The Sixers kept their core in tact and added some depth. The majority of people are bullish on their ceiling in the 2022-23 season. But, some remain skeptical of their age and leadership. Whether you’re ready to buy in or not, here are 5 reasons to be optimistic about the Sixers.
The core is (far) better than you might remember
Say what you want about statistics and analytics. The best way to sum their purpose might be that they provide proof of features that your eyes and memories don’t capture.
And the numbers say the core of Joel Embiid, James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, and Tobias Harris is somewhere between quite good and elite.
That 4-player unit outscored opponents by 6.6 points per 100 possessions in 257 minutes in the playoffs. The only group that was better in more minutes played? The Golden State Warriors’ unit of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, and Draymond Green.
Of all 4-man combinations to play at least 200 minutes in the playoffs, the following teams put forth better units, per 100 possessions (from slightly better to far better):
So, that’s the subject of discussion twice, the reigning NBA champs three times, and an Eastern Conference finalist.
You could even condense the core to just Embiid, Harden, and Maxey. That 3-man unit outscored the opposition by 5.5 points per 100 possessions in 285 playoff minutes together.
The following teams played trios that put forth better per-100 figures in more playoff minutes:
Mavericks (2 units)
Celtics (3 units)
Heat (4 units)
Warriors (5 units)
So, that’s another 3-man unit from the subject of discussion, and then all 4 teams that advanced to their respective conferences’ finals.
There’s no argument for the roster being worse
You could make a reasonable case that, had Embiid not been sidelined for 2 games and then clearly hindered by freak injuries, the Sixers would’ve won their semifinal matchup with the Heat.
Danny Green is the only credible rotation player that that team lost. They subtracted Green, who is going to miss a significant chunk of the 2022-23 season with a knee injury anyway. The replaced him with the younger, more athletic, and more versatile De’Anthony Melton to bolster their guard depth and credibility in defending on the perimeter.
The Sixers then added PJ Tucker, Danuel House, and (for now) Trevelin Queen.
So, a team that, at full strength, had a chance to get to the Eastern Conference Finals lost one rotation player and added three.
The perimeter defense no longer relies so heavily on Matisse Thybulle
The Sixers finished 12th and 7th in defense in the regular season and playoffs, respectively. Matisse Thybulle, with his 2 All-Defensive Second Team honors, was thrust into a role as the lead stopper on the perimeter with Ben Simmons holding out for a trade.
In theory, you’ll take your chances with Thybulle anchoring your perimeter defense. He’s obviously one of the two or three best defensive wings in the league. But, his complete and utter lack of meaningful growth on offense ultimately puts a ceiling on his impact on the defensive side of the ball.
In other words, his offensive limitations keep him on the sidelines when the games matter the most. And he cannot assert himself as a defensive asset from the bench.
No matter what Thybulle does in those minutes he’s on the court, the net product isn’t all that positive because defenses sell out on him in favor of neutralizing the Sixers’ actual offensive threats. Thinking about it another way, no matter what Thybulle does on defense when he’s playing, it doesn’t consistently affect outcomes in meaningful games because he doesn’t play enough minutes due to his offensive limitations.
With the additions of Tucker and House, the Sixers no longer have to worry about picking and choosing their spots with Thybulle. More importantly, they now have a pair of reliable defenders they can trust in crunch time without having to expense their own offense.
The newfound defensive depth and versatility on the wings also affords the Sixers the flexibility to use switching as a defensive scheme that truly fits their strengths instead of resorting to it as a mostly-square peg in a round hole. They’ll still have weak links that opposing teams will look to hunt. There may only be one or two teams in the whole NBA that can switch without having any weak links. But, Philadelphia has plugged holes on defense this offseason that will allow it to be comfortable in switching.
And as a bonus, leaning more heavily into switching means the Sixers won’t have to trust Harden to make an effort to fight past screens in high-leverage situations. He prefers to switch. Now, they can accommodate that if it preserves his offensive juice to even a marginal degree.
This is their best guard depth of the Embiid era
Gone are the days of TJ McConnell, Raul Neto, Trey Burke, and (being overly-reliant upon) the inconsistent Shake Milton.
De’Anthony Melton is not changing your trajectory by himself. But, he’s an upgrade over Shake Milton:
Melton’s volume as a three-point shooter, in particular, makes his upgrade all the more obvious. In the 2021-22 season, he almost tripled Milton’s volume of threes attempted. More than 70 percent of Melton’s three-point volume came off the catch. More important than that – he made nearly 41 percent of those attempts.
They’ve proven to draw even as playmakers thus far. But, Melton is a far better fit as a scorer. He has the athleticism to attack gaps off of ball swings and get to the rim with authority. Milton lacks the strength and vertical pop to do those things consistently. Melton won’t have the ball in his hands at all times. But, he’s comfortable with spreading the floor. That affords the Sixers additional lineup flexibility, making it seamlessly easy to stagger either of Harden and Maxey in on-ball roles with the second unit.
The defensive side of the ball pretty handily favors Melton, too. He ranked in the top 5 percentiles of combo guards in block percentage, steal percentage, and defensive rebounding percentage in 2021-22, according to Cleaning The Glass. Milton ranked below the 50th percentiles in two of those three metrics.
It would be a bad-faith argument to say that there’s concrete basis in believing that Melton will score 18-20 points per game and be a frontrunner for the Sixth Man of the Year award. Variance in production is the nature of score-first guards coming off the bench. But, Melton has enough diversity in his repertoire for there to be an expectation that he can make positive contributions on a nightly basis. He’ll walk into strong defensive nights just by using his physical tools and instincts. Maybe the scoring won’t be there every night. But, it’s not unreasonable to believe that additional playmaking freedoms could fill in that production in off games.
This isn’t to say that the days of watching Milton be taken to the weight room by bigger matchups are over. It isn’t to say that the days of wondering if he’s going to boom or bust on offense are over, either. In fact, Milton still figures to play a role in the rotation.
But, the guard rotation is no longer as deep as the standard that comes with Harden and Maxey, plus the uncertainty of Milton and whichever other marginal players of whom the Sixers are trying to squeak out value.
Now, it’s the starting backcourt, a more-than-credible two-way guard in Melton providing flexibility to stagger either of Harden and Maxey in the second unit next to him, and whatever Milton gives you with the remaining responsibilities.
They improved upon clear weaknesses
You’re within your right to have a strong distaste for Ben Simmons. But, you’re kidding yourselves if you neglect the value he added on the margins. Whether it was winning 50/50 balls, beating defenders to offensive rebounds, or taking the lead on the team’s efforts to neutralize elite offensive players, Simmons filled in cracks that, collectively, would break most teams.
The Sixers finished 30th in the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage and 15th in defensive rebounding percentage in 2021-22, according to Cleaning The Glass. The Sixers consistently blew defensive stands, gave away extra shots, or wasted possessions because they didn’t have the size, athleticism, or will to fight for rebounds and loose balls.
A singular missed opportunity in the middle of the first quarter isn’t going to make or break your chances of winning on any given night. But, the same missed opportunities compounded over and over again will leave you with regrets.
Enter PJ Tucker, who finished 3rd on the Heat in loose balls recovered. Tucker also tied for 4th amongst all players in the NBA 6-foot-7 or shorter in offensive rebounds per game, minimum 20 games played.
Considering Tucker’s 59 loose balls recovered would’ve ranked 2nd on the Sixers by a significant margin, that’s a notable improvement. Considering Tucker’s 100 offensive rebounds would’ve ranked 2nd on the Sixers by a significant margin, that’s a notable improvement.
Enter Danuel House Jr, who tied for 1st on the Jazz in loose balls recovered per minute, minimum 200 minutes played last season. His .03 loose balls recovered per minute would’ve tied for 2nd on the Sixers, minimum 200 minutes played, to Paul Reed.
The Sixers lost games last year because they simply did not have a junkyard dog. They didn’t have players capable of putting together strings of plays on the margins that added up to extra victories. Tucker trends more towards being the perfect fit in that role, but both additions shore up what the Sixers do in the hustle and toughness departments.