It’s easy to blame the Philadelphia 76ers’ offense for the terrible 4-1 start that quickly made them the most disappointing team in the league. There were stretches where it was downright unwatchable. The ball sticks. bodies don’t move. It’s an aesthetic migraine for anyone who wants to see flowing basketball play between James Harden, Joel Embiid and the increasingly irrepressible Tyrese Maxey.
There’s some truth to that nagging about offense, but Philly has too much talent to dip anywhere below “good” when it’s time to put the ball in the basket. The Sixers are ninth in offensive standings, and the only team that has been more efficient in the halffield is Boston. No two teammates have linked with more assisted baskets than Harden and Embiid.
Far more detrimental to the Sixers so far is the undeniable fact that their defense is hot trash. Only four teams give up more points per possession, and it doesn’t take long to look under the hood to see why. The Sixers have the highest opposing 3-point frequency to date, with a 53.6 percent contest rate — the third-worst in the league, according to Second Spectrum — against all field goal attempts.
The Sixers keep attacks off the basket, but every opponent so far has slashed them when they get there, shooting 76.6 percent overall. This happens regardless of whether Embiid is in play or not, which will prove to be either coincidence or an ominous sign of impending disaster. Do you wanna blame Harden? Philly allows a whopping 138.9 points per 100 possessions when Embiid is on the floor without his notoriously lethargic costar.
Regardless of who’s playing, Philadelphia hasn’t made an impact in the halffield and — read this next part slowly because it’s important enough to ultimately decide how dramatic the mid-season changes in Philadelphia should be — own by far the worst transition defense in the NBA. When I say by far, I mean the league average for points added per 100 transition games is currently 3.4 and Philly allows for 9.3. Outside of live rebounds, teams score 1.7 points per transition game. Memphis is the second worst team at 1.43.
Here’s what these numbers look like when applied to a basketball court:
As with each team’s transition defense, some of these results are related to shot selection and ground balance. If the Sixers miss a 3, they’re wiped out shortly after, allowing for 1.26 points per possession. But what’s particularly worrying here is that they’re even worse afterwards did Baskets (1.31 points per possession).
Just a few games into a season of serious title ambitions, Doc Rivers is already crafting a zone defense that his players seem unprepared and incapable of:
When not pushing back in transition, the Sixers can be found rolling on backdoor cuts, screwing up pick-and-roll coverages, and refusing to close capable outside shooters. Misunderstandings are common. Effort seems optional.
Now comes the obligatory caveat that accompanies every article written just 10 days into an NBA season: It’s early! Embiid can eventually get in shape and continue liquidating the shot attempts making opponents unusually comfortable when protecting the rim. (They’re converting a paltry 75 percent of them so far.) Perhaps there will be a greater sense of urgency and everyone will begin to realize how important that first step back to defense is when trying to win an NBA game.
However, some parts of it cannot be corrected internally. Philly’s staff is questionable, which is worrying considering Daryl Morey has been active in the off-season trying to fix issues that arose in last year’s roster. A great responsibility falls to Embiid to clean up mistakes made at the perimeter. But even he cannot solve all problems on his own. With Wednesday’s game against the Raptors at stake, Toronto put Maxey into a ball save, catapulting Pascal Siakam downhill and forcing Embiid to pass Scottie Barnes, who caught Siakam’s bounce pass for an easy dunk to close out the game.
Maxey is 6-foot-2. Hardening is… hardening. Tobias Harris is stiff. The Sixers need PJ Tucker as a Doberman pinscher against the roster of veteran forwards and wings up and down the Eastern Conference (Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, etc.), but against the Raptors He started the game, giving Siakam enough space to do a cartwheel. Siakam responded by hitting about 17 jumpers in a row.
The Sixers don’t have a backup plan unless Tucker, who is 37, can at least disrupt opponents in these matchups. From the bench, Montrezl Harrell looks like the undersized third tall man that he is. Two-time acting all-defensive teammate Matisse Thybulle has played a total of six minutes this season. Its ability to generate turnover would help, but at the known cost of screwing up Philly’s distance, which is a no-no when trying to stress Harden and Embiid.
De’Anthony Melton and Danuel House Jr. are theoretically better two-way options built for the playoffs, which is what this roster was reportedly primed for. But so far they both look mixed up. Georges Niang is an eternal goal. Philly’s second most played lineup — Embiid, Maxey, Melton, House and Niang — is at minus 16 with a 139.7 defensive rating, and the offense didn’t even shoot the 3-ball well against them.
It’s early again. The Sixers have a very talented roster and five games isn’t a sample size worth firing or trading. But if things snowball after that slow start, a change might be needed. Right now, the Sixers’ defense doesn’t even seem capable of winning a playoff series, let alone contend for a championship.