Moore: Now Is the Time to Bet the Philadelphia 76ers to Win the Eastern Conference
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Joel Embiid (21) and Ben Simmons (25) of the Philadelphia 76ers.
- The Philadelphia 76ers currently sit in the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference standings, but don't be fooled. Their championship futures likely won't get better than what they are right now.
- Matt Moore analyzes the Sixers' futures, potential postseason matchups and more.
The Philadelphia 76ers are who kid everyone believes has potential, no matter how much they screw up. The books, however, seem to be cooling on their faith.
At Westgate this week, the Boston Celtics moved into a tie with the Sixers for odds to win the Eastern Conference at +400 for the first time. At Caesars, the Celtics are actually ahead of the Sixers at +325 to Philly’s +350.
This is simultaneously a huge credit to the work Brad Stevens has done without any sort of frontline rim protection and to the Celtics players for stepping up. Everyone has played well on that team this season.
But it’s also a signal of how much the Sixers have disappointed, despite standing at 24-14, on pace for 51 wins. Three years ago, that’s a glorious situation for Sixers fans to dream about, but here we are.
The Sixers have so many disappointing losses this season: early losses to the Jazz, Suns and Nuggets (albeit without Ben Simmons and/or Joel Embiid), losses to the Wizards and Nets, a frustrating loss to the Raptors and a recent four-game losing streak to the Magic, Heat, Pacers and Rockets, which showed they can lose to inferior teams (Orlando), above-average teams (Indiana) and serious conference contenders (Miami and Houston).
So should we write them off?
Nope. We should bet them now (if you haven’t already) to win the East.
The Secret Behind the Record
The Sixers’ 24-14 record is good, not elite — they aren’t the Bucks. However, I’m running a system where I look at three key factors for teams that make the playoffs and/or obtain high seedings over the past 12 years of playoff races: wins/losses at home, vs. division teams and vs. teams under .500.
If you win in those three areas, you’re in great shape and if you lose in those areas, even if you’re knocking off behemoths on the road, you’re going to struggle.
Using that system, the Sixers are fourth league-wide behind the Bucks, Heat and Celtics. (All four top teams being in the East says a lot about strength of schedule, by the way.)
The real key, though, is the margin.
Top Five in Moore’s Playoff Win Value System:
- Milwaukee Bucks: 41
- Miami Heat: 31
- Boston Celtics: 30
- Philadelphia 76ers: 29
- Los Angeles Clippers: 27
So first off, yes, the Bucks are insane and betting on them seems like simultaneously one of the most obvious and dumbest things to do. But the next three teams are separated by just two points, with Miami amassing a lot of wins vs. the top teams.
The Heat are tied with the Bucks for wins vs. teams over .500 (that historically tends to be much more of a coin flip), they have the 10th-rated SRS (Basketball-Reference’s system for point differential vs. strength of schedule) and are two games better than their Pythagorean expected record. So there’s some reason to believe they’ll regress.
We still can’t completely ignore the Celtics, who are better in SRS, are in line with their Pythagorean expected record and have just been better. But Boston is 0-2 vs. the 76ers entering Thursday’s matchup and in a playoff series, you have to think the Sixers have the advantage with Embiid (we’ll get back to the big man in a minute).
There are a lot of indicators that say that the Sixers will likely finish with at least a top-four seed with homecourt in the first round and there’s a good chance they finish higher than that. The regular season losses are likely overblown.
Nothing Scary in the Playoffs
Here are the teams they’ll likely face in the playoffs.
Heat: Sixers have gone 1-2 against the Heat and there’s genuine concern in this matchup. Philly has Bam Adebayo to throw at Embiid and at least provide some muscle, along with sneaky bigs like Kelly Olynyk.
Jimmy Butler clearly has a little bit of a mental edge on the Sixers, including the fact that Embiid seems like he misses his former teammate a lot. Simmons’ inability to shoot jumpers is more of a liability vs. a coach like Erik Spoelstra.
Miami will specifically employ a 2-3 zone vs. Philly and while there’s reason to believe in a series Brett Brown will figure out counters, it could provide enough of a hole to turn the series on its head, matchup-wise. This might be the one team they have the most to fear.
Celtics: There are three elite Embiid defenders: Al Horford, Aron Baynes and Marc Gasol. The Celtics haven’t shown an ability to beat the Sixers with Embiid since Al Horford and Aron Baynes left. The matchup just isn’t the same.
(NOTE: I like Boston a lot on Thursday night as a dog specifically because Embiid is out, more on that later.)
Bucks: The Christmas Day game will be overstated a lot as evidence; the Bucks went 2-1 against the Sixers last year. However, the Sixers have the size and defensive acumen to slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo. It’s hard to dominate at the rim with Embiid roaming like a brontosaurus.
The Bucks take the second-most 3-pointers in the league; the Sixers allow the fewest (though they allow a high percentage on them). So it comes down to whether the Bucks go cold or not. I don’t think Philly should be favored in that series. I also don’t think they should be considerable dogs. It’s close.
Raptors: The Raptors may not make it a matchup with Philly, but even without Kawhi Leonard, this makes me nervous. Gasol can counter Embiid. Pascal Siakam counters Simmons’ athleticism and can actually score on his own from range. Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet can swing games. They have depth, and a model to counter them.
This is another series where it comes down to whether or not Embiid can dominate. There’s a trend here.
Pacers: The Sixers are frisky and would probably win more games in this series than expected. They have the balance to go at the Sixers, but again, stop me if you’ve heard this one, Embiid can just wreck this team if he goes off. Horford also has been good historically vs. the Pacers.
There aren’t a lot of teams that the Sixers don’t have a shot against. The problem — and this highlights the ongoing frustration with them — is how seldom they maximize what they can do, and the real limitations they have late in games.
Why Must You Sixer So Hard, Philly?
It shouldn’t surprise you, given Simmons’ very public reputation, that the Sixers are last per game in points scored by the pick-and-roll ball-handler. This is despite Josh Richardson being 57th percentile scoring in it, and Tobias Harris being 51st.
It’s, of course, Simmons at 18th percentile. He’s good going to the rim (shooting 53%), but can’t do anything else and doesn’t try to either. Despite his reluctance, the Sixers average 1.314 points off passes from Simmons in pick-and-roll. They cook teams on spot-ups, shooting 53% (75% eFG) on those possessions.
The Sixers actually score six points more per 100 possessions with Simmons vs. without, and that’s not just because of how rough their bench is. He genuinely helps their offense.
Consider this: the Sixers with Simmons and without Embiid score 110 points per 100 possessions, which is six points better than they score with Embiid with Simmons on the bench. (The defense, correspondingly, is awesome with Embiid on the floor, even better with Embiid and without Simmons, and goes to hell with Simmons and without Embiid. The Simmons defensive stuff is interesting, but not yet extreme enough to be worth of drilling down.)
There’s a double-edged sword here, though. The Sixers’ offense with Simmons in the regular season is great. He hasn’t been the problem. But it’s also solvable. If you make him into the scorer, there’s not much he can do to counter it, and not much Brown has found to counter that approach.
If you stay home on their shooters, you’re cutting off the lifelines of their offense, because they don’t have a reliable weapon who creates off the dribble.
The solution there might be Richardson, but he struggles with playmaking from the pick-and-roll. Embiid is shooting just 41% on passes from Richardson, Horford just 30%.
So you have one guy (Simmons) who can create, but can’t score and another (Richardson) who can score, but can’t create.
This is part of the reason why the Sixers have a marginally fine net rating (-3) in losses with Joel Embiid on the floor, and a catastrophic one (-10) with Simmons on the court. (Note: Some of this is attributable to the games Simmons has played without Embiid at all.)
Then there’s Embiid.
FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, EMBIID
To preface this, Embiid scores 1.2 points per possession when the “defense commits,” as Synergy Sports describes it (doubles). That’s 14th in the league among players with at least 100 doubles played against and he shoots 50%, a good mark.
He’s not top five in turnovers, but it’s noticeable and evident, how sending a double at him still flummoxes him no matter how often he sees it:
If I just highlight the turnovers of any player, they’re going to look rough. But during the playoffs last season, it really seemed like Embiid had turned a corner on this and was adapting. He’s regressed since then.
This Sixers team was built to optimize Embiid. He has another big in Horford who can reliably stretch the floor (shooting 34% from 3 in a down year), while Harris and Richardson provide shooters and cutters. It’s definitely true that they lost some key pure-spot-up ability with J.J. Redick’s departure, but Philly is still 11th in catch-and-shoot scoring per possession.
They have the weapons, but Embiid just hasn’t been as good as last season — let alone as good as he should be for that matter. He’s scoring less per game on a worse percentage, taking the same number of 3’s per 36 minutes.
I don’t mean to veer into “Inside the NBA” territory here. I’m not of the belief that a big man can’t mess around on the perimeter. I am, however, of the belief that Embiid should not.
We’re not just talking 3-pointers, here, either. Embiid is one of 20 players with four touches at the elbow per game. He has the sixth-worst scoring percentage of those 20 players. He scores roughly as often as Wendell Carter Jr. on the Chicago Bulls. He doesn’t have a high assist rate, and he draws free throws less often than Nikola Vucevic.
Meanwhile, he leads the league in post-ups, post-up points per possession (minimum 100 post-ups), and draws free throws an incredible 28% of the time out of the post, leading the league among players with at least 50 post-ups. He’s a monster.
He should be a monster more, and work through his problems with the double-teams, either with the coaching staff adding more counters or through his own patience.
The Time Is Right to Buy Philly
The Sixers are sixth in defense; they could be better and should be better. The Sixers are 14th in offense; they should be better and are likely better built for the playoffs in certain aspects. After this month, they don’t have a month-by-month strength of schedule higher than 17th by preseason win-total standards.
Philly’s win profile suggests they will continue to rack up easy wins and coast to a top-four seed. They have the weapons to make a run vs. a vulnerable Eastern Conference.
You still have to bet on a team that continually gets in its own way. But you’re also banking on a team that has the potential for its best to be better than anyone else’s, and you’re getting them at the longest odds you may see after this month.
One more note…
The Sixers are now 16-1 to win the NBA title after opening at 10-1 this summer. If they reach the Finals, based on the consensus discussion and odds, they’ll face the Lakers or Clippers.
The Lakers don’t have the 3-point shooting to outpace the Sixers and the Sixers have the ability to attack their biggest strength, size, with even more size.
The Clippers don’t have that kind of interior defender to throw at Embiid, and the Sixers’ ability to limit 3’s helps a lot vs. how the Clippers offense is designed.
What I’m saying is that there’s value not only on the Sixers to win the East, but to win the title overall, with the ability to hedge once you get into the series.