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Making Sense of the Philadelphia 76ers: The NBA’s Biggest Wildcard

Philadelphia 76ers

Prior to, and during, the 2019-20 NBA season, the Philadelphia 76ers had an odd kind of mystique to them. In a league that’s been getting smaller, the Sixers took it the other way and bulked up on defense and height. They lost their best shot creator and replaced him with two high-level defenders. If one looked only at their record at home, they’d assume the team was having an all-time great season, comparable to that of the ’16 Warriors. Looking solely at their away record, they’d file them away as a lottery team.

Going into the potential playoffs in Orlando, Philly needs a lot of things to go right for them if they want to make any noise. If it does, however, they’re in a position to pose the biggest threat to the Bucks in the East. Sure, Philly has its problems, but given the right circumstances, they’re one of the most dangerous teams in the NBA.

Injuries

Injuries have always been the enemy of the Sixers, particularly in the case of Joel Embiid. Embiid, holding the talent of a top 10 player in the league, missed 21 of the team’s 65 games this season. Even in the games he was playing, he was put onto the floor in limited doses, averaging 30.2 minutes per game, the least of any star in the league not named Paul George. The question remains: Is a healthy Embiid good enough to be the best player on a championship team?

On offense, his low-post game is the Sixers’ most effective way of scoring, and his three-point shot has improved by nearly five percent from last year. Defensively, he’s arguably the best interior defender in the game when he’s healthy. He has the ability to take away parts of the paint from opponents and through that, makes his teammates stronger defenders. He ranks fourth in the league in defensive win shares among eligible players, just showing the effect his defense has on winning.

Playing devil’s advocate to this, the odds are Embiid will most likely have injury problems not only in these playoffs, but throughout the rest of his career. Even if the effects aren’t direct, and the 76ers play him all the games, his minutes limit puts a ceiling on the high potential of the Sixers. On top of that, Embiid has yet to show that he can translate his game to playoff situations, as he averaged 20 PPG on 42.8 percent shooting from the field in last year’s playoffs. That was a big step down from his 27.5 PPG on 48.4 percent efficiency during the regular season.

The rest of the team’s health isn’t as concerning. Ben Simmons and Josh Richardson each missed over 10 games, but come playoff time, they’re likely to play the entire postseason. Simmons hadn’t missed more than three games in a season prior to this one, and Richardson missed a combined 10 games over the previous two seasons. The Sixers are hailed as a team set back by injuries, but Emiid is really their only player whose health is in question.

Shooting

Philly, notorious for its lack of shooters, improved at the trade deadline by adding Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III from the Warriors. Or at least that’s what it seemed like.

Burks, who was shooting 37.5 percent from deep with Golden State, went down to 32.7 percent during his time with the Sixers. Robinson plummeted, going from a stellar 40 percent three-point shooting to 28.6 percent after he was traded. Still, Philly isn’t without other options from deep.

Tobias Harris is their go-to shooter at a respectable 36.2 percent from three. Off the bench, Furkan Korkmaz, Shake

Philly will have to depend on the shooting touch of Tobias Harris in the playoffs.
Photo courtesy of @tobiasharris on Instagram.

Milton and Mike Scott offer good catch and shoot options, with Korkmaz and Milton having career years from behind the line. Philly isn’t the three-point quagmire that they’re made out to be. They’re middle of the pack in terms of three-point percentage and towards the bottom in attempts, but the Lakers, Nuggets and Thunder all shoot less threes than them and all at a lower efficiency.

The Sixers lost a valuable shot creator and first option in late-game situations with Jimmy Butler, but take a closer look at his 2019 playoffs and they can easily make up his output. Butler averaged 19 points per game on 45 percent shooting from the field and 27 percent shooting from three-point range, which is by no means irreplaceable. The Sixers will have to figure out who to go to in the clutch, but Butler wasn’t the missing piece of their championship puzzle.

Home vs Away

Start with this: Philly’s record at home was 29-2. Their record away was 10-24. Did Philly fans really make such a great difference that they were a completely different team at home? Their home record beats out even that of the Bucks, who had a historically great season. According to Bryan Kalbrosky with hoopshype.com, they have the worst home-away record discrepancy since the 1954-55 Celtics.

It wasn’t that they were facing easier competition at home. Just 39 percent of their home opponents boasted records with a winning percentage of .600 or higher (which includes the top 11 teams in the league), and that number was 47 percent on the road. That’s a small difference, but not nearly enough to account for the disparity in their record between home and away.

The real inconsistency lies within their defense. According to NBA.com, the Sixers allow 102.5 PPG to opponents at home, good for first in the league. On the road, however, they allow 111.8 PPG, 16th in the league. Any way you look at their home vs away stats, it’s a tale of two teams. Maybe it’s an issue with team prep, but in neutral courts of Orlando, the 76ers will get exposed as the team they really are, for better or for worse.

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