At 7-7, the Sixers are in ninth place in the East. That’s play-in territory. Not great, but considering the injury situation they’ve dealt with (one or both of Joel Embiid and James Harden have been at less than full strength for much of the year now) not the end of the world.
Let’s sift through some of the noise and see if there’s any signal... spoiler alert, through just 14 games, there’s probably going to be mostly just noise here. But you’re a diehard fan and you need to know this stuff anyway.
- Per Cleaningingtheglass.com, in 688 Beardless possessions, the Sixers have a +1.8 differential. Their defense, substituting a combo of Matisse Thybulle and De’Anthony Melton in for Harden, with the other four starters has primarily been the catalyst if you go by the numbers (33rd percentile offense, 81st percentile defense). Embiid may have carried them to quite a bit of that positive differential in the last couple games alone.
- Without Joel Embiid in the lineup, the Sixers’ differential is a not surprisingly less potent -5.4. But the good news is that a lineup of De’Anthony Melton in for Joel Embiid with the other starters, had a +22 differential in 93 possessions. It’s not a big sample, but perhaps ‘Small Ball’ could come to the Walnut St. Theater one day?
- In 294 possessions, lineups featuring both James Harden and Joel Embiid are just a -12.5. Some of that is due in part because of games vs. tough teams like the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks. Some of that is because Embiid appeared to play in a sprinkle of those games at way less than full strength, trying to ramp up from an offseason’s worth of plantar fascitiis. For the pessimist, injuries were a big concern coming in and we’ve seen little in that realm to make us worry less. For the optimist, this team hasn’t had a chance to click yet but when they do, there’s quite a bit of room to grow.
- In our Basketball-Reference: MVP award tracker, Embiid ranked 8th after his 59-point barrage, but he’s apparently dropped out of the top ten after the Thursday night slate of games. That’s mostly fine with us, we’re looking for Finals MVP. Let the plebeians scrap for their pre-tournament trophies. But still, ESPN’s Zach Lowe just wrote: “You could watch basketball for 30 years and not see five two-way performances as dominant as Embiid’s 59-point, seven-block masterpiece against the Utah Jazz on Sunday.” So to not even have him in the top ten feels a tad harsh, no?
- Dropping 111.7 points per 100 possessions, the Sixers have the 17th-best offensive rating, per NBA.com. The good news is that they had had the 4th best offensive rating before James Harden got hurt at 115.6. But their defense ranked just 23rd in the same span.
- Now, on the year, allowing just 109.4 points per 100, the Sixers have the fourth-ranked defense. Quite the turn around since James went down.
- With a projected record of 48-34, the 538 predictor algorithm has the Sixers finishing the regular season as a four seed, behind the (from the top) Celtics, Bucks, and Raptors, having just edged out the Hawks last night. Although, I’m assuming the wonky, sort of random start to the season, with teams like the Pacers ahead of the Heat, Nets (oh mother of God) and Sixers, may have confused their system a tiny bit. Nonetheless, 538 was all over these Celtics a year ago, even when they were struggling mightily. And it did once upon a time absolutely love Daryl Morey’s 2018 Rockets, and that Western Conference Finals series vs. Golden State was much more hotly contested than most fans (or Vegas) thought it would be. So we won’t totally dismiss the bots either.
- This season Tyrese Maxey is averaging 22.8 points, 4.4 assists, 3.4 rebounds on 41 percent from distance, he’s also attempting a career best 4.3 free throws per outing. These numbers are solid, despite hitting a slump which started when Harden left their lineup.
- Mini-splash acquisition P.J. Tucker hasn’t blown fans away yet. Some fans are actually worried about how the signing (three years, $10M starting at 37 years-old, and costing a couple second-round picks in a tampering incident). The disappointing start could probably be linked to the offseason knee surgery he needed. It makes sense he’d have needed some time to regain his footing. Maybe we should have penciled a player at his age in for a post Christmas ramp up, coming off even a minor procedure, and whatever ailment led to his opting for one. TuckWagon is averaging 4.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, and shooting 45.8 percent on deep balls. In 783 possessions, the team has a 6.2 differential, 79th percentile offense, 71st percentile defense. In 321 possessions with Tucker but without Joel Embiid, the Sixers’ differential is -2.4. He’s averaging 28.4 minutes per game, and that’s probably a bit aggressive for his coming off a knee procedure, when you ideally want to play him over 30 minutes per game by April.
- What about Montrez Harrell and Paul Reed? In 259 possessions, the team’s differential is +1.5 with Trez on the floor. In 153 possessions, the differential is a -17 with Paul Reed on the floor. Fans of the Paul Reed victory tour will hope that evens out over time, as his defensive energy still jumps off on tape. Trez has really helped in certain games (like a win over the Wizards) but Doc Rivers seems to have soured on him as of late. He’s been out of the rotation a bit. On the year, Trez is a +10 in 131 minutes, while Reed is a -27 in 79 minutes.
Reed only got five minutes vs. Milwaukee in the first outing. He was a +1. It makes sense to give him another shot on Friday, given how well he moves his feet out on the perimeter in case they need him to switch onto Jrue Holiday here or there.
But before you worry too much about these small samples, De’Anthony Melton, who has been easily the Sixers’ best offseason acquisition so far is himself a -23 on the season. But he’s been good. Perhaps a product of some tough games and rotation kinks for the team to continue toggling through, as they find their best lineups will get these numbers up for everyone.
So what’s the noise here? Probably a lot of this. What’s the signal? Embiid is a team high +58 ,and his dominant self.
Who are the real Sixers? Probably not quite the top four offensive force they were before Harden went down. And probably not the bottom seven defense they fielded during the same stretch either. Probably not the average (17th) offensive group they’ve been without James, and maybe it’s not fair to expect then to stay atop the best of the best defensive units when Harden returns, since they ranked just 23rd with him in the fold.
Regression is coming.
To me, perhaps, the most interesting thing is how well their defense has looked lately. Heading into the season, there was talk of fielding the top D in the game. But it looked like a pipe dream when we saw them trying to switch everything, and routinely switching well...nothing. Still, by hook or by crook, thanks in large part to Embiid’s patrolling the paint, switching less, not chasing (too) many ambitious blocks in traffic, protecting the rim, here they stand.
Harden’s return to the lineup over one of Thybulle or Melton won’t help them there. But if he can turbocharge their offense again, and Tyrese Maxey, they should come out on top with room to grow.
For anyone thinking trade, they could still use a defensively stalwart small forward who can consistently drain wide-open triples. Buckle up for Bucks-Sixers, could be another defensive slugfest. Maybe they’re already fielding calls on that matter.