There’s only one team that has been better than the league average in both offensive and defensive efficiency in each of the last five seasons. But that one team — the Philadelphia 76ers — is not one of the 14 (different) teams who have reached the conference finals over that stretch. Regular-season success followed by postseason disappointment has become a pattern for the Sixers. They traded the goat from their conference-semifinals exit two seasons ago (Ben Simmons) only to have his replacement (James Harden) become similarly passive as they were eliminated this past May.
Before he went out so quietly (going scoreless in the second half of Game 6 vs. Miami), Harden did find some chemistry with Joel Embiid, and their pick-and-roll game allowed the Kia MVP runner-up to catch the ball closer to the rim and score more efficiently. Harden has also assisted the Philly front office, signing a new contract that has allowed the Sixers to add more pieces to the puzzle. P.J. Tucker, De’Anthony Melton, Montrezl Harrell and Danuel House Jr. all address specific needs and make Philly one of the deepest teams in the league.
Harden is 33 years old, with his best days behind him. Embiid will turn 29 in March. The Sixers’ time to finally break through is now, but this is a tough Eastern Conference, with a few teams that have had more postseason success than Philadelphia has. As the Sixers continue to evolve, they remain one of the most fascinating teams in the league.
Can the backcourt hold up defensively? Harden and Tyrese Maxey are one of the most potent offensive backcourts in the league, and the 21-year-old Maxey is a good fit alongside the former Kia MVP, having shot 45% on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers and able to attack close-outs on the second side of the floor. But Harden may be the most immobile defender in the league and Maxey (6-foot-2) can also be a target of opposing offenses. For the Sixers to be at their best defensively, one of the two may need to be off the floor.
The Sixers could have a top-five offense (for the first time in 32 years) and rack up a ton of regular-season wins. They have two stars that can carry a heavy load, a potent secondary ball-handler, and a bevy of shooters. And with a ton of depth (Shake Milton and Furkan Korkmaz beyond the 10 players listed below), they have the ability to withstand injuries to anybody but Embiid. The questions will come in the postseason, when it becomes more difficult to get the ball to the big man and with Harden having yet to show that he can play like a star with his team’s season on the line. Projection: Playoffs
1 KEY STAT TO KNOW
52 — In their 21 games together, James Harden had more assists to Joel Embiid on field goals in the paint (52) than any other teammate had all season.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
James Harden: Would benefit from shooting more off the catch and/or from mid-range. Remains an elite playmaker if he’s lost some explosiveness.
Tyrese Maxey: Made a huge leap last season, going from 8.0 to 17.5 points per game and ranking third in 3-point percentage (42.7%).
Tobias Harris: A solid third (or fourth) option, though he could be better off the catch. Just 35% on catch-and-shoot 3-pointerss and somewhat of a ball-stopper.
P.J. Tucker: Led the league in corner 3-pointers the last three seasons he played with Harden, and he showed some more offensive skills last year in Miami.
Joel Embiid: First qualified player in 32 years (since Karl Malone in 1989-90) to average at least 30 points and 11 rebounds, and he’s a defensive force too.
Montrezl Harrell: Efficient roll man who will complement Harden when Embiid sits and eat regular-season minutes. Playoff efficacy is a question.
Danuel House Jr.: Floor spacer around the stars, but 36.1% from deep over the last three seasons ranks 133rd among 262 players with at least 300 3-point attempts.
De’Anthony Melton: Fourth with 4.5 deflections per 36 minutes last season. Will boost a team that ranked 29th in transition possessions per game.
Georges Niang: “The Minivan” has his limitations, but has shot 41% from 3-point range over the last four seasons and certainly isn’t afraid to let it fly.
Matisse Thybulle: The most disruptive defender in the league, but is often ignored (by both defenders and his teammates) on offense.
LAST 5 SEASONS
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
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