First half summary: The Philadelphia 76ers made a coaching change and renovations to their starting lineup. But most important may be that they have Joel Embiid playing the best basketball of his career. The fifth-year center, set to turn 27 on March 16, is both a Kia MVP and Kia Defensive Player of the Year candidate, averaging an efficient 30.2 ppg, 11.6 rpg and 1.4 bpg. The Sixers have outscored their opponents by 11.1 points with Embiid on the floor and are 23-7 in games he’s played, sitting atop the Eastern Conference at 24-12 overall.
Even with the additions of Seth Curry and Danny Green, Tobias Harris being much improved and Embiid shooting 51% from mid-range, the Sixers aren’t much better offensively than they were a season ago. With the league average seeing a jump of 1.3 points scored per 100 possessions, the Sixers have scored only 1.2 per 100 more than they did last season and rank 14th offensively at the break. But they’ve been more consistent on defense (where they rank fourth) and have the league’s best record (15-5) in games that were within five points in the last five minutes.
Biggest question going into the second half: Can they improve their depth? When the Sixers lost to the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 Eastern Conference semifinals, they were outscored by an amazing 109 points in the 99 minutes that Embiid was on the bench. Two years later, they still have depth issues, having been outscored by 6.3 points per 100 possessions with Embiid off the floor. They’ve staggered their starters under coach Doc Rivers far less than they did under Brett Brown, often using a full, five-man bench unit. But third-year guard Shake Milton has been their only (somewhat) reliable reserve. So they could certainly be in the market for an additional piece or two at the trade deadline.
Playoffs or lottery?: The Sixers are in a three-team race atop the Eastern Conference, currently 1-1 against the Brooklyn Nets and having not yet played the Milwaukee Bucks. These are three unique teams and potential playoff meetings could come down to matchups. The Sixers have a big matchup advantage at center, along with the player (Ben Simmons) best fit to defend Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant.
Brooklyn looks like the favorite in the East, but anything could happen between now and mid-May. With an MVP candidate, another All-Star and a chance at a championship, the Sixers will surely go for it. That makes them a prime candidate to go shopping at the deadline, perhaps for a player than can give them an advantage against other second units while also fitting alongside Simmons and Embiid.
— John Schuhmann