Brett Brown has said on numerous occasions that he evaluates an NBA season the way one might a three-act play. Each third of the schedule has its own arc, its own rhythm. Throughout the annual preseason blitz of questions about his expectations for the upcoming campaign, the Sixers head coach would invoke his rule of thirds, the first act running through Christmas, the second act spilling into the spring-time stretch run.
With a week to go before the Sixers' Christmas Day tilt against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden, it seems an appropriate time to revisit such questions. Who are the Sixers? How do they compare to the team we envisioned back in mid-October? And, above all, where are they going?
"To be honest," Brown said, an hour-and-a-half before Friday night's triple-overtime thriller against the Thunder, "I thought it was going to take a little longer."
It's an assessment that seems beyond dispute. At 14-14, tied for ninth place in the Eastern Conference, the Sixers have looked very much like the playoff team many had envisioned. After a brutal early schedule, the impressive performances far outnumber the hiccups, putting them in position for a post-New Year's run.
Among the early storylines that should play a significant role the rest of the way …
If we'd told you at the start of the season that Joel Embiid had just logged 49 minutes of court time, you might've asked which two games we were referencing. Yet when the final box score from the Sixers' 119-117 loss to the Thunder on Friday night landed in the printer tray, it claimed the following line for the center: 34 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 blocks, 48:39 MIN.
Read that last number again, and remember that the Sixers entered the season hoping that Embiid would be able to work his way up to playing 32 minutes a night by January.
Of all the positive developments we've seen unfold over the Sixers' first 28 games, Embiid's ability to pick up where he left off prior to last winter's knee surgery has to rank at the top. Put simply, he is playing on a level commensurate with some of the game's all-time greats. No player in NBA history has ever averaged more than 35 points and 15 rebounds per 100 possessions in the first two seasons of his career. Embiid, a third of the way through his sophomore campaign, is averaging 37.8 and 15.8. The 1,182 points that he has scored are the 16th most in NBA history through 54 career games.
None of that necessarily comes as a surprise after what we saw last season. The wrinkle is that Embiid has been on the court much more than anybody could have expected after spending most of training camp and the preseason on the sideline.
Over his last seven games, Embiid has averaged 36.5 minutes per night, a remarkable figure when you consider the expectations the team had for him heading into the season. True, the Sixers never laid out a definitive plan for their handling of their oft-injured star, and they always stressed that any minutes restriction would be a soft cap with plenty of wiggle room. But as recently as the day before the season opener in Washington, Brown was on record hoping that Embiid would be playing 32 minutes a night by January. So the fact that he has already eclipsed that figure in 10 of his 23 games seems significant (Embiid is actually averaging 33.5 minutes per night since Nov. 9).
Common sense says Embiid's better-than-expected court time portends little about his availability over the final two-thirds of the season. Last year, everything seemed to be going swimmingly right up until it wasn't. In that sense, little about the Sixers' outlook has changed. If anything, the first third of the season has only reinforced how much they need him on the court.
Of the five games he has missed, the Sixers have lost four. When he is on the court, they are averaging 110.4 points per 100 possessions. When he is off the court, that figure falls to 103.4. To put that in perspective, the Nuggets are currently sixth in the NBA at 110 points per 100 possessions. The Grizzlies are 27th at 103.7. Another way to look at it: the difference between the Sixers with Embiid on the court and Embiid off the court (minus 7.0 points/100 possessions) is roughly the difference between the Warriors (115.7) and the Knicks (108.4). And that's just on offense. On defense, the difference is even more staggering: opponents are scoring 102.9 points with Embiid on the court versus 112.3 with him off of it (both per 100 possessions).
Besides Embiid's health and the potential return of Markelle Fultz, the Sixers' continued evolution on the defensive end of the court might hold the biggest sway over the next third of the schedule. It isn't that the Sixers have been bad: they rank 13th in the league in scoring defense (106.9 points per 100 poss), a number Brown says he is "OK with," especially when you consider that 17 of their 28 games have come against teams ranked in the top half of the league in scoring, including 10 games against teams in the Top 7. But the hiccups they have had have featured some porous perimeter D, including recent losses to the Suns and Pelicans in which Phoenix's Devin Booker scored 41 and the Pelicans' Jrue Holiday scored 34. Before Friday night, the Sixers and Nets were the only two teams in the league to allow 11 players to score 30-plus points, and nine of those 11 on the Sixers' end have been guards (the other two being LeBron, however you decide to classify him).
It remains to be seen what kind of impact Fultz might have in that department.
No rookie in NBA history has ever averaged 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 assists per 100 possessions. In fact, the only active players who have ever had such a season are LeBron (seven times), Russell Westbrook (three times), James Harden (once), and Nikola Jokic (once).
At the moment, Simmons is averaging 22.5, 11.5 and 10.1.
Heading into the season, the Sixers harbored a quiet optimism that Simmons would open a lot of eyes, but even they couldn't have imagined the production they have gotten from their rookie. Most impressive has been how seamlessly he fits into the flow of the game, regardless of opponent, situation or the other teammates on the court. We've seen him go 13-for-24 from the field and 3-for-8 from the field, both in Sixers wins. In his first 17 games, he averaged 15.4 attempts. In his last 10 games, he has averaged 12.6 attempts. Like Embiid, we're watching the development of a budding star.
"To date, when you say Ben Simmons has played 27 games, and you look at what he's doing, I mean, come on," Brown said. "And Joel's played 50-something in his career. We all want it all yesterday, and it's the nature of all of us, especially in this city. I think that the growth of our team, the evolution of our guys, where we are right now, what I feel in the locker room, what I feel at that practice facility, I'm proud of our guys, and I'm confident in our team and the way we're trying to steer the program."