What Is Going on With the 76ers?

Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons

Matt Slocum / Associated Press

Entering the season with high standards, the 76ers are struggling to fulfill their expectations. While they were expected to be one of the best teams in the East with the acquisition of Al Horford in the off-season, they are currently 5th in the East with a record of 33-21.

They have had several important victories over teams such as the Bucks and the Lakers, but they have also experienced many lengthy losing streaks. Even though they have the best home record in the league, they have an away record of 9-19, which is the worst out of all teams above .500. They recently went on a four-game losing streak, where they suffered a loss to the 15-40 Atlanta Hawks, one of the worst teams in the league.

While the 76ers may have some internal problems in the locker room, with several players throughout the past week calling each other out, the main concern about the 76ers is their offense. 

When the 76ers play Horford and Joel Embiid at the same time (a total of 14.3 minutes per game according to NBA Stats), they are limiting their ability to space the floor. Both players prefer to play either in the post or the mid-range, but they also need to allow Simmons to comfortably drive to the basket without running into an extra defender. 

Both big men have altered their style of play this season by playing around the perimeter to accommodate the team’s needs, but as a result, they end up taking way too many outside shots instead of attacking the paint. 

Horford is attempting a career-high 4.4 threes per game, while Embiid is averaging 3.9 three-point attempts per game. Also, in their shared time together, they are not very effective from the perimeter. According to NBA Stats, Embiid’s 3-point percentage is 27.2, while Horford’s is 25.0. Therefore, when Simmons and Tobias Harris are playing in the post or driving to the basket, their opposing team can confidently play help defense off of the bigs.

There have been several games which they won due to their outside shooting, such as against the Bucks on Christmas Day when they made 21 3-pointers, but there also have been a lot more games where they lost due to their shooting. To list a few examples, they went 7 for 33 (21.2 percent) from 3-pointers against the Celtics, and 6 for 33 (18.2 percent) against the Pacers, both possible opponents in the playoffs.

In January, when the 76ers recently played 9 games without Embiid in the lineup, they achieved a 6-3 record while Simmons averaged 21.6 points, 9.3 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.3 steals. In comparison, for this season as of February 11, he is averaging 16.8 rebounds, 7.9 rebounds, 8.3 assists, and 2.2 steals.

In Simmons’ style of play without Embiid, he was able to take advantage of the spread-out court, which allowed him to play more aggressively and drive to the basket more often. When Embiid is off the court, the team shoots 47.2 percent from the field, which is the highest percentage the 76ers shoot when a specific player is not on the court.

Even though one of Embiid’s main speciality is his defense, they did not desperately miss out on it. Although Horford does not have the same rim protecting skills as Embiid, he is a reliable post defender and can force people out of the paint. In addition, with Josh Richardson, Matisse Thybulle, and Simmons forcing pressure in the backcourt and on the 3-point line, they were not affected by Embiid’s presence defensively.

The Sixers rank 4th in the league in defensive rating (106.1), compared to 14th last season (109.0). However, this is not a direct effect from signing Horford. Rookie Matisse Thybulle has emerged as a top perimeter defender in the league, averaging 1.5 steals in 20.4 minutes with a 102.7 defensive rating, and Simmons has become an all defensive first team candidate while leading the league in steals per game.

With Horford playing at the power forward, they also experience several mismatches against smaller teams that utilize a stretch four such as the Celtics and Rockets. While the 76ers can get away with Horford defending P.J. Tucker, against the Celtics, he will have to guard either Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, players that can easily drive past him off the dribble.

The 76ers are quite sound defensively, but there are many offensive problems that they need to fix if they do not want to be eliminated in the conference semifinals for the third year in a row–if they even make it that far. Right before the trade deadline, they acquired Glenn Robinson, who was shot 40 percent from three, and Alec Burks, who was averaging 16.1 points per game in 29.0 minutes, from the Golden State Warriors. Bringing in these two players would hopefully give them more depth off the bench and provide them success in shooting from the perimeter.

Horford was brought in during the offseason to create a lengthy, “unstoppable” defensive team, but their defensive skills are not hiding their offensive struggles. In order to create space, one possible solution for the 76ers is to bring Horford off the bench. The 76ers would not have to force outside shots as often and could move the ball more swiftly. 

When comparing Horford and Embiid’s stats with and without each other on the court, they both play significantly better separately. According to NBA Stats, in the 18.1 minutes per game Embiid averages without Horford, he averages 4 more points per game, shoots 40 percent from three compared to 27 percent, and attempts 1.5 more shots within 10 feet. In Horford’s 21.4 minutes per game without Embiid, he averages nearly 8 more points, shoots a much higher field goal percentage while attempting a lot more mid-ranges, 3-pointers above the break, and in the paint.

In the future, unless there are any unsolvable chemistry issues, the 76ers should not trade Embiid or Simmons. Their playing styles do not match each other, but the 76ers should try to put shooters around them in order to space the floor. When 76ers GM Elton Brand re-signed Tobias Harris and acquired Al Horford and Josh Richardson during the summer, he expected them to help space the floor. Instead, they are having nearly their worst shooting seasons of their career.

If the 76ers do not make it past the conference semifinals, it is inevitable that Brett Brown would lose his coaching spot. Even though trading Al Horford or Tobias Harris may be difficult due to their pricy contracts, the front office should try to build around their two stars and bring in players that would compliment their skill sets.

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