The Philadelphia 76ers are currently 20-10 and in first place in the Eastern Conference. Their best player is arguably the best player in the league at this very moment. Everything is working seamlessly. But how did it all get this good, this fast?
Last season, through 30 games the 76ers record was exactly the same, but diving deeper, things are different. And they are different because of two main reasons: Coaching and Fit.
The differences between the Brett Brown coached 76ers and Doc Rivers coached 76ers can be summed up in one word: simplicity.
Past iterations of 76ers teams seemed to have no direct identity and players struggled to find and understand their roles. Generally speaking, the waters were muddled from almost every angle.
Thus far, under Rivers, this has been anything but the case. Coaching roles are defined. Players roles are defined. Most importantly, Rivers is intentional and direct with his approach and it’s been that way from the beginning.
Throughout Rivers first few months as the Sixers head coach he consistently used one word: free.
‘Free’ in the sense of offensive play-style. Specifically the word was used when talking about Ben Simmons and Shake Milton, but it has bled over into every member of the team.
Tobias Harris is having a career year, playing more decisive and unconfined. Ben Simmons is allowed to command the ship and steer the offense. Seth Curry is operating out of pick and roll sets, in which he is a threat to score out of, rather than just standing in the corner like previous shooter were directed to do. Danny Green’s gravity as a shooter is being used to the Sixers advantage. And most noticeably, Joel Embiid is playing the best basketball of his career.
“Now he hesitates sometimes, he wants to get in what we call his bag of tricks, but I love Tobias going downhill and making quick decisions, quick shots, quick first step down the hill.”Doc Rivers on Tobias Harris’ offensive play-style
There isn’t a specific stat to quantify the effect that Rivers offensive ideology of a sort of ‘free’ style of play. But one that can sort of verify it is, pace. The Sixers currently rank 6th in that metric. The Sixers are playing fast and decisive and their record depicts this.
Even on the defensive end, the on-court expo has mirrored that of the offense. Specifically, for Matisse Thybulle. There have been multiple occasions when Rivers has shifted the defense from a typical man-to-man style to a 2-3 zone look. That has played into Thybulle’s length and defensive prowess. He excels at the top of the zone and is allowed to play his game, as opposed to last year when he got ‘grabby’, got into foul trouble a bit and was yanked. Rivers allows Thybulle to compete and has said, “Putting him in man makes him great but putting him in zone takes him to a different level, because now his instincts take over.”
Rivers ability to simplify the game and utilize players in ways that they are not only comfortable in, but excel in as well has led to massive improvements in the 76ers performance, both as a team and individually.
This 76er team is a far cry from previous Sixers teams that was given monikers like the “bully ball” reference or the “pace and space” reference when the actual fit for those monikers wasn’t really there or the team wasn’t coached to its fullest capabilities.
This sentiment has been expressed ad-nauseum by myself, as well as others on multiple occasions: the 76ers are built on fit. Every piece of the offense plays off of each other.
The effect that the shooting and spacing created by the offensive gravity of the roster has been felt in a huge way. And it’s all benefited one man: Joel Embiid.
In halfcourt sets, no matter if Embiid has the ball at the wing, top of the key, or even beyond the arc, he’s able to dominate. First, his ability to put the ball on the floor and break a defender down at 7’2 is generation in itself, but he is often left on an island with defenders because the incredible gravity created by the roster Daryl Morey has assembled.
In addition to Embiid’s dominance, Ben Simmons is able to find shooters and navigate to the rim for higher percentage looks and free throw opportunities, Tobias Harris is able to take advantage of mis-matches in the post and get one on one opportunities in halfcourt settings, and Danny Green and Seth Curry are able to consistently get nice and clean looks from 3.
Every piece within this team plays off of the others and its seen by the 14-3 record of the 76ers starting lineup and number one seed in the Eastern Conference.
In totality, the makeup and play-style of this 76ers team is night and day better than any iteration of the last few Sixers teams. They are decisive, quick thinking, and they mesh together well. With 7 games left in the first half of the season there is only room to continue to improve and build even more chemistry. And with 1-2 more moves, the Sixers can cement themselves as legitimate championship contenders.