Are The Sixers Legit Title Contenders Or Are They Underachieving?

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Updated: December 23, 2019
embiid and simmons pic

It’s supposed to be their year.

That’s the sentiment from many around the league in regard to the Philadelphia 76’ers, or at least that was the sentiment—opinions change in the fast-paced NBA.

At 20-10 Philly is just one game better than they were a year ago at this time when the thought was that they were close but not quite ready to be contenders. This year’s iteration has shown flashes of defensive brilliance but their Jekyll and Hyde offensive impactfulness has at times put stress on the defense to be even better.

Leveling up has proven to be difficult for a Sixers team that is trying to move from good to great. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are the cornerstone pieces responsible for making that happen on the floor, but Brett Brown has a role to play on the sidelines, as does Elton Brand in the front office.

For all intent and purposes, Brand is the only one living up to expectations with a series of go-for-it now moves. He didn’t allow the Sixers to lose Jimmy Butler for nothing by obtaining Josh Richardson in a complicated four-team trade in the summer. That, in turn, allowed them to retain Tobias Harris and add Embiid’s defensive nemesis Al Horford from rival Boston. He added other contributing fringe parts by drafting Matisse Thybulle and signing Trey Burke and Kyle O’Quinn in free agency in addition to Horford.

Brand had a good summer and the Sixers’ starting lineup is quite possibly the best in the NBA thanks to his ingenuity—at least on paper.

Coach Brown has survived the tanking days to live in a world where there are championship-level expectations of his services. Once viewed as a good coach of a bad team that won just 10 games four seasons ago, he now faces growing whispers questioning if he can lead this team into full glory. Life comes at you fast and the job of an NBA head coach is a thankless one.

Luckily, he continues to have the respect of his players, but rotations and late-game decision making have come into question by those who closely follow the team. As long as he retains the ear of Embiid and Simmons they should be able to block out the noise detractors heave his way.

But the ears of stars are often fickle, placing Brown on a seat he’s not fully aware may be warming.

Take Embiid for instance who has been patient with the organization despite some outbursts about wanting to participate in back-to-backs the last two seasons. His wish has been granted on that front but are the right plays being called for him throughout the course of games?

The two-time All-Star has seen his points, rebounds, assists, blocks, field goal percentage and attempts head south so far during the 2019-2020 campaign. It stands to wonder if Embiid has a MVP-level of play that he can rise to and if so…who or what is holding him back from it?

Simmons seems resolute to let this all keeping happening when the two share the court together. The lack of pick-and-roll of action is a direct result of Simmons’ inability to put pressure on the defense outside of the paint. Simmons takes 90% of his shots from ten feet and in but is shooting just 35% between three and ten feet of the rim. He’s shooting just 23% between the ranges of 10 and 16 feet which basically indicates if it isn’t a dunk or layup, he can’t make it.

Per Game Table
Season Age Tm MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% eFG% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
2018-19 24 PHI 33.7 9.1 18.7 .484 1.2 4.1 .300 .517 8.2 10.1 .804 2.5 11.1 13.6 3.7 0.7 1.9 3.5 3.3 27.5
2019-20 25 PHI 30.9 7.3 15.8 .459 1.1 3.5 .309 .493 7.1 8.7 .816 2.7 10.0 12.6 3.3 0.9 1.3 3.2 3.4 22.7
Career 30.7 8.0 16.8 .478 1.1 3.6 .314 .512 6.8 8.6 .792 2.3 9.2 11.6 3.2 0.7 1.9 3.6 3.4 24.1

Provided by Basketball-Reference.com:

Embiid averages 73.1 touches per game with 45.3 of those coming in the frontcourt, but even those numbers are down from 87 and 55 respectively a year ago. He’s first in the league in post-up touches at 10.7 but the overall production isn’t at an elite level even with him taking fewer threes this season. That’s a problem.
After being called out by Hall of Famers, Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley, Embiid acknowledged that his aggressiveness and drive need to improve. Brown can have as much of an impact on that as anyone else with his play-calling.
Brown hasn’t been able to find a way to make the Simmons and Embiid pick-and-roll work, often opting for Harris or Richardson in those sets.

Instead, Simmons is often feeding a trailing or camped out Embiid beyond the arc.

Simmons seems resolute to let this all keeping happening when the two share the court together. The lack of pick-and-roll of action is a direct result of Simmons’ inability to put pressure on the defense outside of the paint. Simmons takes 90% of his shots from ten feet and in but is shooting just 35% between three and ten feet of the rim. He’s shooting just 23% between the ranges of 10 and 16 feet which basically indicates if it isn’t a dunk or layup, he can’t make it.
Shooting Table
FG% FG% FG% FG% FG%
Season Age Tm Pos G FG% 0-3 3-10 10-16 16-3pt 3P
2019-20 23 PHI PG 27 .570 .738 .351 .231 .500 .400
Career 187 .556 .725 .410 .295 .294 .091
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 12/20/2019.
With Simmons serving as Philly’s primary playmaker, that forces Embiid’s rolls to turn into pops so that Simmons can either get downhill or get the hell out of the way. As Simmons scampers, his defender often lingers to double or interfere with Embiid—it can get ugly.
Simmons is averaging a career-worst 14.4 points and 6.7 rebounds to put the icing on this peculiar cake but it appears his relationship with Embiid and Brown is still tight. Simmons secured his bag this summer to the tune of five years and $170 million so his place in the city of brotherly love seems firm as well. Still, many wonder if this is long-term fit as the two players don’t compliment each other well. And Brown can’t design a way to make it better thus far.
But, it’s important to keep things in perspective—this team is still very good—especially defensively. They often play themselves into contenders as the season labors on and it appears this season is on a similar trajectory. As the season progresses it’s going to be up to the trio of Brown, Embiid and Simmons to be better at their jobs so that Brand won’t have to work harder at his.

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