Through the first month of the NBA season, the Sixers are playing good basketball. With one more game left on this extended road trip and a challenging end of November looming, the question is, are the Sixers actually a good team?
The short answer is yes, finally.
The 7-6 Sixers have given at least three games away in the final minutes, but Monday night they flipped the script, winning 109-105 over the Clippers after trailing by 5 with just over two minutes to play. The Sixers outscored LA 14-5 in the final two minutes, including seven points from Robert Covington in the last 33 seconds to secure the win.
Covington had probably his best game as a Sixer, scoring 31 points with six rebounds, four assists and four steals in 35 minutes. Ben Simmons had 22 points in 37 minutes, adding 12 rebounds and four assists, while Joel Embiid absolutely manhandled De’Andre Jordan in the paint, scoring a team-high 32 with 16 rebounds in 35 minutes. He was a plus-23 in the game.
Brett Brown only played nine players Monday because — hey look, it’s the Sixers — at least four guys are hurt or sick. But the short bench was an advantage against the Clippers, who were also depleted, giving Simmons and Embiid as much time on the floor as they could handle.
The Sixers now head into Wednesday’s game against Lonzo Ball and the Lakers with a chance to end their West Coast swing two games over .500. Then things get hard.
The Sixers return home Saturday to host the Golden State Warriors a week after the Dubs embarrassed them at Oracle Arena in the second half of a 135-114 drubbing. The Sixers then face Utah and Portland — two winnable games — before hosting a surprising Orlando team. The Magic have come back down to earth a bit after a hot start, but they’re a tougher out than many expected.
November ends with home games against the Cavs and Wizards, then at Boston before coming back home to open December with the Pistons. The Sixers got their first win of the season at Detroit back in October, and the Pistons have lost just once since. At 10-3, they’re the surprise of the season so far. Two of the Sixers six wins are against the league’s best, two against the league’s worst and two, kind of like their record right now, were right in the middle.
If the short answer to “are the Sixers a good basketball team” is yes, the better question becomes “why?”
Through 13 games, the Sixers are second in the NBA in assists per game with 26.3, behind only the Warriors, who average a ridiculous 31.3 assists per game. But the Sixers are eighth in the league in field goals made per game — right at 40 per contest — which puts their assist percentage at 65.8 percent, also the second-best in the NBA. Simply put, it’s hard to guard teams that move the ball, and the Sixers pride themselves on ball movement to find the open shooter.
The Sixers’ assist ratio — the percentage of possessions that end in an assist — is at 18.5, tied for third just behind Milwaukee (18.7) and the Warriors (21.8). They are second in the NBA in potential assists at 51.3, accounting for passes that should have led to buckets.
Again, Brown’s offense is all about ball movement. The Sixers average a league-best 354.2 passes per game and are third in the league behind Golden State and San Antonio in secondary assists. Ball movement begets baskets.
Ben Simmons leads the Sixers with 7.5 assists per game, but he’s fifth in the NBA in potential assists, behind only Russell Westbrook, James Harden, LeBron James and John Wall. If they start hitting shots, the Sixers are going to be lethal.
Attacking the glass
The Sixers are averaging 47.8 rebounds per game, one-tenth of a rebound behind Orlando for tops in the NBA. Embiid leads the Sixers with 10.8 rebounds per game, grabbing double-digit boards in just 17.5 rebound chances per game. That should increase as his minutes do, but the more active Embiid is around the rim, the tougher it will be for opponents to score, be it on drives to the rim or second-chance points.
Simmons averages 9.2 rebounds per game, the most by any rookie and the most in the NBA for any, ahem, guard. Yes Simmons is not the traditional point guard at 6-10, but he is legitimately playing the point, and even tasked with guarding the point in some situations. Take Monday’s win against the Clippers, when Brown put Covington on Blake Griffin on the defensive end, leaving Simmons on a guard, free to grab rebounds, help defend and focus more on the offensive end of the floor.
The Sixers are playing well, and will continue to play better, because they’re taking smart shots.
Covington has been a huge asset this season, and is the early favorite for most improved player in the NBA. His effective field goal percentage is 65.9, while his true shooting percentage is 67.7 percent, fifth-best in the NBA.
As a team, the Sixers have taken 1,136 field goals and 405 have been beyond the arc, with 492 coming within 9 feet of the basket. They are all but ignoring the mid-range jumper unless it’s a high quality shot, and even then they’ve attempted, as a team, only 211 shots between 10 and 19 feet — less than 19 percent of all attempts.
It’s hard to consider J.J. Redick a role player when he’s making $20 million per season, but he’s filling a role and making the Sixers better. He’s averaging 15.1 points and 4 assists per game, with a True Shooting percentage of 56.9. Jerryd Bayless has been sidelined for a few games, but he’s averaging 11 points and shooting 42.2 percent from beyond the arc.
T.J. McConnell is filling his role predictably well too, averaging 6.2 points with 3.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game, making the absence of Markelle Fultz feel like no big deal. Even guys like Timothy Luwawu-Cabarrot and Justin Anderson are giving good energy minutes, while the center rotation behind Embiid with Amir Johnson and Richaun Holmes is finally getting figured out.
If the Sixers can get Dario Saric going consistently — the team’s ultimate role player, even when he starts – the Sixers will be tough to beat.
And now the down side of things. The Sixers turn the ball over way too much. It’s insane.
Embiid is averaging 4.6 turnovers while Simmons has 3.8 per game, which is a little understandable given he’s the point guard. But most of Embiid’s are inexcusable.
The Sixers lead the NBA with 18.6 turnovers per game, a half a turnover more than the next closest team.
What’s weird, though, is it’s hard to say the turnovers have impacted the outcome of games, as the Sixers actually average nearly two turnovers more in wins than losses this season. But it’s a problem, and it needs to be taken care of.
If the Sixers do that, and stay healthy — the if of all ifs — they won’t just be a good team. They might turn out to be a great one.