Harden and Embiid at Sixers media day 2022; photo by Austin Krell/TPL

The Sixers are 4-6 through their first 10 games. Their net rating of plus-1 and point differential of plus-6 place them just above average right now. While much of that may be explainable by Joel Embiid missing a handful of games with a sore knee and the flu, there’s much we can learn from the five-man units Doc Rivers has deployed thus far. Here are three good lineups and three bad ones the Sixers have used. 

Harden-Maxey-Tucker-Harris-Embiid: +5.2 per 100 possessions (114 minutes)

No cause for a five-alarm fire — yet. The Sixers’ opening-night lineup has only played 6 games together, although that unit has already logged the fourth most minutes in the NBA this season. The most jarring part is that James Harden has looked far better than he did through the majority of his time with the Sixers last season, and PJ Tucker is an upgrade over Matisse Thybulle on the offensive side of the floor. Yet, the remade post-trade deadline starters scored 122.3 points per 100 possessions and were plus-20.2 per 100 possessions in 323 minutes last season. That was the best 5-man unit in the NBA from February 25 to the end of the regular season.

The new starting group that should theoretically be much better? Scoring 113.6 points per 100 possessions, and their net output is below average.

It’s not that the figure produced by the Sixers’ opening-night starters is bad. It’s that it’s not good enough for a team with designs to be the last man standing in the Eastern Conference.

Ultimately, look no further than the additional points per 100 possessions allowed through transition play. That group has allowed opponents to add 9.2 points per 100 possessions by getting out and running when the Sixers fail to secure the offensive glass or turn the ball over — the worst mark in the NBA by a considerable margin. The third quarters in both of the first two games stand out, with Embiid’s attempts to do everything on offense himself manifesting in easy points the other way for the Celtics and Bucks. 

That starting group is talented enough that a sustained net that low would ostensibly mean something went horribly wrong. Just think about it — they’re plus-13, total, over 6 games. They’re a random two-to-three-minute run in the middle of a quarter away from being a net-zero or negative. 

Harden-Maxey-Melton-Harris-Tucker: +20.3 per 100 possessions (49 minutes)

Even though this is a small-ball group, they’re actually playing at a slower pace than the more traditional opening-night starting five is.

This lineup is scoring 132.6 points per 100 possessions. That’s a top-fifth percentile offense. The defensive side of the ball is where things aren’t great.

Without knowing for certain, my guess is last Wednesday’s home loss to the Wizards probably skewed the defensive output a bit high. With Embiid out and the film of a loss to that same Sixers group on Monday still fresh, Kristaps Porzingis and the Wizards bludgeoned Philadelphia inside, making 37-of-50 shots from 14 feet and closer. It wasn’t that the Sixers necessarily executed their defense poorly. It was that they just didn’t have the size to bother the 7-foot-3 Porzingis’ jumper or keep Washington off the offensive glass. 

When you go small, you’re inherently presented with rebounding and matchup limitations on defense. It just so happened that their opponent had a high-usage big who could shoot over almost anyone the Sixers had. But, you’re sacrificing the traditional size in favor of more activity on defense. And the Sixers ultimately won the transition battle in that game.

Even though that group isn’t playing with tremendous pace, their halfcourt offense is thriving on James Harden’s playmaking and De’Anthony Melton’s decision-making as a roller. That unit is shooting 31-for-51 on twos and 18-for-36 on threes, and has registered 31 assists against 10 turnovers.

Maxey-Melton-Harris-Tucker-Harrell: +6.8 per 100 possessions (19 minutes)

I’m actually quite surprised that this lineup is positive, let alone statistically better than the opening-night starters have been.

It becomes even more baffling when you consider that they’re not scoring or shooting efficiently, either, with true shooting and effective field goal percentages of 46.7 and 44.7, respectively. But upon further review, there’s one way to make sense of it.

This unit has yet to commit a turnover. 

Take it a step further. This lineup lacks a traditional point guard, lacks multiple levels of shot-creation, and features maybe two or three players who can be trusted with more than three dribbles at a time. That this group has gone this long without committing a turnover defies logic.

Averaging a mediocre 94.9 points per 100 halfcourt plays, this lineup is using the length and ball pressure Melton and Tucker provide to junk up the opposition’s halfcourt offense and create transition offense for Philadelphia. And since this group hasn’t committed any turnovers, opponents have had limited opportunities for transition offense.

Maxey-Melton-House Jr.-Niang-Embiid: -27.6 per 100 possessions (28 minutes)

Almost 20 percent of this group’s possessions end in turnovers. Even when they don’t turn the ball over, they’re limited to one shot on almost 82 percent of those possessions. To make matters worse, the opposition rebounds its own misses on more than 42 percent of its possessions. 

While the offensive output is average, they’re getting crushed on defense. Part of that is because Embiid is supposed to be the defensive anchor, but is a bad transition defender. The opponent shot profile suggests that this group gives up a lot of threes and nearly as many shots at the rim. If Embiid is contesting shots at the rim, that leaves three underwhelming rebounders out of four possible teammates in the game to try to secure the ball if the shot misses. And the fact that Georges Niang, the de facto power forward in this lineup, isn’t even passable as a rebounder really hurts the group in those moments when the ball is coming off the rim. 

All in all, it’s a disaster. But, I guess the Sixers can take some solace in knowing that it’s easy to understand why this lineup has struggled so much. 

Harden-Maxey-Tucker-Harris-Harrell: -23.1 per 100 possessions (13 minutes)

Any time you have a Harden-Tyrese Maxey backcourt and Montrezl Harrell lineup, you’re going to give up a lot of points. That’s especially the case when you adhere to principles of a switching defensive scheme. While not a bad offense, this group is hemorrhaging points. 

But, it’s a bit tricky.

More than half of the opposition’s shots against this lineup are threes. But, opponents are making just less than 31 percent of those attempts. What it seems to come down to is that this group is allowing the opposition to shoot 75 percent at the rim and 100 percent on all twos beyond the rim. It doesn’t help that this unit is absolutely putrid at forcing turnovers, too.

So, it doesn’t even matter that opponents might be a little bit too liberal with the three-point shot against this group. They’re getting a shot on more than 90 percent of their possessions. And they’re basically unstoppable as soon as they step inside the arc.

13 minutes isn’t nearly enough sample size to draw any type of long-term conclusions, but certainly some bad weirdness to what they’re doing thus far.

Harden-Melton-Thybulle-Harris-Tucker: -57.7 per 100 possessions (11 minutes)

Talk about a weird lineup.

They get a shot on 90 percent of their possessions. But, they rebound their own misses on just 8.3 percent of those possessions. To make it even more odd, opponents turn the ball over against this group on 25 percent of their possessions and have yet to record a single offensive rebound against them. And on top of that, this group has had a top-25th percentile free throw volume, making almost 24 freebies per 100 field goal attempts. 

Four of five indicators are positive, and yet a net rating pushing minus-60.  

There’s only one way to explain it — try an effective field goal percentage of 38.2. 

45 percent of their field goal attempts are threes, and they’ve made 11.1 percent of them.

The ball-dominant Harden isn’t dancing his way into many corner threes off the dribble. So, everyone is spread around him. Two of Philadelphia’s three best defenders on the court will, at least in theory, be spaced to the corners. When the shot goes up and misses, they’re in the worst positions on the court to get back in transition. 

200 points allowed per 100 transition plays. How does a guaranteed bucket for the opponent virtually every time this lineup misses a shot sound? Asking for the Sixers’ coaching staff.

Ultimately, there should be enough defense in this group for me to say I’d be interested in seeing more of them. It may just be a case of small sample size skewed horrifically by cold shooting. But, there needs to be offensive structure to blend in the limitations Thybulle and Tucker present. 


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