Last August, the pre-season Eastern Conference front running 76ers clinched a playoff spot and a First Round matchup with their rival Boston Celtics. Down Ben Simmons due to a dislocated knee cap, the six-seed Sixers were pounced by the star-driven Celtics unit, dropping four straight and abruptly ending their season.
It was Joel Embiid’s first postseason where he didn’t reach the Semi-Finals and the team’s earliest playoff exit since their 2011 berth. Another underwhelming season for “The Process” led to the firing of long-time head coach Brett Brown.
He had accumulated several losing seasons when management tore down their roster to unprecedented lows but had guided the team back to the postseason behind a new crop of young stars. The first season with Simmons and Embiid together resulted in roaring success through the Semi-Finals, the second season resulted in disappointment after the front office stacked the deck with big trades, and this past third season resulted in grief as they fell hard to their biggest rival without even winning a game.
This fall, management brought in highly-experienced and highly-respected coach Doc Rivers to run the team and they hired notorious executive Daryl Morey to operate the club like he previously did with Houston. General manager Elton Brand, following a huge push last year to build a team with tall stars, has now reconstructed the roster around their two young cornerstones.
With a healthy Ben Simmons, a vengeful Joel Embiid, and some new supporting members, Philly has miraculously soared to a 13-6 record, shooting them right into first place.
For the reasons discussed below, here’s how management was able to form a more perfect union, and why the Eastern Conference should now fear the 76ers:
1. Much-Improved Fit
In the 2018 season, “The Process” finally came to fruition as the Simmons-Embiid-led Sixers exploded with scoring and soared to the East’s 3-seed. In the recent 2020 season, the scary-tall lineup stacked with talent plummeted on the offensive end and fell to the East’s 6-seed.
Elton Brand had put together an impressive group of Simmons, Embiid, fringe All-Star forward Tobias Harris, veteran All-Star big Al Horford, and rising star Josh Richardson. While nearly all of them were exceptional defenders, the chemistry among the five talented starters was horrendous. The non-shooting Simmons couldn’t play off a dynamic outside threat, the power forward Harris was forced to the wing where he couldn’t take advantage of his size, and the frontcourt pairing of Horford and Embiid proved slow and hurt both of their scoring games.
This offseason, Brand flipped the athletic Richardson for the sharpshooting 2-guard Seth Curry, packaged Horford in a deal for 3&D specialist Danny Green, gave Harris more room to work near the basket, and Embiid more control commanding the middle. The Sixers have jumped ten spots in the scoring ranks thanks to four starters shooting over 37% on 3’s, showing how much a team can really improve when all the pieces fit their mold.
2. Healthier Defense
The lineup with four players 6’9” and over was certainly intriguing two summers ago, because their defensive potential looked more than capable of handling the best scorers in the league. Though they did manage to shut teams down with the league’s sixth-best defense, opponents had more success stopping them from scoring because of their poor shooting and arrangement.
Richardson was a tough wing to separate from, Harris was a long forward difficult to shoot over, and Horford was a smart big skilled at contesting shots and switching. The All-Defensive prowess of Simmons and Embiid locked up a devastating unit, except the tenacious play was canceled out by such poor offensive production. Richardson, Harris, and Horford all experienced major dips in 3-point efficiency, and the leading scorer, Embiid shaved four points off his average.
Newcomers 6’2” Curry and 6’6” Green have salvaged Philly’s offense, and with much greater confidence on that side of the ball, it’s made their defense even stronger. What management sacrificed in athleticism and height they’ve since made up for in teamwork, enabling accountability across the floor and leadership from their two defensive anchors.
3. Offensive Star-Power
Philly was loaded with offensive talent entering the 2019 playoffs, and larger with more athleticism entering the 2020 regular season yet both groups proved to be overwhelmed with scoring ability. There were “too many cooks in the kitchen” wanting their ball, diminishing the entire offensive output and lowering individual performance.
First, it was Jimmy Butler disrupting the flow created by Simmons and Embiid, then it was Harris added to the mix developing a freestyle offense, and most recently it was Josh Richardson and Al Horford coming into the fold trying to be facilitators. Teams with less firepower but a better supporting cast were able to overcome these talented Sixers squads because it was clear who the leading playmakers and scorers were, and who otherwise was needed for shooting and finishing.
New President Daryl Morey, following his James Harden-Chris Paul/Russell Westbrook model, flipped Richardson and Horford for experienced shooters to give the stars more breathing room, running the offense to the best of their abilities with the support of role players. Leading scorers Embiid and Harris are posting the greatest offensive numbers of their careers, and Simmons is starting to expand his game while staying a dangerous playmaker. The star trio is playing exceptionally well and while the red-hot supporting cast earns some praise for contributions, Morey deserves most of the credit for best leveraging Philly’s elite talents.
4. Dangerous Snipers
Sure, Simmons and Embiid formed the exciting new duo that carried Philly back to the playoffs, but the backbone of their earliest success in 2018 is the supporting cast. Plenty of young teams have climbed the mountain with a star guard and big man, but few teams were fortunate enough to benefit from such prolific shooting prowess.
33-year-old J.J. Redick posted a career-high scoring average because of 42% 3-point shooting, second-year Dario Saric increased his mark too thanks to a 39% clip, and year-long starter Robert Covington sank the most 3-pointers of his career with 203. As if the starters weren’t strong enough shooting outside, they also received tremendous contributions off the bench from Marco Belinelli (38%), Jerryd Bayless (37%), Ersan Ilyasova (36%), and T.J. McConnell (low-volume 44%).
After two years abandoning weaponry for star-power, the shooting arsenal has returned to Philly, and the effects are turning back time. The amazing new lineup has produced a 51% clip from Curry, a 46% clip from Harris, a 40% clip from Embiid, and a 37% clip from Green while the bench is full of microwaves such as rookie Tyrese Maxey and Shake Milton (who each posted 30-point games this year) and others like Isaiah Joe (37%) and Furkan Korkmaz (1.5 3PG). To rise in the standings and remain at the top, you need some pretty stellar shooting in today’s NBA, but to advance in the postseason and have a legitimate shot at a title, the 3-point arsenal has to be legitimate.
5. MVP-Caliber Leader
Embiid was one of several centers the Sixers took in recent draft lotteries, and because of his early injury problems and raw offensive game, many in the fan base didn’t view him as the centerpiece of their franchise. That player came into the mix two years later when the team selected Ben Simmons with the #1 overall pick, who was a unique playmaker touted as one of the greatest prospects in recent history.
Five years since the 2016 Draft, both Embiid and Simmons are the focal points of the team, but the big man is the one who’s morphed into an All-NBA player and the heart of the fan base. The unofficial captain of the Sixers, who’s embraced the nickname “The Process”, has rapidly developed into a star improving each coming year. In his fifth season now, Embiid is having his best offensive season while anchoring a top-five defense, averaging 27.7 points-per-game on 55% shooting from the floor and 40% from behind the arc.
Simmons has also become an elite two-way threat who earned his first All-NBA honor last season, and he remains the leader on both ends when Embiid misses time due to injury but his co-star is the one making greater strides and leading the team into elite territory. To have an honest chance at winning the championship today, you need a top-five player, and Philly has finally created their next Allen Iverson with Embiid, who’s currently the MVP frontrunner.
Philadelphia has revived their lackluster offense, and their defense continues to press the opposition, leading to the greatest start of the “Process” era. They’ve beaten Boston twice, the reigning Eastern Conference champion Heat twice, and just defeated the defending world champion Lakers on national television.
After two heartbreaking years, Daryl Morey and Doc Rivers have reformed a more perfect union, with all the elements of a championship contender. They have the flare to keep up with the best offenses, and the frame to put down the best players.
Hopefully soon, the best in the East will “process” that…