Like any NBA wonk worth his League Pass subscription, my work is nearly done. For the last month, I have lived inside a near-hallucinogenic maelstrom of spreadsheets and CBA clauses and if-then propositions, my head rattling like a tube of tennis balls as shooting lines cross with salary figures and reams of old transaction records. I have identified trade candidates, calculated cap figures, and made enough mouse clicks to earn an honorary rank in the GRU. With two weeks to go before the NBA’s trade deadline and the Sixers languishing in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, the answer to what they should do and how they should do it has now become clear.
It doesn’t matter.
None of it.
Not the position, or the person, or the luxury tax implications. Shooter or playmaker, offense or defense, Robert Covington or Derrick Rose. While there might be a few scenarios in which the Sixers’ championship hopes are won or lost between now and Feb. 6, all of them are contingent on the one that is already within their control.
Plain and simple: The starters need to play better. All of them. Together. The way Elton Brand envisioned when he made his reverse pivot away from Jimmy Butler this summer. The way Brett Brown envisioned when he gave the plan a public endorsement. Maybe that won’t end up looking like smash-mouth defense and bully-ball offense, or bully-ball defense and smash-mouth offense, or whatever it was Brown actually had in mind when he listed the collective identity he foresaw. Whatever the case, it needs to be much better than it has been so far.
I know a lot of people don’t like numbers, but what if I told you there was one out there that would spare you the trouble of reading the rest of this column? I suspect many of you would take that deal, so let’s proceed. The number in question is the number of points that the Sixers starters have scored minus the number of points that they have allowed (the dorks refer to it as “point differential"). Over an average of 100 possessions, i.e. the length of your average NBA game, the Sixers’ top unit is outscoring its opponents by 8.1 points. All by itself, it is a rather lonely number that does not say much. But when considered in comparison to the numbers posted by the top lineups of the other five teams at the top of the Eastern Conference, the relevance becomes clear:
Milwaukee +19.4 (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez, Wesley Matthews, Khris Middleton)
Toronto +14.8 (OG Anunoby, Marc Gasol, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet)
Boston +13.9 (Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Daniel Theis, Kemba Walker)
Miami +13.3 (Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Meyers Leonard, Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson)
Indiana +8.2 (Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb, Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner, T.J. Warren)
Sixers +8.1 (Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Al Horford, Josh Richardson)
It’s a remarkable list to look at, for a number of reasons, starting with the offseason dots you can connect between them all. The Sixers traded Jimmy Butler to Miami, then paid Al Horford and Tobias Harris more money than the Pacers paid Brogdon, who left Milwaukee. Meanwhile, Boston saw Kyrie Irving head to the Nets, and Horford to the Sixers, and acquired Kemba Walker to fill the void. The Sixers were the prime mover this offseason, and they are now the one team out of the group that is failing to make the most of their situation.
The easy conclusion is that the Sixers were wrong. They could have signed Walker for less than what they gave Harris. They could have signed Brogdon for less than what they gave Horford. They could have kept Butler, and JJ Redick, and rolled with the team that came within a few bounces and an overtime period from beating the eventual NBA champs. Such a case has some merit (though there were mitigating circumstances that would complicate most of those assumptions). But as a wise man once said: What’s done is done.
The fact of the matter is the Sixers chose the path they chose, and they devoted a huge chunk of resources in doing so, and what they have now is a starting unit that needs to give them a level of production that reflects the manner in which those resources were allocated. For the most part, they are getting it on the defensive end of the court. Among lineups with at least 150 minutes together, only the Bucks are holding opponents to fewer points per 100 possessions. And there is reason to believe that things will only get better in that department.
The problem is the other end of the court. Of that group of lineups with 150-plus minutes together, only four are scoring fewer points than the Sixers. That’s not something that the front office alone can fix. The paradox of the situation is that any external improvement will come because one of the current five starters is swapped out for a better offensive skill set. That’s not to say the Sixers shouldn’t seek that improvement, but it can’t help but diminish the identity that they have already chosen. Which, barring a dramatic reversal of course, is the identity they are stuck with for the next several years.
There is a tendency to look at the trade and buyout markets as potential saviors. Few teams have used them to remake their identity to the extent the Sixers have the past couple of years. But we’ve arrived at a point where the cards have been dealt. For the Sixers to get where they want to go, they need Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid to consistently be the players they’ve been when they’ve been at their best. They need Brown to figure out a way to maximize the skill sets of Horford and Richardson within the framework of an Embiid-Simmons offense.