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Week in Review: Disappointing Sixers continue to find new ways to lose

Whether it's poor effort or inexcusable decisions, the Sixers continue to find new and creative ways to shoot themselves in the foot to start the season.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Last week was yet another disappointing one in Sixers land, a 1-2 showing in three games playing against bleh competition (two against Washington, one against the Knicks).

The loss against the Knicks was somewhat understandable, as the Sixers, playing without Embiid (flu) or James Harden (tendon strain in his right foot) competed fairly well for three quarters before their lack of point guard play and true shot creators led to some offensive stagnation down the stretch.

Still, the frustrating part of this season for the Sixers is how they've gone about finding ways to lose. There are the crippling and inexcusable deficiencies the team continues to show, namely in perimeter and transition defense, and we saw that play out in Wednesday's loss to the Wizards. Then that's compounded by losing some games that were right there for the taking before mistakes were made down the stretch, a la the loss to the Bucks in the second game of the season or the head scratching decision to have Harrell and Reed on the floor together in the fourth quarter against the Knicks.

The Sixers have, admittedly, been hamstrung a bit because of the time that Embiid, and now Harden, have missed. But they're shooting themselves in the foot as well, and their defense should be further along than it currently is. All of that has combined for an exceptionally frustrating start to the season, and that trend certainly didn't change following last weeks games.  

Covered in this post
  • Overview of the Sixers' week.
  • A look at the week ahead.
  • Encouraging trends.
  • Concerning trends.
  • Stray thoughts.

Overview of the Sixers' week

Last week's results:

  • Monday: 118-111 win over the Wizards.
  • Wednesday: 121-111 loss to the Wizards.
  • Friday: 106-104 loss to the Knicks.

Stats for the week:

  • Offensive rating: 112.5 (8th)
  • Defensive rating: 113.4 (23rd)
  • Net Rating: -0.9 (16th)

Full team stats | Player stats

Current injury report:

  • Joel Embiid (Questionable, non-covid Illness).
  • Danuel House Jr (Questionable, non-covid illness).
  • James Harden (Out, right foot tendon strain).

The week ahead
  • Monday: vs Phoenix (7-2), 8 pm.
  • Thursday: @Atlanta (6-3), 7:30 pm.
  • Saturday: vs Atlanta (6-3), 7:30 pm.
  • Sunday: vs Utah (8-3), 7:30 pm.

Encouraging trends
  • They've been doing a better job getting out in transition of late, running on 34.4% of their live ball defensive rebounds over the three games last week. They're still losing the transition battle (opponents ran 36.1% of the time), but it's an improvement over where it was prior to that (just 24.3%).
  • Despite the dreadful 13-47 outing against the Knicks, the Sixers still shot 38.9% from 3-point range as a team, with 3s comprising of 40.3% of their field-goal attempts. So far this season they are top-10 in both frequency (39.1% of their attempts, 9th highest) and accuracy (39.6%, 4th). That is both encouraging and discouraging: the frequency is an indication that they're forcing rotations and generally creating good looks, but the accuracy is likely to regress, which isn't necessarily what you want to hear for a team struggling so much defensively and off to a 4-6 start.
  • Tobias Harris had a very efficient week, averaging 18.3 points on 12.3 field goal attempts, shooting 56.8% from the field and 53.3% from 3-point range. His 44.6% 3-point percentage on the season is easily the best of his career, and at 8.4 3-point attempts per 100 possessions he's taking more of them than he ever has. It'll be interesting how that changes as he's asked to do more offensively with Harden out of the lineup.
  • Tyrese Maxey launched 9.3 3-point attempts per game last week, and made 39.3% of them. He struggled down the stretch against the Knicks, which was certainly the lowlight of the week for him, but I'm running out of ways to describe just how crazy his improvement as a shooter is.
  • The Sixers' 12.6% turnover rate for last week's games was the third lowest in the league. I'm sort of grasping for straws here, as there weren't that many encouraging trends over the past three games.

Concerning trends
  • The Sixers had the second-worst half-court defense in the league last week, per CleaningTheGlass, giving up 102.8 points per 100 plays in the half-court. Wednesday's loss to Washington is driving a lot of that, as they gave up 121.7 points per 100 in the half-court in that game.
  • Related: the defense for the PJ Tucker at center lineups has been really bad, as they're giving up 119.3 points per 100 possessions in nearly 200 possessions with Tucker at C so far. They're still outscoring opponents in those minutes, with a +4 net rating, but that's deceiving, with the offensive performance largely carried by a 45.6% 3-point percentage, and by shooting 51.1% on midrange shots. Neither is sustainable, and once the offense starts coming back down to Earth the defense will need to be played at a much higher level.
  • That being said, I think a big part of the Tucker at center problems stem from those lineups being overused. When we debated the use of small-ball in the summer, it was expected that it would mostly be a change of pace kinda thing, used against select matchups and with Tucker surrounded by Harden and three like-sized wings so they could switch just about everything to overcome the lack of a traditional rim protector. But so far over 75% of the minutes with Tucker at center have included both Maxey and Harden on the perimeter, which limits how much they can switch on defense. Embiid missing time to start the season is a big factor in this lineup being overused, but it's also about Doc not trusting Paul Reed nearly enough.
  • This team really doesn't get to the line when Joel Embiid's out of the lineup, with their 17.0% free-throw rate last week the 6th worst in the league over that span. That dropped their FTr to 20.7% on the season, which is just 12th in the league, a stunningly low number for a team that features Embiid and Harden as their offensive focal points. As a point of reference, the Sixers led the league with a 29.0% FTr following Harden's acquisiton last season.

Stray thoughts

Montrezl Harrell's struggles

Back when the Sixers signed Montrezl Harrell, the general consensus was that he was over-qualified for the backup center spot and that he'd help the Sixers win games in the regular season, but that his defensive shortcomings would render him nearly unplayable in the postseason. The combination of those two beliefs made many, myself included, concerned that Doc Rivers would rely on Harrell too much, and not devote enough time to develop and evaluate the more viable playoff archetype on Paul Reed.

At this point I do have to acknowledge that Harrell has had a few moments here over the last week, specifically when the Wizards were overly-aggressive trapping Harden on the perimeter, opening up the short roll for Trez to go to work. Still, for the vast majority of the season Harrell has been a massive disappointment, not only leading to the same questions about his postseason viability, but also not even giving you the regular season bump that you expected when his signing was announced.

The most concerning part about Harrell's season thus far is that he's shooting just 50% at the rim, nearly 13% less than his career averages. Small sample size and all of those disclaimers out of the way, but most advanced metrics (such as Offensive Box Plus-Minus) have him rated as a negative offensive player thus far, with career-lows nearly across the board.

As much as I can give the disclaimers about low sample size, athletically Harrell hasn't looked the same either, seeming to lack the pop around the rim he had earlier in his career. Which is why I'm more than a bit confused as to why Paul Reed continues to be largely out of the regular rotation.

If the concern was that Harrell's regular-season productivity would lead to too few minutes for Paul Reed to be prepared, and trusted, for postseason play, then continuing to play Harrell even when he's not performing is doubly head-scratching.

The backup point guard depth

With James Harden out the Sixers are now low on ball handlers, and even lower on true shot creators and setup men. That was exposed down the stretch against the Knicks, as when New York stopped over-helping with their defensive rotations and forced the Sixers to beat them 1-on-1 the Sixers didn't generate very many good looks at the basket.

With Harden out the Sixers are now relying on Tyrese Maxey – a lot. Maxey ended the Knicks game taking 29 shots and seven free-throw attempts, with seven assists and four turnovers, on the night, good for a 36.3% usage rate, the highest of the season for the Sixers' young guard. For as much as Maxey has improved in almost every way imaginable over his three-year NBA career, running an offense is still one area that's a work in progress. And things get even dicier when you head to the bench, with Shake Milton, De'Anthony Melton and Furkan Korkmaz likely to see some time running the offense.

It's almost undeniable that this is a concern for the Sixers over this upcoming stretch of play. It's less about having enough ball handlers to get the Sixers' into their sets and more about the lack of players who have plus court vision. One of the frequent criticisms of this team, including from the players and Doc Rivers, is that the offense gets stagnant, and for as frustrating as James Harden's pound-the-rock style of play can be, removing the one legit plus passer from the equation isn't likely to improve the situation.

Still, I'm not sure that I'd be on the hunt for a backup point guard to help get the Sixers' through the next few weeks. That's in part because this isn't the time of year when many teams are motivated to make trades, in part because there's unlikely to be a significant role for whoever the Sixers acquire when Harden does return, and in part because I want to see how things look when Embiid returns. The Sixers are naturally going to run a lot of their offense through the post when Embiid returns, and what you need out of Milton, Melton and Korkmaz changes significantly when that happens.

How much can Embiid fix?

The Sixers are 4-6, a start which practically nobody saw coming. Embiid, who has missed four of the last five games (the last three being because of the flu), should return soon, and possibly tonight against the Suns. Even with Harden out, the Maxey/Harris/Embiid group should be able to keep the Sixers competitive over the next month of play.

But it's not a guarantee. If you look at the 'week ahead' portion of this newsletter, they've got some tough games coming up. Perhaps more than that, for a player in Embiid who looked to be out of shape, and his timing thrown off, to start the season, having been off his feet for so long could lead to some struggles over the next few games. Time off has, historically, impacted Embiid upon his return.

That may not be a significant long-term concern, as there's a lot of season left and before he went down with this latest bout with the flu we were already starting to see Embiid begin to look more like the player we expected. But with the Sixers having thrown away so many winnable games to start the season, even a week or so of missed opportunities would put the Sixers in quite a hole to start the season.

Would changing the coach fix all of the Sixers' problems?

In a column published today, Keith Pompey wrote that Doc Rivers shouldn't be the Sixers' fall guy.

Conceptually, I do agree that we tend to get awfully reductive when talking about the impact that head coaches make, pretending that if they just make a change with the head coach then all of the team's problems will go away. I think we mostly do this because it's the conclusion that is the least scary for fans to arrive at. If it's the star players, or the roster at large, that's causing the problems it's much more difficult to fix than it would be if promoting Sam Cassell is the magical elixir that is needed

That being said, I also don't think Rivers has done a particularly good job so far this year, and the team as a whole is significantly under-performing, both from the level that they played at last year and certainly of the expectations almost everyone had coming in. Whether it's lineup decisions (a la continuing to play Harrell), schematic questions (blowing switch assignments) or stuff that's a little bit tougher to assign blame to (continued poor effort and a lack of communication on defense), these are all things that fall at least somewhat under the purview of a head coach.

Rivers has been very willing to take credit for the Sixers' improved culture and for Embiid's better conditioning level in prior years. We're just holding him to the standard that he himself set.

Will changing the coach make James Harden all of a sudden become a committed defender in transition? No, of course not. But if we're sitting here six weeks from now and the Sixers continue to show the same problems with effort and miscommunication, you have to consider making a change. That's not only because of the chance that a different coach, with a different strategy, might be able to get more out of this group, but also  to see if a change can provide a shock to the system.

The same reason that people overstate the impact of a coaching change (because it's the easiest lever to pull) is also why making that change is something that frequently happens when teams with high expectations continue to underperform. That's the nature of the profession.