriors, but at times it looks like they’re in quicksand.
We’ll see if a Falco-like character can deliver the Sixers a similar cliche-rich sports movie ending.