For Philly fans loyal enough to have trusted the process over the past few years, they have been royally rewarded. With both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid facing lingering doubts of varying scales, due to their respective rehabilitation processes, no one was quite sure what to expect from these young Sixers. But what was clear however, was that the franchise believed it was their time to shine. Investing in proven veterans in the offseason in JJ Reddick and Amir Johnson, the franchise looked to provide the tools and leadership required for Brett Brown’s squad to take the next step in its development.
The Sixers have done a great job filling out this roster with elite shooting. Between JJ Reddick, Marco Belinelli, Ersan Ilyasova, Dario Saric and Robert Covington there’s a huge amount of floor-spacers available to this team, across a number of potential line-ups. The pluckiness and hustle of TJ McConnell also resulted in him becoming one of my key League Pass players to watch. In his pre-season preview, Alex Cole envisioned the Sixers scrapping for one of the last playoff spots. Having finished third in the East, it’s fair to say the process is ahead of schedule.
The Sixers have been the best rebounding team in the NBA this season. They will limit second chance opportunities, and put pressure on the other team’s defensive glass too. Philly also moves the ball incredibly well, finishing behind only the Warriors in assists as a team. This isn’t only reflective of a team system and unselfish culture however. 95.4% of all three point shots Philadelphia score come from assists. With talents like Simmons and Embiid, having that threat from the three point line is a crucial deterrent from collapsing the defense on individual players. With many of the team’s best shooters also true spot-up shooters rather than individual creators, ball movement is fundamental to this team’s success.
Philadelphia finished third in defensive rating, fueled partially by an effective transition defense that only allowed opponents just 10.3 points per game – good enough for fourth in the NBA. The presence of Joel Embiid has been effective in minimising opportunities in the paint for opposing teams, with Philadelphia allowing the fewest point in the paint per contest. The team also excelled at contesting three point shooters, finishing behind only Boston over the course of the season. If they can keep these key parts of their team defense they will be a force.
Despite his incredible performance this season, it’s easy to forget that Ben Simmons is a rookie (Donovan Mitchell has his own view). Joel Embiid too, whilst in what would normally be his third NBA season has only played in 94 NBA games. Neither has playoff experience and this will be a huge test for the young cornerstones of this franchise. With the Sixers having endured years of cellar-dwelling in order to assemble this young talent, there will be a lot of pressure for them to deliver on what was promised at the outset of the ‘process’. Furthering this sense of uncertainty is the frankly bizarre narrative surrounding the Sixers number one draft pick, Markelle Fultz. Whilst now in action and looking athletic and effective, his jump shot still looks awkward and worthy of all the media time spent discussing it.
Whilst Embiid and Simmons are undeniably inexperienced, neither is a traditional personality. It feels like the days are rare when Embiid hasn’t started a new Twitter beef (hello Hassan Whiteside in the first round) or openly and shamelessly tweeted at Rihanna (he clearly has no fear of failure). Bill Simmons (not Ben!) made an astute observation that has stuck with me following the All-Star Game. When it came to the key stretch of play, Embiid was out there and he looked like he belonged.
Ben Simmons brings all the traits you associate with top Aussie players across all sports. He has the toughness and the character you’d expect to come from an underdog, but in a package talented enough to average near enough a triple-double in his rookie season. I think there will be key, and potentially costly lessons for these Sixers this time around, but it won’t be because Embiid or Simmons were overawed by the moment.
THE MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER?
Where to start with Joel Embiid? His defensive presence is incredible. Opponents shoot a worse percentage against Embiid than any other player who has played more than 45 games. This is reflected in more than just blocks. His presence is measured by the shots he alters, the number of drives that end without a shot attempt and when players resort to a series of awkward pump fakes in the lane. His footwork and touch in the paint has drawn comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon. Oh, and he has three point range…
THE ONE TO WATCH?
For all the amazing things I said about Embiid defensively, Ben Simmons is also a truly elite defensive player. He actually sits one place higher than Embiid in defensive win shares, and also sits alongside the best shot blockers from the wing. There will be a lot of focus however on the other side of the ball. For all his incredible transition play, passing and drives, he lacks shooting range and teams will plan for this. Think about this though, his rookie numbers are otherwise in line with LeBron James and Magic Johnson. Those guys turned out OK.
Written by Nick Whitfield – Copyright © 2018 Double Clutch. Double Clutch is not affiliated with the NBA and does not claim ownership over any NBA audio or images used. All rights are those of the NBA/NBA UK and respected parties e.g. Getty images.