7.6 Takeaways | A Test Out West
Prepared for you each week, highlighting headlines, observations, and other anecdotes surrounding the 76ers.
1. A look at some early numbers
Heading into the weekend and the start of a four-game Western Conference road trip, the 76ers were occupying some pretty solid statistical real estate. They ranked first in the NBA in rebounding (51.3 per game) and steals (11.5 per game); second in points in the paint (53.5 per game); and third in blocks (6.8 per game), deflections (19.3 per game), and second-chance points (16.8 per game).
At the time of publication, the Sixers also boasted the second-highest net rating in the league (9.8 pts per 100 possessions), and their defense was fourth-best (96.8 points per 100 possessions). Furthermore, the club has allowed the fewest rebounds per game (38.8), and paces the NBA (by a wide margin) in rebounding differential (12.5 per game).
On an individual level, Matisse Thybulle - this year's first-round pick - tops all NBA players with an average of 3.0 steals. Ben Simmons is right behind the rookie, posting 2.8 steals per tilt.
The Aussie said that he and Thybulle being nos. 2 and 1 on the steals chart, respectively, has led to some friendly competition.
"A little bit. I try to make sure he has more than me, just 'cause I know I'm going to go out there and get as many as I can. But I love watching him play defense. He's amazing on defense. His hands are great, long, gets deflections and steals, so I've been really happy with him."
Joel Embiid, meanwhile, is third in the NBA in second chance points (6.7).
But the numbers that matter the most, of course, are "4" and "0," which make up the Sixers' won-loss record. As of Saturday, no team had more wins, and there was no other squad left unbeaten.
2. About the deflections
Many of the areas where the Sixers are enjoying early statistical success - defense, rebounding, steals, points in the paint - are a reflection of roster design. This year's team - specifically the starting line-up - was built with size and length in mind.
Through four games, these qualities are shining through in a major way, especially on the defensive end. The Sixers' have been tenacious, and competing with relentless activity.
As for the metric that best represents this spirit? In our mind, it might have to be deflections.
Before even getting down to actual numbers and rankings, simply watch the Sixers play D. More often than not, arms and hands are constantly moving, while passing lanes are being disrupted consistently.
Driving to the basket presents opponents with a particularly thorny proposition. Even before encountering elite rim protection, they have to navigate through a key that - given the Sixers' big bodies - looks more like an entangled corn field than anything else.
When it comes to the Sixers' knack for deflections, personnel only accounts for part of the equation. It's a skill Brett Brown coaches up, too.
"It features in everything we talk about, think about, we chart it during games," he said.
The value of deflections was stressed upon Brown at a relatively early stage of his basketball life. During his college days, the now-58 year old played for Rick Pitino at Boston University. Deflections were a primary point of emphasis.
"It was like a driver," Brown said. "It was a thing we hung our hat on, and I have carried it with me."
There is a flipside, however. The Sixers, for instance, have been putting the opposition at the line a decent amount through four games.
But the Sixers have also reaped rewards thanks to their aggression, forcing the third-most turnovers in the NBA (19.3 per game), and leading the league in points scored off turnovers (22.1).
"It comes with a little bit of pain, because some time you reach and you foul," Brown said about encouraging deflections, "but the tradeoff to me [is] worth it."
3. Big on the (o) boards
In Wednesday's 117-95 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Sixers' dominance on the offensive glass was decisive, at least if you were to ask Brett Brown what he thought.
Through the first quarter, the Sixers' advantage in offensive rebounding was 6-0. By halftime, the margin was 9-1, and by the final horn, the finally tally stood 16-6.
The Sixers' 16 offensive caroms established a new early-season high, and was a total they reached only 11 times last year.
"When you talk about how we use height and how we exploit size, it's part of the 'smashmouth,' 'bully ball' thing that we are trying to get better at," Brown said following the win.
James Ennis III came off the bench Wednesday to tie Al Horford for a team-best five offensive rebounds. For the game, Ennis pulled down 11 boards, one shy of his career high.
"Since I got to Philly, they made it like I can really go like I want to," Ennis said this week. "Other teams I've been on they've said not to go to the offensive glass. I love doing that. I'm a hustle player. Just to get more possessions for my team I'll sacrifice my body, and try to crash every time."
4. Offensive progress
That the Sixers' defense is ahead of their offense at this young stage of the year isn't a matter the team is hiding from. More rhythm is expected to come with more time, given the amount of turnover the starting unit experienced this summer.
The Minnesota game, though, brought good signs. The Sixers matched their season-high of 117 points, and - in the first half in particular - scored with good balance.
They were up 19 at intermission, and had pumped out 30 points in the paint, while shooting 5 for 9 from 3-point territory.
"I feel better, because I think the ball moved," Brett Brown said following Wednesday's win, when he was asked about the offense. "I didn't really purposefully call a bunch of plays until the end. I wanted them to figure it out."
Which is a sensible strategy. It's early in the season, and the timing is right for the Sixers to be working on getting used to each other.
One of the newcomers, Al Horford, was also pleased with how the offense played against the Timberwolves. At the outset of the evening, it was evident the Sixers were going to put their size and strength to use.
"Literally any of us can go in there, post, go score the ball, be aggressive, be strong and that was an example of it tonight," said Horford. "We really try to play with our size, kind of impose our will in the paint."
Cut down on the turnovers, and Brown believes the offense is trending in the right direction.
"If you remove that, I give our offense a thumbs up."
5. Appreciating Al
Kinda feel like this could be its own subcategory every week here in the 7.6.
Sixers fans had plenty of opportunities the last couple years - probably more than they would have liked - to keep tabs on Al Horford, and all the qualities that make him such a special player, but it's been a real treat the past month to watch him on a day-in, day-out basis, and get an even better sense of everything he brings to the table.
Watch Al Horford, please. pic.twitter.com/n1WDtZlVbR
— brianseltzer (@brianseltzer) October 31, 2019
I personally thought the above sequence from Wednesday's fourth quarter captured the on-court essence of Horford - an All-Star who always seems to be in the right position at the right time, and willing to do the right thing for a play to result in the right outcome.
6. Plenty of praise
Not that there needs to be more evidence of the respect that Al Hoford has earned for himself around the league, but here are a couple quotes about the 13-year vet that came out of the Minnesota locker room following Wednesday's game.
The first is from Ryan Saunders, head coach of the Timberwolves:
"Al Horford is someone who has carved himself into a player that can fit into any system. He’s the ultimate professional in this league and I’ve always had a lot of respect for him, so he really poses a problem when he’s on the floor."
Horford, who on Wednesday was plus-26 in 33 minutes, spent the first nine seasons of his career in Atlanta. Jeff Teague, now with Minnesota, was with Horford for seven of those years.
"He’s probably the best teammate that I’ve ever had. He’s just a pro. He comes to work every day with his hard hat on and tries to figure out all the little things to help the team win. He plays the right way and he plays to win. He really doesn’t care about stats, and he just tries to win the game. He helped my career and I don’t really know if I’d still be playing if it wasn’t for him. I learned from things that he taught me. He’s really just a great guy and he’ll do anything for anybody. He’s one hell of a teammate. He’s just in the right spot every time. Defensively, he’s going to talk to you and he’s going to push you to be better every day and he likes to win. You could see it back in college, back-to-back championships, and everywhere he goes he brings a winning mentality. His teams are always good and that’s why he’s still playing and that’s why guys love playing with him."
We'll let those words speak for themselves.
7. Another potential weekly subcategory of the column...
could very well be, "what's the latest feat Matisse Thybulle has accomplished?"
Even for a prospect heralded and decorated for his defense, the Washington product has been ridiculous. Either teams aren't taking what he's shown on tape in the preseason and regular season seriously, or his style of play requires that much of an adjustment.
Regardless, Thyublle has been a menace, and fitting in terrifically. He's posted four steals in back-to-back games, and an NBA-high 12 overall.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Thybulle is the fifth rookie in the last 25 years to produce two-plus steals in each of his first four career games.
"He's crazy, man," said fellow defensive thief and havoc-wreaker Josh Richardson. "The way he jumps plays, you can see it in his eyes that he sees where the guy wants to pass and he's jumping passing lanes. I think he's going to help us a lot this year."
7.1 With Shake Milton (left knee) on the mend, perimeter shooting off the bench is now at an even higher premium, which made Furkan Korkmaz's big night all the more timely.
7.2 While the Sixers' second lengthy Western Conference road trip in March might be highlighted by more starpower, don't sleep on the four opponents on the horizon this week. Portland (3-2) brings back its dynamic guard duo, and this year has added Hassan Whiteside to the mix. Phoenix (3-2), now coached by former Sixers assistant Monty Williams, is off to a decent start. Utah (3-1) landed Mike Conley this offseason, while Denver (3-2) is looking to take the next step after a breakthrough campaign in 2018-19.
7.3 The Sixers were idle Halloween night, and Mike Scott appeared to take advantage…
7.4 To no surprise, Franklin got in on the act, too.
7.5 Shoutout to World B. Free, such a huge part of the heart and soul of the organization. A well-deserved honor.
A well-deserved honor for one of our very own.
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) October 31, 2019
7.6 Whether the 76ers are able to stay atop the NBA.com Power Rankings remains to be seen, but on the latest episode of our podcast, John Schuhmann and I chat about why he listed the team no. 1 this past week.