The Philadelphia 76ers are 22-12, clinging tightly to a half-game lead over Brooklyn for first place in the East. Joel Embiid is the MVP frontrunner, and Ben Simmons is playing the best basketball of his career. All that, and it’s tough to express confidence in the Sixers’ championship pursuit.
Sure, the Sixers have been in a much better place ever since Daryl Morey arrived. The Sixers’ roster no longer clashes at every position, and the chemistry that slipped away under Brett Brown has been restored under Doc Rivers. Even so, many of the problems that have plagued Philadelphia in recent years are still plaguing the team today.
In fact, unless moves are made at the deadline, it’s safe to say the Sixers have nothing more than a puncher’s chance at winning the East.
The Philadelphia 76ers need to improve the roster if the goal is a championship.
Luckily for the Sixers, change is a-comin’. Morey is a notoriously aggressive deal-maker and he has dubbed this season “championship or bust.” If Morey claims it, he probably means it. He is the same President of Basketball Operations who perennially positioned Houston to challenge the dynastic Warriors at their peak.
Whether a blockbuster trade is or isn’t available, we can expect Morey to wheel and deal. The Sixers have plenty of trade chips — a roughly $8 million trade exception, first-round picks, intriguing young talent, and big expiring contracts. There’s little doubt that Morey can make a deal to improve this team.
Unless Morey can significantly alter the makeup of this roster, however, it’s difficult to have true confidence in Doc Rivers’ squad. The Sixers have the elite-level talent, but are saddled by a terrible bench and a maddening reluctance to shoot 3s.
Over the last five games, the Sixers’ bench has been embarrassing. This is part of a long-running trend.
- Shake Milton — 10.4 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.8 APG, 0.2 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 1.6 TOV, .358 FG%, .368 3P%
- Furkan Korkmaz — 7.6 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.2 SPG, 0.0 BPG, 0.8 TOV, .375 FG%, .333 3P%
- Dwight Howard — 5.8 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 1.2 APG, 0.2 SPG, 1.0 BPG, 1.2 TOV, .667 FG%, .000 3P%
- Matisse Thybulle — 2.8 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 1.4 APG, 0.6 SPG, 1.4 BPG, 0.8 TOV, .375 FG%, .200 3P%
- Mike Scott — 3.5 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 0.5 APG, 0.3 SPG, 0.0 BPG, 0.8 TOV, .556 FG%, .571 3P%
Not too many positives to pluck from that group. The all-bench units Doc Rivers likes to lean on have been reliably ineffective. He has even reverted to more staggering of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons because of it, going against his nature as a coach.
In fact, more broadly speaking, the Sixers’ inability to mine consistent production from anyone not named Joel, Ben, or Tobias, has been especially problematic of late. The supporting cast just is not showing up. That’s how you end up with home losses to Cleveland, one of the worst defensive teams in basketball.
There aren’t many players on the list above who are reliable or proven in the playoffs. Certain matchups can render Howard useless. Thybulle automatically frees up an extra defender to double Embiid. Korkmaz, Scott, and even Milton have been nothing if not inconsistent all season.
The Sixers have one of the worst benches of any contender. The Lakers, Clippers, Jazz, and Bucks all go deep. The Nets have depth issues, but make up for it with the most gifted offensive trio possibly ever. The bench alone makes Philadelphia’s immediate outlook somewhat bleak.
Once you move past the bench, the Sixers’ issues are far from over. Philadelphia is currently 27th in the league in made 3s per game. That is despite multiple trades and signings made with the sole intent of improving the Sixers’ 3-point shooting.
The Sixers are only 26th in 3-point frequency and 17th in 3-point percentage. Given the build of this roster, the attention both Embiid and Simmons command, and the nature of Doc Rivers’ offense, this is simply not good enough. If the Sixers want to compete — truly compete — the 3-point shot has to play a bigger role.
Also problematic — and stop me if you’ve heard this before — is the Sixers’ lack of perimeter creation. Embiid has elevated his performance late in games, and it’s clear he can play the role of closer for this team. Even so, the inability of Philadelphia’s guards to consistently generate offense from scratch will not bode well in the postseason. When every defender is tuned into Embiid, the Sixers too often find themselves with nowhere to go.
The flashiest example of a solution is Kyle Lowry. That said, if the Raptors decide Lowry is off the table, the Sixers will have trouble finding true needle-movers on the perimeter. The trade market isn’t very saturated at the moment, and while there is time for that to change, the Sixers cannot expect a potpourri of high-level creators available for an affordable price.
None of this is to say Philadelphia is hopeless. Joel Embiid is the MVP frontrunner. He looks like a genuine top-five NBA player. His presence alone — along with a top-five defense and a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Ben Simmons — makes it impossible to ignore the Sixers. Also of note is the how bad the East is. Outside Brooklyn and Milwaukee, the competition seems fairly scarce (not to discount Miami and Boston, but Philadelphia has a clear edge).
The Sixers have an elite core, an elite defense, and enough trade deadline flexibility to make serious headway. While some would argue the Sixers are better off maintaining the continuity of the current roster, Morey should recognize the fickle nature of contention. To quote his Twitter bio: “Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor.” Embiid will not play MVP basketball forever. The Sixers need to give him every chance to deliver on his best NBA season.