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Philadelphia 76ers are ultra-talented but are not yet a team as good as the sum of its parts

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Joel Embiid gestures during the 76ers' win over Sacramento
Image: Joel Embiid gestures during the 76ers' win over Sacramento

The Philadelphia 76ers have an ultra-talented starting line-up yet Brett Brown's team is not yet as good as the sum of its parts. Mark Deeks examines why this is the case.

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Considering they have three All-Star players and a fourth about as close to being one as can be, simple logic dictates that the Philadelphia 76ers would be a dominant team. They are not.

Certainly, they are good. The 76ers are third in the much-improved Eastern Conference with a 46-25 record, set to improve on last year's 52-30 finish. A .648 winning percentage is a good mark by any measure. This is not the Charlotte Hornets we are talking about.

However, this is a team that has yet to be as good as the sum of its parts.

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For every winning streak, such as their current five-gamer, there is a bad streak, such as the three-in-four immediately prior to it. For every good win, such as those over the Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder, there comes a sloppy loss, such as that to the Chicago Bulls last week.

The 76ers remain more potential than reality - that 46-25 record is bolstered by a 27-6 mark against sub-.500 teams. It is certainly true to say that a quality team is in part defined by consistently winning against teams they are supposed to beat, yet it also speaks to the 76ers' poor record against the NBA's best teams, and particularly their Eastern Conference rivals.

Jimmy Butler drives at the Pistons defense
Image: Jimmy Butler drives at the Pistons defense

In large part, this relative anti-climax is because the 76ers have hardly ever been able to play their best line-ups. Having only acquired Jimmy Butler at the start of the season and Tobias Harris two-thirds of the way through it, it is always hard to make such sizeable adjustments during the middle of a campaign - NBA teams, famously, have little practice time during a season beyond film sessions.

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Compounding the problems caused by such overhaul have been injuries. Joel Embiid recently missed another eight-game stretch, and Butler has missed various points as well with niggling injuries. Given that Harris has been with the team barely a month, and that the moves to bring him both he and Butler saw so many rotation players go the other way, the 76ers have not had much time at all to experiment with the line-ups they might want to play. Even the bench has been decimated by absences - at one point, the 76ers only had eight healthy players.

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Those injuries however exposed the imbalances inherent within the roster. The 76ers, simply, have a lack of depth on their roster.

At the time of the trade for Tobias Harris, we looked at how a lack of multi-positional shooting had limited the options in the playbook hitherto, and inhibited the number of line-ups that the team could realistically run as they covered for this shortfall. The trade for Harris, the ultimate in versatile complementary pieces, was designed to assuage that.

Tobias Harris rises up to shoot a three-pointer against Miami
Image: Tobias Harris rises up to shoot a three-pointer against Miami

Up to a point, it has. Harris is playing as advertised for the Sixers, equally adept when spotting up, isolating, or playing either half of the pick-and-roll, while also demonstrating a strong understanding in the two-man game with his partner in trade, Boban Marjanovic.

In the 97 minutes that the ideal starting line-up of he, Embiid, Butler, Simmons and JJ Redick managed together leading up to Sunday's win over Milwaukee, is also the 76ers' most effective line-up by far, with a +22.8 net rating. And yet the fact that it is one of only four five-man line-ups to have played at least 80 minutes together all season speaks to the problems the lack of continuity has caused.

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It is beyond that group where it becomes difficult. The 76ers' bench is not strong - players such as TJ McConnell, Mike Scott, Jonah Bolden, Boban Marjanovic, James Ennis and Furkan Korkmaz are all decent to good eighth or ninth men, but they struggle for consistency, and in some cases are match-up specific.

The tremendous run that the 76ers went on to close out last year's regular season was directly fuelled by the bench infusions of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova. There has been no such luck on the buyout market this season, however, and nothing reliable can be found in reserve.

Ben Simmons celebrates a basket during Philadelphia's win over New York
Image: Ben Simmons celebrates a basket during Philadelphia's win over New York

To be sure, this is quite the unconventional team to coach. The 76ers start a point guard who cannot shoot, while also finding their best offensive threat is often the post-up play of Embiid. Said point guard operates well in the post, but so does said center, and the league as a whole has moved away from two-post line-ups due to the inefficient resultant offense. And then there is the disgruntled wing who always seems to need more than he has.

At the core of the team, though, remains the turnover problem that submarined them last season.

The 76ers ranked fourth-worst in the league in both turnovers per game and turnover percentage, with only lottery teams for company around them in that range. Simmons, in particular, can be turnover-prone - given the difficulties he faces in the halfcourt, he instead attempts to push the ball at every opportunity, getting reckless in the process.

Ben Simmons attacks the rim against the Atlanta Hawks
Image: Simmons attacks the rim against the Atlanta Hawks

It was these turnovers that cost the 76ers so dearly in the playoffs last season against the Boston Celtics. Able to hang with them for most of the game, the team lost multiple games, and thus the series, due to poor crunch time execution.

Also up 3-0 in this season's series, and with the distinctly unfavourable match-up for Embiid in the form of the versatility and nous of Al Horford, Boston appear to have Philadelphia's number. And most roads to the NBA Finals for the Sixers go through Boston.

Wednesday night's games

  • Milwaukee Bucks @ Cleveland Cavaliers, 11pm
  • New Orleans Pelicans @ Orlando Magic, 11pm
  • Boston Celtics @ Philadelphia 76ers , 11pm, live on Sky Sports Arena
  • Utah Jazz @ New York Knicks, 11:30pm
  • Washington Wizards @ Chicago Bulls, 12am
  • Houston Rockets @ Memphis Grizzlies, 12am
  • Miami Heat @ San Antonio Spurs, 12:30am
  • Toronto Raptors @ Oklahoma City Thunder, 1:30am
  • Dallas Mavericks @ Portland Trail Blazers, 2am

In theory, the acquisition of Butler assuages these crunch-time concerns. Indeed, Butler has also been playing more regularly as the backup point guard in staggered line-ups as the injured players have returned, squeezing the minutes of McConnell, whose lack of spacing is a hindrance at times despite his tenacity. With more experience and more control in clutch halfcourt management, Butler should be, and more frequently is, the late-game leader. It is not a coincidence that the 76ers are generally closing games better.

Tobias Harris (centre) shares congratulations with his new 76ers team-mates
Image: Harris (centre) shares congratulations with his new 76ers team-mates

This, though, negates the role of Simmons in such situations. Given the difficulties he has making shots that are not directly at the rim, he is not much of an off-ball threat in the half court, and due to the desire to minimise turnover risk in crucial possessions - the importance of which the 76ers themselves unfortunately experienced last postseason - half-court is the norm late in close games. To play Simmons in the paint is to move Embiid (neither a great roll man nor outside shooter) out of it. To play Simmons off the ball on the wing is to offer no threat at all.

There thus always exists a paradox with the 76ers, one in which their best five players play well together… at certain times.

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The most positive lesson of late has been quite how important Embiid is to the team. Since returning from his latest injury absence, Embiid has been playing like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He is the crux of why the 76ers are one of the best rebounding teams in the league (their 51.6 rebounding percentage ranks fifth-best in the league), and his ability to cover ground combined with his excellent shot-contesting timing enables the team to play as much switching defense as they do.

Embiid is able to cover the defensive holes opened up on the perimeter. On the season, the 76ers give up the joint third-fewest three-point attempts per game, despite being seventh in pace, and have the joint-best three-point defense at 34.0 per cent (tied with the Boston Celtics and narrowly ahead of the Brooklyn Nets - 34.1 per cent).

This is even with Redick (an invaluable player on the offensive end given his shooting ability) becoming increasingly exposed on the defensive end, losing his man off the ball, while being an exploitable switch threat when on it.

Joel Embiid battles to the rim against the Los Angeles Lakers
Image: Embiid battles to the rim against the Los Angeles Lakers

Embiid the eraser can cover enough ground to enable this, as well as be the big deterrent around the basket that is notable by its absence.

All too frequently, though, the 76ers are still having to rely upon shooters getting hot to win games, and often sub-par shooters at that. Intricate line-up juggling is required to ensure there are at least two good shooters on the court at any one time, yet when the nine-man rotation features only three good shooters total (Harris, Redick, Scott), it is hard to do.

The margins are very tight, and any single injury could end this season's small window of competitiveness.

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Joel Embiid collects his own miss to ram home a vicious put-back dunk against the Cleveland Cavaliers

Good though they are, and for as much talent as they have in their starting five, the Philadelphia 76ers are yet to look great. No doubt, this is on account of not having enough time for the core guys to play together given the various injuries.

That said, considering the lack of time left, the jarring lack of depth, the intricate line-up balances between defense and shooting and the innately awkward fit of two of their best players, is there enough time left before the playoffs to turn things around?

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