From contenders to clunky: Why the Philadelphia 76ers have failed expectations

Joel Embiid | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Joel Embiid | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

Why the Philadelphia 76ers have performed below their lofty preseason expectations.

The Philadelphia 76ers have been struggling and they haven’t been the powerhouse defensive team that everyone expected prior to the start of the season. Their defensive orientated team has finally come to bite them in the offensive end. Defensively, they’ve been lazy and are not fully locked in. On offense, they can’t buy a bucket when it matters, and they look loss in the halfcourt.

The Sixers’ struggles stem from the 3-2 zone that was implemented against them by Erik Spoelstra in their second head-to-head against Miami. The biggest advantage of zone defense is to protect the paint. The Sixers have three players who make their living in the paint in Al Horford, Ben Simmons, and Joel Embiid — a big reason the team fails to score a lot.

When you look at the Sixers roster, the team is built around the most dominant center in the league, Embiid, and an All-Star point guard who won’t shoot, Simmons. The complementary pieces around them are Horford, Tobias Harris, and Josh Richardson, who are all decent shooters, but are also all currently shooting below the league average from deep. Offensively, that does not make for a great team.

The Sixers, however, were built to thrive on defense.

Let’s look at what has worked in the past with both Simmons and Embiid:

  • 2017-2018 — Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Joel Embiid
    • Offensive Rating — 115.4
    • Defensive Rating — 94.9
    • Net Rating — 20.5
  • 2018-2019 — Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Joel Embiid
    • Offensive Rating — 121.9
    • Defensive Rating — 102.5
    • Net Rating — 19.4
  • 2019-2020 — Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford, Joel Embiid
    • Offensive Rating — 104.3
    • Defensive Rating — 96.9
    • Net Rating — 7.4

It’s interesting to see that this isn’t the best defensive team Simmons and Embiid have played on. Also, this is the worst offensive team they’ve played on, which isn’t surprising. The best regular season roster was the one where both cornerstone players were surrounded by shooters. But the closest roster to a championship was no doubt last season’s roster. Redick and Butler made the difference.

Even before the Tobias Harris trade last season, the Sixers’ starting five was still better than the current one. Adding Harris alongside Butler put the Sixers over the top. Despite only playing ten games together in the regular season, they were the league’s best starting five going into the playoffs.

Having the two-man game with the Embiid dribble hand-off to Redick was a key play the Sixers used frequently last season. It had a lot of success and gave the Sixers more options in a halfcourt setting. Not to mention the amount of attention Redick commands from defenses.

Butler being able to handle the ball late in the game perfectly masks Simmons’ fourth quarter problems. Simmons with the ball in his hands late in games is a liability, and they usually give the ball to Richardson or Harris, who are not nearly as proficient as Butler in late-game situations. Without Butler, the Sixers never stood a chance against the Raptors in the first place. Last year’s lineup gave the team a lot of versatility on the offensive end and also had many of the team’s current issues solved.

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So with the perfect recipe in hand to win a championship, why did Brand not build the team in the same manner? Why did Brand go after another power forward in Al Horford, instead of signing a ball handler or sharpshooter?

The Horford acquisition meant the team wanted to fully buy in on defense (and to also have a reliable backup center for Embiid). Considering the last team to win a championship solely on defense alone was the 2004 Detroit Pistons, it is certainly interesting that Brand wanted to move in that direction.

The problem with that is the Sixers don’t seem to be engaged 100 percent of the time, with the exception of Simmons and Richardson. Perhaps that will change in the playoffs, but right now it’s certainly costing them a shot at having home court advantage.

There have been suggestions of moving Horford to the bench and making him a backup center. Either adding James Ennis, Mike Scott, or even Furkan Korkmaz to the starting lineup. This wouldn’t solve the issues, however, it would at least mitigate the spacing issue and help Simmons and Embiid in the halfcourt. Hopefully, this is one change Brown will implement if the Sixers continue to struggle.

This can be one way of avoiding the 3-2 zone and not limiting Embiid’s and Simmons’ skill on offense. Teams may still throw the zone at them even with Horford off, but at least having a spot-up shooter and cutter will give the Sixers more breathing room.

The Harris signing is a good one, despite getting overpaid. He can score from anywhere and plays solid defense as well, which is a good piece to have in any starting lineup. Could they have gotten a cheaper player that fills the same void? Possibly. But Simmons and Harris are close and there was already familiarity instilled within the players. Also, losing Landry Shamet and a few draft picks only to let go of the star acquisition wouldn’t have looked good.

The team had championship aspirations coming into the season. The talent is there, but trades or a major change on offense has to be made for this team to reach the Finals. Brand has to find at least one sharpshooter or ball handler before the playoffs. The likelihood of trading Horford is low, so any additions would be minor going forward.

In conclusion, this roster will not drastically change this year. A change of system has to be implemented by Brett Brown or the Sixers have to live up to their defensive potential. No team has better defensive potential than the Sixers, and it’s up to the Sixers to play to their strengths.

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Simmons has played like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Richardson always gives his all, Harris has improved tremendously, and we know what Embiid and Horford are capable of. From now on, it’s time for Brett Brown to solve the team’s offensive issues and find things that work, even if that means using something he’s not comfortable with (the pick-and-roll).