Game Preview | Starting Group Gelling, Setting Tone

by Brian Seltzer Reporter

Scene Setter:

CAMDEN, NJ - Based on record, and that only seven NBA teams have higher winning percentages, the take that the 76ers, at 13-9, are in a good place nearly two months into the season is a reasonable one.

The club has seen new talent mesh with old in complementary, productive fashion, while establishing itself among the league’s elite in several areas, such as rebounding, passing, and catch-and-shoot scoring.

In particular, the Sixers’ regular starting line-up of Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and Joel Embiid has been pivotal to the team’s success. Not only has the quartet helped get the squad off to strong starts on a consistent basis, it’s emerged as one of the most productive starting groups in the league. 

Entering Monday’s match-up with the Phoenix Suns (7:00 PM EST; NBC Sports Philadelphia, 97.5 FM The Fanatic / Sixers Radio Network), the Simmons-Redick-Covington-Saric-Embiid combo was carrying an exceptional net rating of 19.9 (113.0 offensive rating / 93.2 defensive rating). That figure ranked third among all five-man units in the NBA that have logged at least 170 minutes together, trailing only the Houston Rockets’ troupe of Eric Gordon, James Harden, Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza, and Clint Capela (23.3 netrtg); and the Golden State Warriors’ line-up of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Zaza Pachulia (20.9 netrtg).

In explaining Saturday why the Sixers’ five first-stringers have made such a nice fit, Brett Brown pointed to size.

“Although we may lack a little bit of foot speed, we do have height,” he said. “There’s a girth and a resilience. I like that.”

Saric, on a nice personal roll the past week (he’s averaged 17.6 points and 8.4 rebounds per game his last 5 outings), agrees with his head coach. Body types have made a difference. 

“I think everybody knows we’ve got length, size, especially when we got Joel, me, Ben, and Rob,” said Saric. “It’s hard to score over us, and it’s hard to get offensive rebounds against us. And, on offense, we can get easy offensive rebounds.”

Reflecting the extent of the impact the Sixers’ starters have had this season is the following stat: the team on the whole ranks third overall in the NBA in first-quarter scoring, averaging 29.3 points per first period.

“I think we just play well together,” Simmons said over the weekend. “Everyone’s willing to pass the ball to whoever is open and make the right play, so I think that plays a big part of it. Then Jo and Cov defensively, and obviously JJ, who plays a big role, I think they contribute a lot.”

That the Sixers’ starting five contains a wealth of talent is no secret. Impressive, however, has been how little time it’s taken for the contingent to click.

Yes, members of the current starting group had the chance to get a feel for one another during voluntary summer pick-up activities, but in the end, nothing substitutes for real reps. Along those lines, Simmons, Redick, Covington, Saric, and Embiid have shared the floor for only 14 games.

“Definitely thought it could come together, but probably not as quick that it has happened,” said Simmons. “We’ve been gelling pretty well so far.”

For a coach who sees wins as a justification for getting greedier, Brown, not surprisingly, is looking for more, especially on defense, where the Sixers’ starters boast the best defensive rating among the 12 five-man line-ups in the league that have played at least 170 total minutes.

“We’re always challenging our perimeter guys,” Brown said. “We can’t just dump it on Joel. I hope we can do it without fouling as much as we do. Those types of areas...I’m mindful of.”

Opponent Outlook:

The Phoenix Suns arrive at The Center Monday in the home stretch of a season-long six-game road trip that began the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Phoenix, which changed coaches three games into the year, has dropped back-to-back contests, and five of six overall. Devin Booker, an All-Rookie pick in 2016, is averaging 23.0 points per game, and has hit 56 3-pointers. The Suns will take the court Monday with the lowest defensive rating in the NBA, at 109.6.

Follow Along:

• Video: NBC Sports Philadelphia / NBC Sports app

• Audio: 97.5 FM The Fanatic / Sixers Radio Network