The urge to continue looking ahead on the 76ers’ season — especially given the lingering Ben Simmons situation that may or may not finally reach resolution by the Feb. 10 trade deadline — is understandable. But their regular season officially crossed the midway point over the weekend, presenting an appropriate opportunity to look back at the last 40-plus games.
Monday’s matinee clunker at Washington notwithstanding, the Sixers (25-18) are playing their best basketball of the season. They enter Wednesday’s home matchup against Orlando as winners of nine of their last 11 games, including victories at Brooklyn and Miami and recent blowouts of teams they should roll (Houston twice, Orlando, San Antonio). The Sixers were sixth in the Eastern Conference standings before Wednesday’s games, but still sat within a game of fourth place.
Here are the players, the moments and the story lines that defined the first half:
MVP: Joel Embiid
A true no-doubter. Following a slow start by Embiid’s lofty standards, including a significant bout with COVID-19, the center is putting together another MVP-caliber season with statistical feats that only Allen Iverson and Wilt Chamberlain have accomplished in franchise history before him.
Embiid has scored 30 or more points in 12 of his last 14 games, and in 11 road games in a row. He is averaging a career-best 4.2 assists per game for a Sixers offense that entered Wednesday ranked 10th in the NBA in efficiency (110.5 points per 100 possessions), and anchoring a defense that has recovered from a poor start to rank 12th in efficiency (108.6 points allowed per 100 possessions). He has even brought the ball up when the Sixers were short on point guards.
Perhaps most importantly, Embiid has been reliable this season. Other than his COVID absence, Embiid has missed only two games for scheduled rest or to nurse a minor injury.
Saturday’s game at Miami was an example of this season’s difference. With the Sixers playing on the second night of a back-to-back, with less-than-ideal travel, Embiid was listed as questionable to play with elbow soreness stemming from Friday’s win over Boston. That is the type of game he may have missed in previous seasons. But he played through the discomfort, and his monster second half (25 points on 9-of-11 shooting from the floor and 7-of-7 from the free-throw line) propelled the Sixers to one of their best wins of the season.
Seth Curry also deserves a nod here. He is putting together a career season (16.1 points per game on 51.2% shooting and four assists per game) and has expanded his offensive game far beyond the three-point line. His two-man game with Embiid makes the Sixers offense go.
Breakout player: Georges Niang
Tyrese Maxey is the more obvious choice here. But expectations were high for the second-year point guard entering the season, so his ascension feels a bit more natural.
Before training camp, Sixers coach Doc Rivers called Niang his team’s “sneaky” pickup. He immediately became a consistent contributor off the bench, recording a career-best 9.8 points per game on 44% shooting on a veteran’s minimum contract.
Niang has delivered on his reputation as a big man who can stretch the floor, making nearly 40% of his three-pointers on five attempts per game. But he’s also not afraid to get to the basket and, despite limitations, competes defensively.
He also boasts a fiery on-court personality while not taking himself too seriously off it — seriously, who voluntarily nicknames themselves the “minivan”? — making him a fan favorite and ideal culture fit inside the Sixers’ locker room.
Biggest surprise: Road success
When Rivers arrived in Philly before last season, one of the first things he mentioned was that the Sixers needed to drastically improve on the road. Months later, they are one of the NBA’s best away from home while playing a road-heavy early slate.
The Sixers entered Tuesday with the NBA’s second-highest total of road wins (16-9), trailing only the Western Conference-leading Phoenix Suns (17-4). They have already beaten the East’s top three teams — Chicago, Miami, and Brooklyn — in road wins.
Now, the Sixers must try to translate that success to the Wells Fargo Center, where they have been dominant in recent seasons but are just 9-9. They play seven of their next eight games at home.
Biggest disappointment: Tobias Harris’ dip
Harris entered 2021-22 coming off the best season of his career, flirting with 50/40/90 shooting splits while averaging 18.1 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 3.5 assists. And without Simmons, this should have been the opportunity for Harris to fully step in as the Sixers’ second threat behind Embiid.
It simply has not gone well for Harris. He has dealt with a bad COVID-19 case and its aftereffects, along with multiple injuries including shoulder tendinitis that he revealed earlier this week he has been playing with since a mid-November loss at Utah. Harris’ shooting numbers — 45.7% from the floor and 31.3% from three-point range — have taken a considerable dip, though his rebounding (7.4 per game) and assist (3.8 per game) numbers are up from last season.
But when Harris plays well, so do the Sixers. Take Saturday’s win against the Heat, when his 15 first-half points on 6-of-8 shooting kept his team afloat before its second-half charge.
Another contender for this category is the Sixers’ rebounding struggles, although that was an anticipated issue without Simmons considering their lack of size other than at center. Other possibilities are Danny Green’s injury-riddled season and the lack of overall roster continuity, although that has been an issue for all teams navigating the third COVID-impacted season.
Best win: Jan. 15 at Miami
Perhaps this is recency bias. And it’s also technically cheating, since this was game No. 42.
Yet this gutsy 109-98 victory had a little bit of everything on the second night of a back-to-back set. An unreal Embiid second half. Big moments from complementary players, such as Niang’s three-pointers, Maxey’s block on Kyle Lowry and recent G League call-up Charlie Brown Jr. defending the Heat’s dynamic perimeter players with Green and Matisse Thybulle out.
The Dec. 30 win at Brooklyn, which occurred hours after Rivers entered health and safety protocols and Dan Burke abruptly became acting head coach, also deserves a nod. So does the Dec. 11 win against Golden State, when Thybulle’s stellar defense prevented Steph Curry from breaking the NBA’s all-time three-point record. And an under-the-radar choice is the Nov. 22 win at Sacramento, when four starters were out because of health and safety protocols or injuries.
Worst loss: Dec. 13 at Memphis
Embiid and Curry did not play in this game. But neither did Grizzlies star Ja Morant.
Still, the Sixers were completely overmatched on this forgettable 126-91 defeat, going just 4-of-22 from three-point range, getting outrebounded, 50-38, and allowing 28 fast-break points. It was the Sixers’ most lopsided loss of the season.
Other options include a 120-85 drubbing at Utah on Nov. 16 and the second game of the season against Brooklyn, when the Sixers did not make a shot from the field in the final 5:33 to blow a 10-point lead in a 114-109 loss.
Three second-half story lines
The Simmons saga: This will continue to hover until it’s resolved. Simmons’ agent, Rich Paul, met with Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey and general manager Elton Brand last week, but it appears there is no change in either side’s position.
Though rumors will continue to swirl for the next three weeks, if Morey cannot acquire the difference-maker he covets, it’s possible this stretches into the summer.
A different move? If a splashy Simmons move (or a seemingly less-likely Harris move) does not unfold, is there a smaller move on the margins that Morey could make?
The Sixers would benefit from a player who could improve their rebounding or add some speed and athleticism. And depending on the long-term status of backup point guard Shake Milton — whose back injury was described as “pretty significant” by Rivers last week — an additional ballhandler could be useful.
Maxey’s continued development: Maxey has more than handled his sharp role increase, putting up numbers that make him a contender for the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award.
He entered Wednesday averaging 16.7 points on 46.8% shooting, 4.4 assists, and 3.5 rebounds per game. And one can almost see his development in real time, as he learns how to blend his explosion to the basket with playmaking for others. He has recently become a more confident three-point shooter, with a season average inching toward 40%.
After Monday’s loss to Washington, Rivers said a next step for Maxey is to recognize when a teammate is rolling and consistently feed that player the ball.