Coming into this season, the consensus amongst the NBA world was that the Philadelphia 76ers were a much-improved team on paper. Daryl Morey made some shrewd moves in the offseason. Perhaps the most important one was convincing former NBA MVP James Harden to take roughly a $15 million pay cut.
Harden's decision to opt-in for less money enabled the Sixers to add some key pieces in the summer, including De'Anthony Melton, PJ Tucker and Danuel House.
The early returns didn't look promising; Philadelphia sputtered out of the gate, losing its first three games on the schedule. The Sixers rebounded but suffered lousy luck when Harden injured his foot during a loss to the Washington Wizards on Nov. 10, dropping the team to 4-5.
Without Harden in the lineup, third-year guard Tyrese Maxey began to showcase why many believed he would be an All-Star this season. Maxey averaged just over 20 points per game through the five games without Harden. It looked like the team was going to be able to play at a high-level, despite missing its starting point guard, but the terrible injury luck struck again. This time, it was sidelining Maxey.
The aura around the Sixers was not a good one early in the year. The highlight of the season came when the undermanned Philly squad beat the Brooklyn Nets in Ben Simmons' first game against his former team on Nov. 22. That was without Harden, Maxey or Embiid in the lineup.
The good vibes continued for about a week before the pessimism kicked back in. First, the Sixers were manhandled by the Cleveland Cavaliers, then ran out of the gym by the Memphis Grizzlies. After that, Embiid couldn't do it all by himself and needed some All-Star-level help if Philly was going to make some noise in the standings.
Harden came back following the defeat to the Grizzlies. It was against his old team — the Houston Rockets — one of the league's worst teams. The sentiment was that the Sixers would immediately get back on track and ascend the standings before Maxey's imminent return.
Instead, another ugly loss raised questions about the team's ceiling, which was sitting at 12-12 at that point. Would Doc Rivers be around through Christmas? Can Embiid and Harden co-exist at a level equal to being a championship contender?
All of the doubt has been put to bed over the past 20 games. The Sixers are 16-4 and find themselves third in the Eastern Conference, following a 120-110 road win over the LA Clippers on Tuesday.
The defense has been the strength of this team throughout the schedule. But the offense is finally catching up.
From the season opener until Game No. 24, which was Dec. 5 in Houston — which also marked Harden's return to the lineup after missing 15 games with a foot injury, the Sixers played like a very average NBA team o. Here is where they ranked in several categories.
109 points per game (27th)
47 percent from the field (14th)
37.9 percent from 3 (4th)
39.9 rebounds per game (29th)
14.5 turnovers per game (11th)
111.2 offensive rating (17th)
+1.7 net rating (10th)
13.8 fastbreak points per game (16th)
47.2 points in the paint per game (21st)
Compare that with the most recent 20 games.
119.9 points per game (3rd)
49 percent from the field (9th)
38.2 percent from 3 (6th)
41.6 rebounds per game (23rd)
13.4 turnovers per game (11th)
118.3 offensive rating (3rd)
+6.6 net rating (5th)
15.2 fastbreak points per game (10th)
50.7 points in the paint per game (14th)
The Sixers have improved in most offensive categories. Getting a fresh Harden back has been one of the main reasons Philly has become a lethal team on the offensive end. Harden and Embiid have been nearly unguardable in the pick-and-roll. Even if the possession doesn't result in a basket, the Sixers are at the least getting open looks, which weren't easy to come by last season.
The Sixers are 11.7 points better per 100 possessions with Embiid on the floor. Harden is second to Joel at 7.7, per Cleaning the Glass. When they're on the court together, Philly outscored its opponents by 9.9 points per 100 possessions.
Their teammates are benefitting as well from the Dynamic Duo. For example, Georges Niang is getting some great looks due to the extra attention defenses are paying when Harden and Embiid run the two-man game.
Clippers guard Norman Powell is on Harden in the clip above. He gets caught chasing Harden following Embiid’s screen, forcing Ivica Zubac to stay in help while Powell attempts to recover.
Terance Mann is guarding Niang on the wing and sees this, forcing him to commit to helping on Embiid. That leaves Niang in an excellent position for an open look at a 3-pointer.
The chemistry between Embiid and Harden continues to grow, which is a scary thought for the other teams around the league. Philly is currently fourth in the NBA in 3-point percentage. If the Sixers continue to hit at roughly a 38 percent clip from outside, the offense should be in great shape going through the rest of the regular season.
As much as he has received his share of criticism, it's only fair to give head coach Doc Rivers and his staff get some credit when it's due. Rivers has encouraged his players to keep things simple and read and react to what the defense is giving them. Which largely depends on when Embiid and Harden are on the floor together.
One of the knocks on Doc is that he's too stubborn with his rotations. Although he's not perfect, Doc has made some good decisions during this streak. Bringing a fully healthy Maxey off the bench was a risk, but it seems to be paying off. Maxey's chemistry with Shake Milton has given the Sixers some much-needed speed on the second unit.
"I want to see us play with more pace," Doc said following the win over the Clippers. "Not that we always look for the fastbreak, but even working the ball around the perimeter."
We still have a lot of season left, but the Sixers are showing that when they're at their best, they are among the teams considered to be title contenders.
You can hear from Maxey and Doc in my postgame podcast below: