Factoring in their expectations, the Philadelphia 76ers’ season hasn’t exactly gone par for the course.
It hasn’t all been bad; At 11-5, just two games back of the Milwaukee Bucks for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, the team is about where most expected them to be. That gap could be even smaller, had Joel Embiid not missed time to suspension and injury.
While they may not have played as efficiently as last season, Embiid and Ben Simmons have done their part to ensure success in Philadelphia, while offseason additions Al Horford and Josh Richardson have proved steady, production-wise, and versatile on the court. Tobias Harris, after some early struggles, has started to come around as well, as he’s averaged 21.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and shot 51.6 percent from three in the team’s last five games.
Barring serious injury, Philadelphia should continue to play among the best in the East.
Only, “among” wasn’t exactly what they had in mind. The 2019-20 season was supposed to be their year, the season the 76ers took control of the East in their quest to the NBA mountain top.
With their jumbo-sized roster, the defense was supposed to be airtight. Embiid was to come in better, faster and stronger, Simmons an expanded shooter. Tobias Harris was meant to look more like the star he was with the Los Angeles Clippers, rather than the role player he became upon his trade to Philadelphia, while the acquisitions of Horford and Richardson was management’s way of doubling down on a roster they thought would be the best in the conference, if not the NBA.
But even the best-laid plans don’t often go as planned, and to keep it frank, Philadelphia has only proven good where they thought they would be great.
Philadelphia just hasn’t improved that much from a season ago. The team is on pace to win 53 games, just two better than their record a season ago. They rank just 13th in the NBA in offensive rating, 8th in defensive. Their net rating of 5.1 is good for eighth in the league, but is just fifth in the East.
Again, good but not great.
Following a hot 5-0 start, the team has limped to a near .500, 6-5 record since. And some big breaks have kept that record from looking worse; a Furkan Korkmaz buzzer-beater lifted them over an undermanned Portland Trail Blazers team: it took a 17-point comeback to beat the New York Knicks at home: a last-minute choke job by the Cleveland Cavaliers let them squeak out a win.
Of course, some things have gone against them. The Denver Nuggets barely beat them on a flukey buzzer-beater by Nikola Jokic. But, at the same time, the 76ers choked away a 19-point fourth-quarter lead.
So, is it time to panic? Probably not, but the results so far have left a lot to be desired.
The fit has been clunky, but the prevailing thought has been that, ultimately, talent would win out and everything would work out in the end. But, and here’s a thought, what if it doesn’t?
Embiid nor Simmons has taken much of a step from last season, despite summer gossip of the contrary. And, even worse, the two have continued to show that they aren’t a great fit together; both need to dominate the ball and require maximum spacing — obviously, neither of them help the other much in this respect — to be the best version of themselves.
The two are a dynamic duo on defense, but the clash on offense has kept themselves, and the team, from reaching their respective ceilings.
Now, to be fair, there have been plenty of great-but-clunky fits that just made it work. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade come to mind, as they faced similar issues when they joined forces back in 2010. The Miami HEAT overcame those issues by building the right roster around them. Philadelphia, in earnest, has tried their best to do the same, it just hasn’t worked out as they hoped.
Let’s start with Harris, who, given his offensive profile, should be a great fit for what the 76ers want to do. Only 27, Harris has proven a capable and reliable offensive threat throughout his career and has never had much trouble spacing the floor. He isn’t particularly good on defense, but the team has the personnel to cover that up.
And yet, Harris has struggled to carve out his own space. The career 36.2 percent three-point shooter has yet to display that type of dominance in Philadelphia — last season, Harris shot just 32.7 percent, a number that has dipped to 29.4 in 2019. It’s proven a major issue, given that the 76ers two best players aren’t exactly fantastic shooters themselves.
Beyond that, Harris just hasn’t had much impact; Philadelphia is only 1.1 points better when he’s on the floor. Again, on paper, Harris should be a near-perfect fit. But, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, he’s just hasn’t produced the way the team knows he can (or the way they paid him to).
As for Horford, another high-priced acquisition, it’s been more of the same.
Without getting too much into his Boston Celtics tenure, Horford was brought in to add some versatility to the offense and further fortify what was expected to be an elite defense. So far, he’s been fine; his percentages have taken a hit, but Horford’s scoring, rebound and assist numbers remained largely the same compared to his time in Boston.
The issue with Horford, really, has been that he’s presented another awkward fit on the court, as he and Embiid have experienced their fair share of growing pains.
The two of them share a plus-1.9 net rating when they share the court together, which is positive but nowhere near as dominant as they nor the team envisioned. And, at 33-years-old, the issues with Horford may only get worse as his body breaks down and his mobility starts to fade.
He’s given the team good minutes, and has looked even better at the center spot when Embiid is on the bench, but you don’t give as much money as the team gave Horford to play on a situational basis. There’s plenty of time left in the season for the two to mesh together but, if they can’t manage to find common ground, the team may begin to regret their pact with the forward.
The poor play and awkward fit from Harris and Horford has stood in stark contrast to Josh Richardson, who has played some exceptional basketball this season. And, while many of his counting stats have regressed, that has more to do with his lesser role with the 76ers compared to what he saw with the HEAT.
At 11.7 points per 100 possessions, he’s Philadelphia’s second-best in terms of net rating. He’s done exactly what the team has asked of him and should prove vital to their success for the rest of the season and postseason, but he can only do so much.
Another reason Philadelphia hasn’t looked as dominant as many thought they would is completely out of their control. Relative to expectations, their Eastern Conference competition has proved better than expected.
The Toronto Raptors, thanks in part to the continued ascension of Pascal Siakam, have maintained their position near the top of the conference. The Celtics, despite the loss of Horford and Kyrie Irving, among others, have surged with Kemba Walker as their guide.
The HEAT aren’t exactly the most well-rounded roster in the NBA, but they’ve played some extraordinary team basketball while Milwaukee, despite their offseason losses, has looked fantastic behind reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo as well.
The 76ers opted to change the formula this summer, as they jettisoned Butler, J.J. Redick from the roster. It hasn’t backfired, per se, but the loss of those players has been clearly felt, while the team hasn’t seen the boost they and many others thought they would from their big-name, fairly expensive acquisitions.
Now is no time to panic; the season is young and there’s still plenty of time to turn things around. But, if they continue along this path and the team can’t or doesn’t improve, the 76ers may have some hard truths to face.