The Full 76ers Are Terrifying

03/20/2019 at 02:03pm

By Ian Levy
Nylon Calculus, brought to you by The Step Back

The Tobias Harris trade, completed just before the NBA Trade Deadline, looked like it could be the final piece of the puzzle for the Philadelphia 76ers -- adding more shooting and versatility to a lineup that was already loaded with star power. Unfortunately, Philadelphia only had a four-game sample to watch that group work together before knee soreness took Joel Embiid out of the lineup for three weeks.

Embiid has been back in the rotation for four games and an extended look at the 76ers full rotation has demonstrated just how dangerous they can be in the playoffs.

Sunday night’s win over the Milwaukee Bucks was a feather in Philadelphia’s cap but it was a continuation of a pattern. They won their first four games after Embiid returned to the lineup, outscoring opponents by an average of 9.6 points per 100 possessions. (Embiid did not play Tuesday against the Hornets, because of load-management). Philadelphia has now won seven of the eight games they’ve played with both Harris and Embiid, and the starting lineup, with Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons and J.J. Redick around that pair, has outscored opponents by 17.2 points per 100 possessions over 116 minutes, with offensive and defensive efficiencies that would both rank first in the league if extended across the entire season.

The versatility with this group is remarkable and will be particularly important as they head into the playoffs and countering and exploiting specific mismatches becomes increasingly important.

On defense, Embiid has continued to hold down the middle of the floor, leading the league in interior shots defended per game, with one of the lowest defensive field goal percentages of any high-volume rim protector. The interchangeability of Harris and Simmons around Embiid in the middle means the 76ers aren’t as susceptible to be exploited by a single dominant wing scorer.

Harris is one of just a handful of players who has spent at least 10 percent of their defensive possessions matched up against each position from point guards up to power forwards. Simmons has actually spent at least 10 percent of his possessions matched up against all five positions. The point being, they are both comfortable defending up or down a position, both switching when necessary, but also matching up with wings who try to beat defenders with speed or with size and strength.

For example, the table below shows how Simmons, Harris and Butler have matched up against Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jayson Tatum -- all elite wing scorers and the kind of players who, against some teams, necessitate the use of a specific defender, which can disrupt normal rotation patterns.

On the season, Giannis averages 37.7 points per 100 possessions, slightly edging out Kawhi at 37.4 and Tatum averages 24.5. Giannis outperformed his season-long scoring average in 18 possessions he was defended by Butler this season and Tatum out-performed his in the six possessions he was defended by Harris. Otherwise, the 76ers’ defenders have consistently gotten the better of these matchups.

On offense, shooting may continue to be a soft spot in Philadelphia’s attack but Harris is still well over 40 percent from 3 on the season and defenses will at least have to account for the willingness of Butler and Embiid to let it fly from deep, even if they haven’t been incredibly accurate this season. But again, the versatility and ability to exploit a mismatch will make Philadelphia incredibly difficult to cover.

Of that five-man starting rotation, three (Butler, Simmons and Harris) are averaging at least 7.0 drives per game, with both Harris and Simmons shooting better than 50 percent on those drives. Embiid can attack a lead-footed big man as well, and is averaging 4.4 drives per game, also shooting better than 50 percent. Harris and Embiid are both excellent post scorers, averaging over 0.65 points per post touch, with Butler and Simmons capable as well, given the matchup. And when it comes to passing, all five of those players are averaging at least 4.0 potential assists per game.

Wherever the mismatch is, the 76ers can find it and deliver the ball. Whatever the mismatch calls for -- attacking in the post or off the dribble -- they have a player who is prepared to take care of it.

The 76ers will still have to answer questions about their depth and it will be important for this group to get as many reps as possible together before the playoffs start, so they can get more comfortable with their particular balance of skills. But if winning in the playoffs is all about winning individual matchups, the 76ers appear to be as prepared as anyone.

Nylon Calculus covers basketball analytics for The Step Back, the premium NBA vertical at