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Evolution or Revolution: Philadelphia 76ers

 

Evolution or Revolution is a new series from Stats Perform looking at which teams need only a few tweaks and which require a fundamental reboot. Our first NBA edition focuses on whether the Sixers should continue to “Trust the Process.”

By: Sacha Pisani

“Trust the Process” has become synonymous with the team’s culture and identity since former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie started a drastic rebuild of the roster and psyche in 2013.

The long-term strategy has delivered stars Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and two trips to the Eastern Conference semifinals. The club was one more bounce on Kawhi Leonard’s miracle shot away from potentially reaching the conference finals last season, but it has fallen well short of the goal – the first NBA championship since 1983.

Ben Simmons was an All-Star for the second time this season

Now’s the time for “the process” to produce a serious title contender. So where to now for the 76ers?

First, they’re looking for new leadership on the bench after Brett Brown – who was at the helm as Philadelphia tanked out and started from the bottom seven years ago – was sacked following the franchise’s first series sweep at the hands of rivals the Boston Celtics.

While they were forced to face the Celtics without Simmons due to injury, the Sixers’ failure has only raised further questions as to whether they should trade the Australian or Embiid amid ongoing doubts over the All-Star pair’s compatibility. Furthermore, not being able to keep Jimmy Butler has clearly hurt the club, and the Al Horford experiment appears to have been an expensive mistake.

As general manager Elton Brand tries to get the 76ers back on track, let’s look at the issues facing the team heading into the 2020-21 season:

FIXING THE FRANCHISE CORNERSTONES

One of the main issues for the 76ers has been the health of Embiid and Simmons – franchise pillars.

While much has been made of Embiid and Simmons’ chemistry, they’ve only played in 184 of 345 games since the latter was drafted first by the 76ers in 2016. When Embiid and Simmons play, Philadelphia boasts a 119-65 record. But without one or both, that mark plummets to 67-94.

According to Stats Perform’s lineup data, however, the Sixers played far better this season when Embiid was on the floor without Simmons than they did with Simmons on the court – either with or without Embiid (see below).

This was a troubling development after Philadelphia played its best with the franchise cornerstones on the floor together during both the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons.

Season(s)LineupOff RatingDef RatingNet
2019-20With Embiid & Simmons112.9111.11.8
2019-20With Embiid, No Simmons119.2107.911.3
2019-20With Simmons, No Embiid115.51141.5
2019-20No Simmons & Embiid119120.7-1.7
17-18 & 18-19With Embiid & Simmons121108.612.5
17-18 & 18-19With Embiid, No Simmons116111.54.5
17-18 & 18-19With Simmons, No Embiid111.6114.8-3.2
17-18 & 18-19No Simmons & Embiid111.3113.5-2.3

MODERNIZING SIMMONS’ FLOOR GAME

Simmons is an elite defender and creator with unrivalled pace, but his shooting struggles have left him stuck between a star and a superstar.

Previously compared to LeBron James, Simmons does not shoot 3s or free throws well – his career free-throw percentage of 59.3 is the worst in NBA history by a guard with at least 1,000 attempts.

And his 8.3 career 3-point percentage (2 for 24) is the lowest among all guards who debuted in the league in 2000 or later (minimum 20 attempts). The majority of his attempts have been end-of-quarter heaves, but the point remains – he’s just not a capable shooter from beyond the arc.

Simmons, 24, also signed a five-year, $170 million max contract prior to the 2019-20 campaign.

PLAYING BETTER DOWN THE STRETCH

Embiid, the third pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, has established himself as one of the league’s best big men, but he’s been criticized for his lack of consistency and poor fitness at the end of games.

Joel Embiid has been criticized for his effort in the fourth quarter.

The 26-year-old center, nicknamed ‘The Process’ as the headliner of the franchise’s culture and identity shift, knows there is room for improvement.

With Simmons sidelined, Embiid averaged 30.0 points and 12.3 rebounds in the four meetings with the Celtics. However, he totaled 17 points on 3-of-14 shooting in the fourth quarter of the first three games.

That effort only contributed to what has been the knock on him throughout his career. In the regular season and playoffs, Embiid has gone just 1 for 17 on potential game-tying or go-ahead shots in the last 30 seconds of the fourth quarter and overtime.

The only shot he made was a dunk against the Cleveland Cavaliers in November 2019.

STATS PERFORM VERDICT: EVOLUTION REQUIRED

It isn’t realistic to think that the 76ers are going to trade either Simmons or Embiid. One of them would have to demand a trade for that to emerge as a real possibility. Instead, Philadelphia has likely already made its big move by firing Brown.

Whether it’s Tyronn Lue, Jason Kidd, Mike D’Antoni, or anyone else, the Sixers will be hoping the new coach can do what Brown could not – unlock the potential greatness hidden within the Simmons-Embiid pairing.

 

Lineup data modeling and analysis provided by Matt Scott.

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