Start with the number six. As in, six wins. That was the 76ers’ improvement from last year to this year, and they managed to do it in one fewer game. If you’re looking to quantify who the Sixers were in the regular season, that’s an obvious place to start. If you’re looking to quantify who the Sixers will be this postseason, you’ll have to look deeper.
Numbers are inherently descriptive things. Using them to prescribe outcomes requires a lot of bending and squinting. But if we do both of those things hard enough, we can at least begin to understand the variables that will underpin their success (or failure).
In advance of Sunday’s playoff opener against the Wizards, here are five numbers from the regular season that show who the Sixers need to be.
15 points per 100 possessions
That was the improvement in the Sixers’ Net Rating when Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were on the court together, this year vs. last.
The most bonkers aspect of the 2019-20 campaign was the fact that the Sixers were a better team when their two young stars played separately than when they were both in the game. With Simmons on the court and Embiid on the bench, they outscored opponents by an average of 1.9 points per 100 possessions. With Embiid on the court and Simmons on the bench by an average of 10.7 points per 100. But with both of them on the court at the same time, the Sixers’ point differential was a mere +0.9 points per 100 possessions.
More than any other outcome from the 2019-20 season, this one called into serious question the legitimacy of the foundation the team had built itself with Simmons and Embiid.
Then, in 2020-21, the script flipped. Instead of a liability, the partnership has been the single biggest catalyst for the Sixers’ success. They’ve outscored opponents by 15.9 points per 100 possessions while on the court together, which ranks fourth in the NBA among duos who have played at least 1,000 minutes together.
The big question is whether that success will carry over into the postseason. In 2018-19, when the Sixers came within minutes of the Eastern Conference finals, their Embiid-Simmons lineups had a Net Rating of +19.7 in the postseason. The year before, when they flamed out against the Celtics, that number was +2.2.
-14.4 points per 100 possessions
That’s the drop-off in Embiid’s plus-minus when he plays without Seth Curry on the court.
Lots of people can claim some credit for the Embiid-Simmons renaissance, from Doc Rivers to the players themselves. But don’t overlook team president Daryl Morey, whose acquisition of Curry in exchange for Josh Richardson transformed the identity of the Sixers’ starting five. Richardson’s freelancing style and unimpressive catch-and-shoot was never an obvious fit alongside a couple of ball-dominant, paint-oriented stars.
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In Curry, the Sixers replaced their former wing with an elite shooter who would command as much attention on the perimeter as Embiid did in the post. The numbers tell a staggering tale.
The partnership between Embiid and Curry has been as symbiotic as any in the game. Just compare Embiid’s performance when Curry is on the court with when he is on the bench. With Curry, Embiid is averaging one more made bucket and an additional 1.6 assists per 100 possessions. With Curry, his plus-minus is +16.3. Without Curry, it is 1.9.
As a team, the Sixers are scoring an additional 8.1 points per 100 possessions with Curry and Embiid compared with Embiid alone.
That’s how much better a three-point shooter Tobias Harris has been under Doc Rivers as opposed to Brett Brown over the last four seasons.
The Sixers’ series against the Wizards gives Harris a neat little way to book-end his season. Six months ago Sunday, the veteran forward looked like dead money after opening the season with a dreadful performance against the Wizards. He shot 3-for-13 from the field. He missed all four of his three-point attempts. He finished at minus-7 in the box score. Forty-eight wins later, Harris is a big reason the Sixers will be opening the playoffs at home against the East’s No. 8 seed.
Ever since the season opener, Harris has been every bit the complementary scorer the Sixers have needed to diversify their offense. He finished the season with a career-best .556 effective field goal percentage, thanks in large part to a .394 mark from behind the arc.
Credit Harris for finding his rhythm, but credit Rivers for his keen sense of his player. In the 149 games that Harris has played for Rivers over the last four seasons, 87 of them with the Clippers, the forward shot .416 from three-point range, compared with .356 in the 99 games he played for Brown.
That’s how much court time the Sixers’ starting unit logged this regular season. As good as Embiid, Simmons, Curry, and Harris have been individually, their biggest advantage was the amount of time they spent together as a unit. Only one five-man lineup in the NBA logged more minutes. And the Sixers’ +13.8 Net Rating was better than any other NBA unit with at least 500 minutes.
Problem is, there were only six units in the entire NBA that reached that 500-minute threshold. While we can point to the fact that the Sixers’ starters were better as a unit than the Bucks (+8.2), we can’t say the same about the East’s other two contenders.
Take Brooklyn, for instance. The Nets posted a Net Rating of +18.5 when Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Joe Harris, and DeAndre Jordan were on the court together. But they were on the court together for only 50 minutes. Likewise, the Heat’s top unit logged less than a third of the court time that the Sixers’ starters finished the regular season with. That sort of disparity makes handicapping these playoffs nearly impossible.
That’s how many steals Matisse Thybulle averaged per 100 possessions, the first player to achieve that mark since Tony Allen in 2014-15.
If the Sixers are going to make their first NBA Finals run since 2001, the formula will almost certainly be some combination of their big man dominating the paint and their defense smothering the opposition. If they end up facing the Nets in the conference finals, Thybulle will be an interesting X-factor in their quest to match up with Brooklyn’s three superstar scorers. His penchant for pocket-picking is the sort of thing that can drive ballhandlers like Harden and Irving insane.
Thybulle’s 105 steals during the regular season tied him for third in the NBA despite the fact that he logged nearly 500 fewer minutes than each of the other three players in that group. That disparity underscores what makes the second-year guard such an interesting factor for the playoffs. There’s a scenario in which he is an X-factor. And there are plenty of others in which he barely plays.
There’s a lot that we do not know about these Sixers, given the unique nature of the regular season. For now, the most pertinent number 16, which is the number of wins that stands between them and a title.