The Philadelphia 76ers are a strange basketball team. Their star is a giant low-post player in an era rendering them extinct. Their co-star is a 6’9 point guard who refuses to shoot jumpers. Their other starters are a modern center starting out of position, a max-salaried combo forward on his fifth team, and an off-guard pest who could never quite be the featured player his previous team wanted. The two stars play more minutes apart than together, even when both are actually healthy.
Saying the 76ers are bizarre is obvious, yet it’s always — always — worth repeating. No matter how hard the 76ers try, no matter how spirited their locker room actually is at any given moment, they are one weird-ass team by design. Because of that, the same qualities that make the 76ers difficult to play against — their mammoth size, positional fluidity, incoherent play style, and emphasis on trench warfare — also make it difficult for them to coalesce around each other. Their abnormality cuts both ways, and the line between that being a bug and a feature is razor thin.
At this moment, it’s a bug. Following a New Year’s Eve beatdown in Indiana, Josh Richardson said there isn’t “enough accountability” in the locker room. Philly then fell in Houston two nights later, after which a frustrated Joel Embiid lamented “it doesn’t feel like we’re getting better.” These comments come on the heels of Al Horford’s frank admission that his 76ers experience hasn’t been as fun as expected.
When it goes bad for Philly, it can look like the players barely know each other. No other team has this many sequences where two players think they can post up on the same side.
None have cramped spacing like this.
Few commit more disappointing defensive breakdowns, though that’s largely because we expect to always see the unmatched cohesion they show at their best. Ben Simmons can and does put the clamps on so many types of players, which makes baffling off-ball mistakes like this all the more frustrating.
And it’s not just the two stars that get sloppy. The 76ers are turnover-prone, yet they also make a ton of mistakes that are harder to spot. Take this moment against Houston. After a missed free throw, the 76ers cleared out the right side to set up a backdoor pass for Richardson. As the play commenced, Mike Scott bizarrely decided to cut into the lane from the left wing, right in front of Richardson! The result: a much tougher layup that anticipated because Richardson had to finish over two players.
At best, this rough patch could cost the 76ers valuable seeding in the East’s unexpectedly deep upper-middle class. At worst, it could pull the team apart. Certainly, the on-court body language isn’t ideal.
That said, it’s essential for us (and, more crucially, them) to keep things in perspective. Prior to the Indiana game, the 76ers had a better point differential against the top six teams in each conference (+5.3) than everyone else (+4.34). (Note: this included a 19-point loss to Dallas, a nominal top-six team that played without MVP candidate Luka Doncic). That gap would be much wider if you removed one 47-point blowout win against Cleveland from those 22 games against the bottom 18 teams in the league.
When the 76ers were tested by the kind of opponents they need to beat to achieve their title dreams, their weirdness provided a substantial boost. Accountability didn’t seem like much of a problem with Embiid and Ben Simmons here.
And the supposed rickety offensive synergy between the two stars seemed pretty damn good here. Take it away, Doris Burke:
And it looks even better when they execute a beautiful hi-lo like this.
Or when they use Simmons as a short roller.
When the 76ers click, they click in unexpectedly fluid ways. Entry passes to Embiid can come from angles that opponents aren’t used to seeing, which makes his physical dominance seem insurmountable. We know Simmons has the vision to throw passes others can’t, but how many point guards are also lob threats, offensive rebounding monsters, and dribble hand-off screeners at his size? (Friend of the program Kyle Neubeck hits the nail on the head: Simmons is far too versatile to be used like a ball-dominant figure). Few wings have as diverse a shot profile as Tobias Harris, which comes in handy when trying to subvert defense’s expectations or get out of a tight spot.
On the other end, Philly’s collective perimeter size combines with Embiid’s towering presence to shrink the court. Embiid and Simmons have remarkable agility for players their size, allowing the former to brace himself for full-speed drives and the latter to keep his hips on balance while taking massive lateral steps to stay with any perimeter scorer. Richardson’s a damn pest, Harris is improving his fundamentals, and rookie Matisse Thybulle lurks like a shadow from behind. Shots that opponents get off easily against anyone else don’t materialize against Philly.
Even the 76ers’ substitution patterns throw opponents off. The 76ers don’t really have a second unit. Instead, they essentially have four hockey lines: the starters, the Simmons-centric speed group with Horford playing center, the “checking line” featuring Embiid surrounded by floor spacers, and whatever mishmash of the three seems appropriate at any given time. They are multiple teams within the same game, and that throws more traditional opponents for a loop.
Describing the 76ers as four teams in one sounds like a positive way to spin their core’s lack of cohesion, but that’s exactly the point. Everything that makes the 76ers a challenging opponent also makes it more challenging for them to win conventionally. This is the price of being different, and the best thing the 76ers can do is accept that it doesn’t take much for their greatest weapon to become an anvil over their head.
Accepting the situation isn’t the same as accepting their current state. There’s plenty of low-hanging fruit the 76ers can snatch to get back on the right side of that thin line.
For one, their floor spacing can be much better even with their current personnel. They don’t need to have two players cutting to the basket at the same time, as they so often do. It’s not that hard for Simmons to cut anywhere other than directly behind Embiid.
Or for three players to go to the rim as Harris posts up. I mean, really?
If they time those cuts juuuust a bit better, they can balance the floor more effectively in transition and still maintain their bully-ball aesthetic. Seriously, why is Horford rolling into space that Simmons already occupies? Clean that up, and every role player will start to look better.
Embiid and Simmons also have plenty of fat they can trim from their own games. Embiid may never get the floor spacing he desires, but he can still roll harder to the rim than this. At least he’ll force other defenders to occupy him, thereby freeing teammates up.
Simmons certainly could use a jumper, but he’d survive better without one if he actually powered through traffic instead of always gliding around it. Simmons won’t be blessed with the spread floor that Giannis Antetokounmpo profits from in Milwaukee, but no team of his should be 28th in drives per game and 29th in points off drives. Simmons neuters the impact of his own kickout passes by delivering the ball too early.
And he’s way too big and strong to be finishing this meekly around the basket.
Among 49 players who average more than 10 drives per game, Simmons is tied for 35th (with Jrue Holiday, of all people) in shooting percentage on said plays. Some names in front of him: Ish Smith, Markelle Fultz, Dennis Schroder, Collin Sexton, Tomas Satoransky, Spencer Dinwiddie, Goran Dragic, and Jeff Teague. Simmons shouldn’t need the extra boost of an open floor to beat out those guys.
But finding the energy to make those changes requires accepting the team’s general state of affairs. In a perfect world, Simmons would take a few jumpers, Embiid would get more post-ups, Harris could actually make advanced passing reads, and Brown would empower Horford more effectively. And sure, the 76ers could use one more shooter, as well as some supplementary playmaking to phase out all those Trey Burke minutes that are way too necessary right now.
But the 76ers weren’t built to win conventionally, they were built to win differently. It’s too late for half measures.