Do We Still Trust the Process? How to Approach the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA Playoffs
Dylan Buell/Getty Images. Pictured: Joel Embiid #21 and James Harden #1 of the Philadelphia 76ers.
When Philadelphia 76ers team president Daryl Morey pulled off the blockbuster Ben Simmons-James Harden trade, the basketball world and sportsbooks were forced to take notice.
The 76ers’ odds to win the NBA championship immediately shortened from +1200 to +750 with their odds to win the East dropping to +300 as of Feb. 10.
Harden didn’t make his debut until after the All-Star break, and the 76ers have gone 14-8 since. Despite having the seventh-best Net Rating (+4.5) during this span, the 76ers have seen their championship odds drop back to where they were before the trade at +1100 with their odds to win the Eastern Conference currently sitting at +500.
The market seems to believe that the 76ers haven’t improved as much as anticipated with the Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics and Miami Heat as front runners to win the East.
Are the 76ers headed for another disappointing early postseason exit? Or can we trust the process to make a deep post season run?
New Look 76ers Are Still Flawed
NBA titles are won with superstars and the 76ers may have found their very own Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant with Joel Embiid and James Harden.
You have to wonder if this history repeating itself with a strange twist of a fate as both O’Neal and Embiid are Pisces centers who played with Virgo shooting guards in Bryant and Harden. It remains to be seen if the stars will align for the 76ers in the form of an NBA title as the early results are positive but not exactly encouraging.
The 76ers have a 13-7 record in games with Embiid and Harden in the lineup with a Net Rating of +6.9 which is a substantial improvement over the +4.1 Net Rating the 76ers had in games with Embiid and Seth Curry. Although the 76ers did go 24-12 in games with Embiid and Curry, they’ve seen their Offensive Rating jump from 115.2 to 123.6 with Harden taking his place on the team.
In 323 minutes, the Harden-Maxey-Thybulle-Harris-Embiid lineup has the second-best Net Rating in the league, outscoring teams by +20.4 per 100 behind a 122.5 Offensive Rating and a 102.1 Defensive Rating. For context, the 76ers previous starting lineup with Curry-Maxey-Green-Harris-Embiid was 14th in Net Rating (+8.2) among all five man lineups with an Offensive Rating of 111.2 and a Defensive Rating of 103.
Embiid has been a dominant force this season, averaging 30.4 points per game on 49.5% shooting while also grabbing 11.6 rebounds and dishing 4.2 assists, number that would garner him the league’s Most Valuable Player Award in most seasons. He’s gotten even better since adding Harden where he’s averaging 32.2 points on 49.5% shooting along with 12.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists.
A big part of that success is the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll, which has been deadly, generating 1.10 points per possession on direct plays in which Harden, Embiid or another player they pass to ends the possession. This number puts the 76ers in the top-10 per Second Spectrum and we’ve seen the rest of the starting lineup benefit from Harden’s playmaking ability.
Not sure how teams will stop the Harden/Embiid PnR. Both draw so much attention, and Harden is making all the right reads. And if you focus too much on those two, watch out for Thybulle, who's a great cutter. pic.twitter.com/7b5afflRYz
— Sky Hoops (@TheSkyHoops) February 28, 2022
Although this is a small sample size, there’s been a drastic improvement in the 76ers 3-point shooting splits with before and after the Harden trade.
In the 60 games the 76ers have played without Harden, they’ve shot 35.2% from deep on 31 attempts per game. Since the Harden trade they’ve shot 38.7% on 34.1 3-point attempts per game and you can see the impact it’s made on key players on this roster.
- Tyrese Maxey Before Harden Trade: 39.5% from 3P on 3.7 attempts per game (53 games)
- Tyrese Maxey After Harden Trade: 51% from 3P on 5.2 attempts per game (20 games)
- Tobias Harris Before Harden Trade: 34.3% from 3P on 3.7 attempts per game (51 games)
- Tobias Harris After Harden Trade: 41.0% from 3P on 5 attempts per game (20 games)
There are some concerns about the shooting on this roster and whether it can translate to the postseason. Harris is making $36 million dollars to be a spot up shooter, a role he’s not particularly suited for.
In many ways, he’s too good for this role, but not good enough for his previous role with the 76ers: a secondary scoring option on a championship contender.
Although Simmons got the bulk of the blame for last year’s postseason collapse, Harris was the 76ers’ No. 2 scoring option as they de-emphasized Simmons’ offensive contributions. Needless to say, Harris didn’t deliver, shooting 2-of-11 in a critical Game 5 loss and 8-of-24 in Game 7.
While he has gotten more comfortable playing with Harden recently, he can often be a ball stopper and is shooting just 35.6% on catch-and-shoot 3s. Looks like these will be available to him in the postseason and should he consistently take and make them, the 76ers will be tough to stop offensively.
Tobias Harris DRILLS a corner three 🔥pic.twitter.com/GaGOKVcyfX
— Sixers Nation (@SixersNationCP) April 5, 2022
Matisse Thybulle is a net positive defender, however his presence leaves the 76ers playing 4-on-5 on the offensive end of the floor given his lack of shooting ability. He’s attempting just 1.8 3-pointers per game in the 20 games with Harden in the lineup and you have to expect teams to sag off of him to double Embiid and Harden in the postseason.
Despite maintaining a top tier defensive rating in their stating lineup, with a lack of positive defenders on this team outside of Embiid and Thybulle, the 76ers will need to maintain an elite offense to reach their ceiling.
The 76ers rank 26th in Offensive Rebound Rate (22.7%) and have the distinct disadvantage at being bad both on the offensive glass and in transition defense where they rank 27th in transition points added per 100 possessions (3.6).
They’re in the bottom of in the league at transition points added per 100 possessions off steals (28th 2.3) and live ball rebounds (22nd 1.3) so if the 76ers aren’t scoring at an elite level, they can be run off the court on many nights and those struggles were exemplified in their 129-100 loss to the Brooklyn Nets on March 10. Kevin Durant even stated in his post game interview.
Fortunately for the 76ers, they’re been able to slow down the game based on their ability to get to the line, they’ve proven they can score even when they aren’t shooting efficiently.
An Over-Reliance on Free Throws
In Sunday’s 112-108 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, the 76ers made fewer field goals (35 to 33), fewer 3-pointers (15 to 11), shot a lower percentage from the field (44.9% to 41.3%) and shot a lower percentage from 3-point range (45.5% to 35.5%) than the Cavs and still won by four points. How is this possible?
The 76ers had a 43.8% free throw rate as they garnered 35-point from the free throw line on 42 attempts. This prompted Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff to voice his frustration with the officiating in the post game press conference.
"We deserved to win that game. That game was taken from us. We deserved to win it."
— Bally Sports Cleveland (@BallySportsCLE) April 4, 2022
The 76ers were already among the league leaders in free throw rate and free throw attempts given the presence of Embiid but adding Harden to the mix has added gasoline to the fire.
In 60 games without Harden, the 76ers have averaged 22 free throws per game. Since the Feb. 25, the 76ers are first in FT rate, taking a whopping 29.3 free throws per 100 possessions and are generating 29.4 free throws a game, first among NBA teams.
Hearing this may make many NBA fans wonder how this translates to the postseason given the belief that that NBA referees swallow their whistle and call fewer fouls.
However, this is a common misconception as teams are actually shot slightly more free throws last postseason (22.2) than they did in the regular season (21.8), which makes sense considering that teams place more emphasis on defense.
Despite that, Harden has seen a slight drop-off in free throw attempts of about one free throw attempt from the regular season to the postseason.
Embiid has seen an increase for two seasons and a decrease in two others.
It’s worth noting that the season in which Embiid shot 6.3 more free throws per game in the postseason, he played just four games and was missing Ben Simmons. In the seasons where he went deepest into the postseason, he saw a noticeable decline.
Is James Harden declining?
Since being traded to the 76ers, Harden is shooting just 40% from the field and has shot under 40% from the field in seven of his 20 games with the team.
His eFG% is at 48.8% since joining the 76ers which puts him in the 35 percentile of all NBA players and is at his lowest since his rookie season. He’s also shooting an 46.3% on twos and 33.8% from behind the arc, marks that put him in the 42nd and 45th percentile among NBA players.
With Harden taking half of his field goal attempts from behind the arc, consistently knocking down the 3s is key to his success. He’s shot under league average (36.8%) in 12 of his 20 games with the 76ers while also shooting under 30% from deep in 10 games.
Although he’s making up for these shooting struggles by getting to the line nine times a game, his most since his 2019-20, his performance tells a bigger story.
Harden can not beat bigs on the switch anymore. He has no burst, quickness or ability to finish at the rim anymore. At this point he’s feast or famine depending on if his step back 3 is falling. Dude is #LarryHolmesStatus. I really don’t even think the 76ers can resign him
— Raheem Palmer (@iamrahstradamus) April 8, 2022
According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, Harden’s “blow-by percentage” has decreased from the 89th percentile to 58th. Harden is still scoring 1.06 points per possession in isolation but it’s not uncommon to see plays more plays than usual where he can’t beat the big on the switch.
He struggles to get by longer defenders that he would blow by in the past.
Often leading to tough jumpers.
Harden has essentially become a feast or famine player depending on how well his step back three is falling. If you’re a fan of the NFL, it’s very similar to the boom or bust games we’d see from DeSean Jackson as a speedster.
Since we’re likely to see teams switch the PNR in the playoffs, how he performs in isolation will tell us a lot about how far the 76ers can go in the postseason. If the 76ers are facing a team with long switchable wings such as the Toronto Raptors or Boston Celtics, Harden may struggle to perform well enough to make the 76ers competitive.
Harden’s postseason demons run deep:
- A 2-of-11 shooting night against a Steph Curry-less Warriors team in Game 5 of the Western Conference First round elimination game.
- An abysmal 2-of-11 shooting performance in a 39-point Game 6 loss to the San Antonio Spurs without Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker in 2017.
- Losing in Games 5 and 6 against the Warriors without Kevin Durant in 2018
With Harden’s history of postseason struggles, the odds are against him.
Sixers Lacking Bench Depth
Since the trade, the 76ers have essentially made their starting lineup better at the expense of their bench. Harden and Maxey have been responsible for carrying bench units without Embiid, but neither have been particularly productive.
In 341 possessions with Harden on the floor without Embiid, the 76ers have been outscored by -9.8 points per 100 possessions. In the 482 possessions with Maxey without Embiid, the 76ers have been outscored by -2.3 points per 100 possessions.
The bench struggles can primarily be attributed to the lack of back up bigs. This feels like Deja Vu in many ways as we’re likely to see a repeat of the 2019 playoffs where the 76ers primarily lost their seven-game series against the Toronto Raptors based on the back up Embiid minutes.
In 237 minutes, the 76ers were +90 with Embiid on the floor and were -109 for the 99 minutes without him in that series. They lost Game 7 two points on Kawhi Leonard’s game-winner in a game in which Greg Monroe was -9.
In the postseason, those small margins can be the difference between a championship and a second-round exit and the fate of the 76ers could ultimately rest with DeAndre Jordan, Paul Millsap and Paul Reed.
In their recent loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, the 76ers held an 85-72 lead with 2:22 to go in the third quarter before Millsap entered the game for Embiid. Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 17 consecutive points to cut the lead to two by the the time Embiid came back into the game with 9:22 left in the fourth quarter.
Finding back ways to overcome the non-Embiid minutes have been tough and there are no good answers on this current roster. In 196 possessions with Millsap on the floor, the 76ers are giving up a whopping 129.1 points per 100 possessions, which is in the first percentile of all NBA lineups this year. They’re also being outscored by -13.3 points per 100 possessions.
Although the Jordan minutes are slightly better, they’re still allowing 117.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor with a Net Rating of -4.4. Jordan’s lack of movement and defensive awareness has this team hemorrhaging points, making him all but unplayable and yet the 76ers have no other options.
This is great defense, no really just amazing defense and awareness from DeAndre Jordan. pic.twitter.com/knqYi350Wd
— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) March 15, 2022
Jordan ranks 62nd among all NBA players in ESPN’s Real Plus Minus and plays like this certainly don’t help.
Harlan: DeAndre Jordan was an important pickup for the Sixers. He wasn't playing for the Lakers…
DeAndre Jordan: Shows why he was not playing for the Lakers. pic.twitter.com/0bGFl1jNi7
— Yaya Dubin (@JADubin5) March 11, 2022
The 76ers are unwilling to trust Reed despite his athleticism and high motor, given his struggles in execution and recognition of the the game plan. While starters tend to play more in the playoffs, the 76ers will have to find a way to get something in the on Embiid minutes.
With Thybulle being ineligible to play road games potential series against the Toronto Raptors, they face the challenge of navigating a playoff series an even weaker bench, something I’m not sure 76ers head coach Glenn Rivers can handle.
Rivers’ History of Playoff Failures
Rivers could be coaching for his job during the postseason as his questionable rotations and inability to raise this team’s ceiling have been a source of contention among analysts, fans and the team itself.
Embiid voiced his frustration after their recent loss to the Bucks as he was on the bench during a stretch where Antetokounmpo scored 17 consecutive points to erase a 76ers 15-point lead.
“I was on the bench. The whole time that I was on the floor, I really made sure that I was always there to help. I thought we didn’t follow that strategy, we didn’t build a wall, and he had a lot of free lanes to just attack and get whatever he wanted. And that just changed the game. Maybe next time just match up the minutes.”
Rivers is one of the most decorated coaches of all time — he was named one of NBA’s 15 greatest coaches of all time — and is 98-53 in his tenure with the 76ers.
Despite coaching some of the best talent in NBA history — Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Tracy McGrady, Embiid, Simmons, Harden — Rivers’ teams have been on the wrong end of the NBA’s most historic collapses.
Rivers have seen his teams blow three separate 3-1 leads, three 3-2 leads and one 2-0 lead. He’s lost a Game 7 at home four times, five if you include the Clippers blowing a 12 point third quarter lead to the Denver Nuggets in the bubble. To put that into context, home teams typically win Game 7s over 70% of the time.
His 76ers postseason tenure also started off with multiple collapses as they lost to the Atlanta Hawks in seven games despite having the best record in the Eastern conference, home court and having substantial leads in multiple games.
- Game 4: Sixers blow 18 point lead (lost 103-100)
- Game 5: Sixers blow 26 point lead (lost 109-106)
- Game 7: Sixers are outscored in final three quarters (lost 103-96)
Although Simmons got the bulk off the blame, these postseason disappointments against inferior teams exemplify Rivers’ career and that’s unlikely to change this year given the lack of depth on the roster.
He is 61-41-0 (61%) on the ML as a favorite in the postseason. While that may sound impressive, because his teams are typically heavy favorites, you would be down 12.9% or $1350 if you bet $100 on the moneyline on every game coached by Rivers.
His teams have also been a bad bet historically as a favorite against the spread as they’ve gone 46-59 (44%) ATS. If you bet every game coached by Rivers ATS as a favorite, you would be down 14.6% or -$1531.
Although Rivers has struggled as a favorite in the postseason, his teams have been successful as underdog.
Given the talent on his rosters, it’s not surprising to see them over perform the market when it’s against them. If you bet every game coached by Rivers ATS as an underdog, you would be up 11.8% or +$859.
How to bet the 76ers
The 76ers should beat up on the inferior teams in the conference and while they won’t be easy wins for the Bucks, Celtics or (gasp) Nets, unfortunately there’s not enough around them to make this team a legitimate contender.
In many ways, Embiid and Harden are the Shaq and Kobe of this generation, just not the version that pulled off a three-peat.
These are the 2003 Los Angeles Lakers who were bounced in the Western Conference semifinals by the San Antonio Spurs.
I bet you don’t remember those Lakers do you?
I’ll refresh your memory.
The 76ers have one superstar top-three MVP candidate, one aging star and a piss poor bench … similar to the 2003 Lakers.
By 2003, Kobe Bryant was in his prime as a superstar, finishing top-three in MVP voting and he followed up a tremendous regular season with postseason averages of 32.1 points per game along with 5.2 assists and 5.1 rebounds.
Shaquille O’Neal was no longer the unstoppable force he was in the past, struggling to finish at the rim against Tim Duncan while surviving off offensive rebounds and free throw shooting. Still, he put up 27 points 14.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists and was one of the best centers in the league.
Typically you get that type of production out of your stars, you’re poised for a deep playoff run but by 2003, the Lakers lacked meaningful contributions from the role players they’ve had in the past.
Rick Fox was injured and Devean George played hurt, effectively removing key pieces necessary to slow down Manu Ginobili. Robert Horry was a shell of himself, going 0-of-18 from 3-point range in their second round series against the Spurs.
The Lakers were forced to add free agent rookie point guard Jannero Pargo to the rotation and with an aging Brian Shaw playing heavy minutes, there wasn’t much around Bryant and O’neal to take this team deep into the postseason.
I’m expecting a similar fate for Embiid and Harden in the form of a second round exit and should they meet the wrong opponent like the Raptors or Celtics with long switchable wings who can make Harden and Embiid go one-on-one while neglecting ball movement, they could even be a first round exit.
Nevertheless, with an off-season ahead of them, Morey should be able to retool and make the necessary moves to make the 76ers a true contender next season.