Have The Sixers Been Unlocked By Doc Rivers And Daryl Morey

Updated: February 16, 2021
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The 2019-2020 Philadelphia 76’ers were a disappointment. Pandemic issues aside, the team seemed to be on the wrong end of the process that had them as heavy East favorites entering the season.  It was a year without joy or cohesion, and it appeared as if the Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid union was destined to end in separation.

With the situation as bleak as it had ever been, a scapegoat was quickly identified with Brett Brown sent packing the day after their season ended. The fire and pitchfork crowd seemed unsatisfied with Brown alone and it appeared as if Elton Brand might need to reinforce his doors to keep the angry mob from coming for his job as well.

Brand was lauded early in his tenure for taking big swings, but he might have over tinkered with the roster last season. It’s possible he hitched his wagon to the wrong max player by not retaining Jimmy Butler and resigning Tobias Harris. He then paid Al Horford an absurd amount of money to languish behind Embiid most of the year. Butler’s replacement, Josh Richardson, was also a bust and it was clear this team needed a shot in the arm.

With the vultures circling and trade machines in overdrive conjuring Embiid and Simmons deals all over the league, the Sixers laid in wait to see what might shake loose with teams in the West. Their patience paid off as Doc Rivers was fired unceremoniously from the Clippers and Daryl Morey left the comforts of Houston after nesting in James Harden’s beard for years.

Bringing on Doc was a no-brainer as he often has immediate success in new situations, but the Morey move had to be a shock to Brand’s ego. However, it also provided Brand with a shield as Morey was hired above him and now any fault with the roster would be firmly directed at the new guy.

Morey like Brand is a mover and shaker and on draft night he made trades that sent Richardson and Horford on their merry ways while bringing back spacing threats Seth Curry and Danny Green. While it wasn’t the sexiest of moves in terms of names it made the roster more balanced and so for this season, the Sixers are a juggernaut in the East.

It would be easy from an eye test viewpoint to say the Sixers added shooters, spacing is better and that’s the cause of their early-season success. But there’s so much more to it than that. In fact, the Sixers are worse in three-point shooting this year than they were last year. Philadelphia ranks 28th in three-point makes and 19th in percentage compared to 19th in makes and 9th in percentage last season.

What has made the Sixers better is Doc changing the culture of the team, Embiid playing like an MVP, and Tobias Harris reuniting with a coach who understands his game. The last two all roll into the first point, but they need to be examined as individual accomplishments for the roster.

Doc said to be ready for a heavy diet of Simmons and Embiid pick and rolls coming into the season and the team has delivered. They look rejuvenated offensively. The Sixers are playing with pace and physicality which is a nice bonus considering the talent of the roster. Philly is currently seventh in pace compared to being 19th under Brown last season. The team is third in fast break points and 12th in points in the paint this season after ranking 15th and 17th in those same areas a season ago.

The Sixers are also drawing fouls at an alarming and maddening rate for their opponents. They are the most fouled team in the league (21.9 per game) leading them to be first in free throw attempts (26.5) and second in makes at 20.5. Last year they finished 21st in both free throw attempts and makes.

Doc continues to put Embiid in actions that challenge the defense and the three-time all-star is responding. Embiid leads the league in free throw attempts per game with 11.4 and is shooting a career-best 85% from the line. The 29.4 points per game are also a career-high for Embiid with 82% of his shots coming from two-point range. He’s become a masterful mid-range shooter while still finding a way to increase his efficiency from three shooting a career-best 38%. Embiid’s MVP case is strong and this is the player Philadelphia has been waiting for since he stepped on the court.

Harris is another player enjoying the Doc Rivers experience in Philadelphia. Harris had his best season under Rivers in L.A. and it seems the two are recreating the chemistry that had Harris in the conversation for all-star consideration.

In a recent interview on NBA.Com Harris said, “Coach knows my game, he knows things that I do very well. When we were in L.A., he was the coach who put me in those positions, so he’s doing the same thing here. He’s always pushing me to be better and be decisive on the court, be a leader for our team and be my best self night in and night out. He expects a lot of me and that’s what I want as a player.”

Harris is close to the gold standard of shooting efficiency this year of 50/40/90 with his 50% from the floor, 41% from three and 89% from the line. If this is who he is all year, then Philly truly has a big three and are a team that the East should be leery of.

That big three is not complete however without the stellar play of Simmons. The narrative on Simmons is changing some as the crowd that focuses on what he can do is becoming slightly louder than the crowd that focuses on his lack of shooting. Simmons for all his flaws is a high-level number two (or three) who defends at an All-NBA level. His shot attempts are slightly down this season, but he’s shown the propensity to know when to be aggressive late in games as he picks his spots allowing for Embiid and Harris to star offensively most of the time.

The rest of the roster seems to fit with Green and Curry doing enough on the perimeter. Dwight Howard is probably the best back up Embiid has ever had. Shake Milton is having success off the bench and the organization is in love with their rookie Tyrese Maxey. Matisse Thybulle is getting squeezed and challenged a bit but one would hope that’s building character.

The East is extremely top-heavy and Brooklyn adding James Harden didn’t make the path for the Sixers any easier. With the itchy fingers of Morey and Brand in the front office, it’s reasonable to wonder if they are comfortable with the team’s hot start or if more moves are on the way. Additional shooting and a backup power forward wouldn’t hurt but tinkering with a team’s chemistry is always risky.

Philadelphia has been linked to JJ Redick which would be a double reunion for the shooter as a retread Sixer and a former player of Doc. But the team might be better served with a different former Sixer as Chicago’s Thaddeus Young is available and he’d be a solid backup behind Harris. Young can still defend possesses versatility and is a great locker room fit. Another name the team might consider is Nemanja Bjelica from Sacramento. Bjelica’s is toiling away on the Kings but is a capable rebounder and 39% career shooter from three. He would solve the frontcourt depth and shooting but wouldn’t add much defensively. Keep in mind the Sixers are fourth in defensive rating and have plenty of guys to help with any deficiencies Bjelica would create.

The 2020-2021 Sixers are full of promise but skeptics are rightfully cautiously waiting for the playoffs as the true proving grounds for the team’s judgment. Barring injuries this should be the best run the Sixers have since the Allen Iverson days. It only took a little turmoil and trust in a new process to get them there…maybe.

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