Every ten games, we’ll be checking in with how the team has been playing recently, looking at trends in style of play, shifts in the rotation, etc. You can look back at past analyses: first ten games, second ten games, third ten games, fourth ten games, fifth ten games.
In our previous check-in, with the trade deadline approaching, I said the following: “Don’t be surprised if the Sixers’ big splash already happened back in November.” Oh, how young and naive I was back in January.
Elton Brand certainly had other ideas. The first-year general manager swung yet another huge deal to acquire Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, and Mike Scott from the Clippers. Add in the trade shipping Markelle Fultz to Orlando for Jonathon Simmons and draft assets, and a minor swap with Houston for James Ennis, and exactly one-third of the roster is different from a month ago.
One thing not different at all is the Sixers’ ability to keep churning out winning 10-game segments of the season. Philadelphia went 6-4 in their previous 10 games, currently sitting in fourth place with a 38-22 record, two games back of the Pacers and one game ahead of the Celtics. More impressively, the Sixers went 7-5 across their much-ballyhooed brutal 12-game stretch. Liberty Ballers’ Steve Lipman did an in-depth lookback at that stretch, but I’ll just say that a winning record with wins over elite Western Conference opponents like Golden State, Denver, and Houston is no small feat.
Before looking at a couple things more closely, here are the current team-wide numbers (stats are for the last 10 games, compared to the season as a whole, and as of 2/24/2019):
Offensive rating: 114.7 – 10th in NBA (Season: 111.8 – 9th in NBA)
Defensive rating: 110.8 – 16th (108.6 – 13th)
Net rating: +3.9 – 11th (+3.2 – 9th)
Pace: 101.7 – 11th (102.62 – 7th)
eFG%: 54.1% – 12th (53.9% – 3rd)
FTA rate: 0.365 – 1st (0.323 – 2nd)
TOV%: 14.1% – 22nd (14.9% – 24th)
OREB%: 26.2% – 19th (27.2% – 17th)
OPP eFG%: 51.7% – 10th (51.0% – 3rd)
OPP FTA rate: 0.225 – 5th (0.267 – 19th)
OPP TOV%: 12.9% – 19th (12.9% – 25th)
OPP OREB%: 29.8% – 26th (26.5% – 9th)
Looking at these stats, two things jump out at me. First, the Sixers, already an elite group at getting to the free throw line (thanks largely to Joel Embiid), have worn a path to the charity stripe lately commensurate with I-76-level traffic. Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Jimmy Butler are all high-volume guys in this area, but the addition of Boban Marjanovic has given the team an additional boost.
On the season, Boban averages 6.6 free throw attempts per 100 possessions. That figure is well above other former and current options at the 5 like Amir Johnson (3.7), Mike Muscala (3.3), and Jonah Bolden (2.1). Shooting an acceptable 64.3 percent at the foul line this season, trips down the court where Boban gets fouled are net-positive possessions for the Sixers. With Embiid and Boban, Philadelphia can conceivably get efficient offense from its center position (while getting the opposition in foul trouble) for a full 48 minutes.
On the flip side, the team has done a poor job on the defensive glass of late. Even removing the frighteningly bad Portland game from the sample, Sixers opponents still grabbed 28.2 percent of available offensive rebounds over the previous nine games. In part, we can probably point to Brett Brown’s willingness to use more small-ball lineups. He’ll have to identify which of those lineups can actually function on the glass, though.
In Jonah Bolden’s last 60 minutes, opponents have an OREB% of 35.0%; that figure is 33.1% in the last 117 minutes with Mike Scott on the court. Plenty of people stan for Bolden to receive the backup center minutes. While I understand the appeal of having his mobility defensively on the perimeter, the team’s rebounding can’t completely fall apart with him on the court. It’s nice to be able to better defend a pick-and-roll, but it doesn’t matter if the opposition is just going to get a second crack at an offensive possession. Likewise, Mike Scott’s defensive rebounding rate is 5.6 percent with the Sixers — that’s JJ Redick/Landry Shamet territory. You can’t put a guy at center who is functionally a spot-up shooting guard on the boards.
The Sports Illustrated Cover Five
While we spend a lot of time quibbling about the wing depth, backup center position, and areas around the margins, the overwhelmingly good news is Philadelphia’s new starting lineup has been absolutely dynamite together. In 73 minutes across four games, the Simmons-Redick-Butler-Harris-Embiid unit has a plus-24.6 net rating. Their 116.5 offensive rating would be better than Golden State’s league-best 115.8, while their 91.9 defensive rating laps the field with Milwaukee’s top mark of 103.7.
The pieces just perfectly complement each other. Simmons’ glaring weakness is his lack of an outside shot — they’re now surrounding him with two elite outside shooters in Redick and Harris, a league-average shooter in Butler, and Embiid, who at least draws attention from the defense at the 3-point line. Redick is a liability defensively at this stage of his career, but you can stick him on the opposition’s weakest link because Simmons and Butler are such versatile defenders. Additionally, Embiid is such a tremendous eraser around the rim to make up for any of his teammates’ mistakes. Butler and Harris have been high-volume, on-ball scorers in previous NBA stops, but have the skills to be dangerous spot-up shooters and off-ball cutters as needed with this starting unit.
So while the Sixers still have some issues with their bench, the fact of the matter is that, health permitting, they’ll go into the playoffs with the ability to play close to half of each game with a five-man unit that’s wiping the floor with the competition. You can stack that group up against anyone in the East and feel good about your chances. While the Sixers now have less assets for the future, Elton Brand has undeniably raised the team’s ceiling in the present.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com/Stats.