NBA standings based on hustle stats: Is 76ers’ defense scrappy enough?

De'Anthony Melton, Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
De'Anthony Melton, Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images) /

The Philadelphia 76ers are generally considered one of the five or six genuine title contenders in the NBA. Joel Embiid is playing MVP-caliber basketball (again) and James Harden is providing a strong reminder of his unique brilliance.

That said, Philly’s defense has been a point of concern lately. The Indiana Pacers dropped 143 points on them, not long after Dallas lit them up for 133 points. The offense ranks No. 1 in the league since Harden returned from injury, but it’s difficult to pitch the Sixers as full-blown title contenders without total confidence in the defense.

But there may be reason for optimism. The Sixers have multiple quality defenders on the roster and a genuine penchant for creating turnovers. Take a gander at the NBA hustle stats — in this case, deflections — and Philly actually ranks quite favorably in comparison to the league’s top contenders.

The peak outcome of any defensive possession is getting a hand on the ball and either forcing a turnover or disrupting the opponent’s flow. The Sixers happen to be quite good at that.

NBA standings based on deflections per game

Eastern Conference:

  1. Toronto Raptors (18.2)
  2. Charlotte Hornets (15.9)
  3. Miami Heat (15.0)
  4. Indiana Pacers (14.8)
  5. Chicago Bulls (14.8)
  6. Philadelphia 76ers (13.9)
  7. Atlanta Hawks (13.7)
  8. Orlando Magic (13.7)
  9. Brooklyn Nets (13.7)
  10. Cleveland Cavaliers (13.6)
  11. Detroit Pistons (13.3)
  12. Boston Celtics (12.5)
  13. Washington Wizards (12.4)
  14. Milwaukee Bucks (12.3)
  15. New York Knicks (11.0)

The Sixers rank in the top-half of the Eastern Conference in deflections per game. More notably, they’re comfortably ahead of Boston, Milwaukee, and New York — arguably their primary sources of competition in the postseason.

And, while the defense at large needs to improve, one has to remember the circumstances. We’re still in the regular season. Joel Embiid simply cannot give 100-percent effort every night on the defensive end. He carries too much of a burden offensively and has a responsibility to preserve his body for the playoffs. With a full-tilt Embiid, a zeroed-in P.J. Tucker, and the crazed hands of Philly’s second-unit fighters (De’Anthony Melton, Paul Reed, Jalen McDaniels), the Sixers’ hustle stats could rise even higher in the playoffs.

Western Conference:

  1. Minnesota Timberwolves (16.3)
  2. New Orleans Pelicans (16.0)
  3. Memphis Grizzlies (15.5)
  4. LA Clippers (14.9)
  5. Oklahoma City Thunder (14.7)
  6. Phoenix Suns (14.6)
  7. Golden State Warriors (14.6)
  8. Denver Nuggets (14.1)
  9. San Antonio Spurs (13.9)
  10. Houston Rockets (13.5)
  11. Sacramento Kings (13.5)
  12. Utah Jazz (12.9)
  13. Los Angeles Lakers (12.7)
  14. Portland Trail Blazers (12.7)
  15. Dallas Mavericks (11.7)

The West paints a slightly more daunting picture, as both Denver and Phoenix — the most likely Finals opponents if Philly can reach the mountaintop — outrank the Sixers. It’s only a slight margin, but the Nuggets’ defense features several active defenders who can bother Philadelphia’s primary creators. As for Phoenix, it would not be surprising to see their deflection numbers dip slightly in the absence of Mikal Bridges.

The 76ers’ active hands will help them in the playoffs

The Sixers’ defense deserves both optimism and criticism. On one hand, the lack of consistent good habits is worrying. We know the Sixers can’t just flip the switch on discipline. That said, Embiid’s effort will ratchet up in the playoffs. That alone should elevate the defense. P.J. Tucker also has a history of really making his impact felt in the postseason, while last year’s playoffs saw Tobias Harris play the best defense of his career. De’Anthony Melton is a turnover-generating machine. Charlotte ranks so highly here in part because of Jalen McDaniels’ defensive efforts over the first half of the season. Paul Reed always mucks up the game.

Point is, the Sixers have ample defensive playmaking on the roster. They have all the tools necessary to disrupt even the league’s best offenses. More deflections equals more transition opportunities, which equals more efficient offense. James Harden and Tyrese Maxey running off a steal is the purest form of bliss. The Sixers are in a good spot.