Joel Embiid and James Harden back on defense against the Detroit Pistons; photo by Austin Krell/TPL

A little more than Halfway through the 2022-23 NBA season, the Sixers sit at 26-16, good for the 4-seed in the Eastern Conference and just two games in the loss column back of the 2-seed. Through 42 games, Philadelphia is outscoring the opposition by 3.5 points per 100 possessions. The Sixers are 10th in offense and sixth in defense, according to Cleaning The Glass. They’ve reached the top third of the league on both ends of the floor, which is historically the underlying sweet spot for teams that have a chance of winning the title. 

Rather than assign individual player grades, this column will examine Philadelphia’s offensive profile, defensive profile, best and worst lineups, areas of encouragement and concern, and trade needs through the first half of the campaign.

Offensive profile

Philadelphia has exhibited a meaningful shift in its shot profile since last season. The volume of midrange field goal attempts is down nearly 5 percent, and less than 10 percent of their shots are long twos. I think that comes with the territory of trading away Seth Curry, 27 regular-season games and continuity from last season with James Harden, and Tobias Harris’ usage being down as the third or fourth guy in line on any given night.

Speaking of the Harden variable, three-point shots are the main course of the meal for Philadelphia on any given night, while shots at the rim are the side dish. The pace with which Harden has conducted the offense since returning from his foot injury in December has likely lifted three-pointers ahead of the pack in shot diet. He’s getting the ball up the floor quickly, whether it be via hit-ahead passes or pushing the rock, himself, to take advantage of reeling defenses, and that’s creating open threes for his team. Some don’t love the concept of a threes-first team, especially when the team has Joel Embiid. But, it is important to note that the Sixers take the fourth most corner threes in the league. So, they’re not neglecting the short three, so to speak.

I would like to see the shots at rim and volume of threes even out more by season’s end. It just seems like a slight misuse of resources that attempts around the basket are second fiddle to threes when the team has the league’s second-highest scorer at center. Speaking of the big fella, he’s taking the fewest threes of his career and the second most midrange jumpers of his career. In fact, Embiid is practically spear-heading all of the team’s midrange offense. He takes more midrange jumpers than 97 percent of the bigs in the NBA, and more shots between four feet and the free throw line than 78 percent of the league’s big men. 

Oh, and by the way, that’s totally fine in the case of Embiid. The midrange jumper is an inefficient shot if you’re not making at least 45 percent of them, and Embiid is lacing 47 percent of his midrange attempts. The same thing that I said earlier applies, though. Shots at the rim govern the second largest share of his field goal attempts, but they still pale in comparison to his volume of midrange shots. I’d like to see him get to the rim a bit more, especially considering Embiid is shooting 73 percent within four feet of the basket.

Overall, Philadelphia’s shot profile is efficient, even if a bit inverted. Turnovers are up quite a bit, but the Sixers are getting to the charity stripe as much as they ever have. Nothing about what the Sixers are doing on offense appears unsustainable. In fact, the offense should improve as Embiid, Harden, and Tyrese Maxey build up their minutes together after a slew of injuries in the first half of the season. 

Defensive profile

The Sixers’ defensive traits are nearly identical to their offensive traits, and that’s not a great thing. 35.1 percent of the shots they allow are threes, according to Cleaning The Glass. The next biggest food group in the opponent shot diet is shots at the rim. 31.1 percent of the opposition’s shot volume is coming in the midrange.

It’s at least somewhat surprising that the Sixers are giving up more shots at the rim than they are in the midrange, given Embiid’s presence in the paint. But, it’s explainable for a couple of reasons. First, the Sixers defend pick-and-rolls out of a drop coverage. Embiid prefers being closer to the rim over switching, and he’s been quite vocal about his disdain for zone defense. Drop coverage is intended to funnel the ball to the rim-protector, which means you’re inherently going to give up shots closer to the basket. Second, their big man depth behind Embiid is Montrezl Harrell, Paul Reed, and PJ Tucker. One cannot defend in space, struggles to hold his attention on defense, and is too small to consistently alter shots around the basket. Two lacks the playing experience to defend the rim without fouling. The third guy is a small-ball big who has no chance of stopping anyone at the basket. As soon as Embiid leaves the floor, the opposition is licensed to hunt for shots around the cup.

Part of why the Sixers have put forth such strong defensive numbers thus far is opponent three-point shooting. The opposition is shooting just 34.7 percent from deep, the league average is 35.7 percent. Opponents are shooting 34.9 percent on corner threes, league average is 38.4 percent. The shot diet the Sixers’ defense allows plays into the hands of good three-point shooting. The opponent is not shooting the three well against them. So, there’s an element of three-point shooting luck involved. Keep in mind that Philadelphia has been on the losing end of some torrid individual three-point shooting performances over the last three weeks. So, you could make the case that, by and large, the Sixers have been luckier with opponent three-point shooting than the numbers even suggest.

Philadelphia has forged its defensive identity by absolutely controlling opposing offenses in the halfcourt setting. The Sixers allow just 94.2 points per 100 halfcourt plays, good for third best in the NBA. Their transition defense is an area of notable improvement. After the first two weeks of games, the Sixers were breaking databases with off-the-charts terrible transition defense numbers. They started to send more players back on defense when the shot went up. Things still aren’t great in transition. A regression in turnover rate from Embiid and the too-frequent-for-comfort live-ball turnovers from Harden often leave the Sixers reeling to get back, the opposition motoring down the court with favorable numbers. But, the Sixers have rebounded from that early five-alarm firm to settle in at 14th in the league in points allowed per 100 transition plays. If Philadelphia’s offense has room to improve as theorized above, you can logically make a case that the transition defense will improve (because the better your offense, theoretically the fewer transition opportunities for your foes).

For now, I’m pretty skeptical of Philadelphia’s defense, as good as it’s been to date. They’re living with the opposition getting the vast majority of its shots from deep and at the rim, and they’ve had favorable opponent three-point shooting luck. Philadelphia has done an excellent job of turning opponents over thus far. But, the Sixers give up too many offensive rebounds and send foes to the free throw line too often. 

They give up the most efficient shots on the court. The Sixers allow too many second-chance opportunities. They commit too many fouls. And yet, Philadelphia is still sixth in defense. It’s difficult to not be skeptical.

Three best lineups

These lineups were taken from NBA.com’s tracking data. Five-men lineups must have played at least 25 minutes together in order to be eligible. They are judged by point differential per 100 possessions.

Tyrese Maxey – Matisse Thybulle – Tobias Harris – PJ Tucker – Joel Embiid: +34.7 (52 minutes)

I’m skeptical of any five-man offense when that lineup includes both Thybulle and Tucker. But, this group puts up 118.7 points per 100 possessions. That means the defense has to be outrageous, and this unit is allowing just 84 points per 100 possessions. This group rebounds nearly 70 percent of the opponent’s misses. So, if I had to guess, there’s probably an element of cold shooting that has oversold this unit’s net viability. Armed with the disclaimer that 52 minutes is not a statistically significant sample size, this has been Philadelphia’s best lineup under the parameters specified above.

James Harden – De’Anthony Melton – Harris – Georges Niang – Embiid: +33.7 (43 minutes)

Just like I was skeptical of the previous lineup’s offense, I’m skeptical of this group’s defense. I buy that this unit has the right formula of playmaking, shooting, and stardom to blow opponents away on offense. But, it’s very hard to believe any lineup with both Harden and Niang is holding foes to 97.6 points per 100 possessions. This group rebounds more than 70 percent of the opposition’s misses. So, I again suspect shooting luck is helping the defense. But, this group has an effective field goal percentage of 62.2. They shoot the snot out of the ball, and I have a hunch that’s the grand separator. This unit has been Philadelphia’s second best lineup by far, more than two-times better than the third best group.

Maxey – Shake Milton – Thybulle – Niang – Montrezl Harrell: +15.5 (28 minutes)

Sorry, there’s no way I’m buying that a lineup in which Thybulle is the best defender is holding the opposition to 98.2 points per 100 possessions. This group rebounds 73.3 percent of the opposition’s misses. I’m calling [bleep] on that. That’s small sample size theater. I do think it makes sense that this group can be a little worse than average on offense (113.8 points per 100). The concept of Maxey, Niang, and Harrell is fine on offense. But, I’m not using this lineup as one of my core units. 

Three worst lineups

These lineups are judged using the same database and parameters as the ones above.

Harden – Milton – Harris – Tucker – Embiid: -12.9 (29 minutes)

I buy that this lineup can score with the best of them (132.3 points per 100 possessions). I also buy that the backcourt’s defense is bad and that Tucker has largely struggled as an individual defender inside the arc this season. But, in a sample size of just 29 minutes, it only takes one or two bad outings to flip this group’s output on its head.

Maxey – Melton – Danuel House Jr. – Niang – Embiid: -29 (33 minutes)

Embiid is the best playmaker in this group. So, that tells you this group is going to struggle to piece together productive offensive sequences. It’s hard to win your minutes when you’re scoring only 107.2 points per 100 possessions. But, a lineup with Maxey’s lack of size, Niang’s heavy-footedness, and House’s scatterbrained play is going to struggle on defense. Not surprised by this one.

Milton – Melton – Harris – Tucker – Embiid: -29.4 (58 minutes)

This one surprises me a bit. Not only is this group struggling to score, but it’s also hemorrhaging points on defense. The true shooting and effective field goal percentages are way down. So, I suspect that this unit could normalize on offense if given more time. I think what we’re seeing here is that Melton is overrated as an individual defender and Tucker has struggled to win matchups when he can’t wall them off on the perimeter. I’d probably give this lineup some more time. If nothing else, at least two of the Sixers’ core four starters are staggered into this group. That’s the vision anyway. Although, I don’t think anyone wants it staggered so that Harden and Maxey are together, as that’s a bad defensive base.

Areas of encouragement

  • Philadelphia scores 100.2 points per 100 halfcourt plays and 131.7 points per 100 transition plays. That’s good for seventh and fifth in the NBA, respectively, according to Cleaning The Glass. Philadelphia’s offense got off to a rough start. The various injuries to the theoretical trio postponed any build-up of data for the team at full strength. But, even with Embiid, Harden, and Maxey each missing time, the Sixers, collectively, are on track to be a legitimate top-10 offense.
  • When the trio of Harden, Maxey, and Embiid have been available, lineups featuring the three have outpaced opponents by 7.8 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning The Glass. That differential ranks in the 91st percentile of all NBA lineups to play at least 100 possessions. I’m curious to see (skeptical) whether they can hold down a defensive rating of 110.9, especially when those lineups aren’t forcing really any turnovers. But, I absolutely believe the offense is elite.
  • Lineups featuring specifically Embiid and Harden (Maxey not necessarily off the court, but not a fixture in the unit) are outscoring opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions. That ranks in the 95th percentile of all lineups to play at least 100 possessions this season, according to Cleaning The Glass. Those groups are actually doing quite well defensively, but they’re really kicking butt on offense. Not a surprise, but any indication that the Embiid-Harden pairing isn’t elite would be alarming to say the least.

Areas of concern

  • Both Cleaning The Glass and PBP Stats suggest that the Harden-Maxey backcourt is still definitively winning its minutes even though the eye test says they’re struggling to defend everything. Not only that, both databases indicate that lineups featuring the two guards are in the middle third of the league on defense. They’ve played 411 minutes together. The opposition is shooting 55.7 percent on twos and 35.3 percent on threes. We’ll wait and see, but those shooting percentages leave me skeptical.
  • The Sixers are simply horrendous at rebounding the basketball on both ends of the floor. Eye test says it, numbers support it. Most of it is effort and awareness, the players falling asleep when the shot goes up. Pretty alarming that that’s an achilles heel still halfway through the season.

Trade needs

I’ve vacillated on this throughout the first half of the season. Two months ago, I would’ve made a case that they need another guard. I don’t think that should be a top priority anymore. One month ago, I would’ve said they need another big man. I’ve softened on that being a priority. Halfway through, I think they clearly need another wing. Not necessarily a great shooter who is unreliable though capable on defense. Not necessarily an all-world defender who can’t be charged with much responsibility on offense. Just a league-average shooter who won’t think twice about letting it fly. Someone who has legitimate positional size with the athleticism and strength needed to contain the ball in individual matchups.

If there isn’t a market for those types, the backup center position could use a look. Harrell has found his groove on offense. Reed makes a nice play between every undisciplined foul or ridiculous offensive sequence. I don’t particularly trust either in a playoff environment. I don’t think you need a traditionally-sized big man, either. Just someone with the body to hold his own against traditional bigs, the agility to switch onto the perimeter from time to time, and the vertical pop to help the rebounding issue. I don’t really care about the offensive side of the ball with the backup big because you can pair them with Harden to be solely a vertical spacer in the pick-and-roll.

Both archetypes seem like the perfect trade candidates for most teams. That’s probably true. The Sixers don’t have many trade assets. So, I wouldn’t expect them to solve all of their problems with external pieces. The good news is that the Sixers are progressing nicely as is. They’re certainly not perfect, but no team is. It’s about how well you manage your weak spots in the postseason.

Philadelphia has 40 more regular-season games to figure that out. 

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