The 76ers are 2-1. They beat the Washington Wizards and New York Knicks and lost in a blowout to the young Cleveland Cavaliers although, it was without Joel Embiid. After watching all three games I have a ton of thoughts, but sticking with the play on words I’m going to give three main thoughts after the three games.
James Harden is still a better player than Ben Simmons
It’s been long rumored now that a trade for James Harden would require Ben Simmons, and even though Daryl Morey has refuted the report, reported by both Adrian Wojnarowski and Sham Charania, and has made it known the 76ers will not be trading Ben Simmons, that hasn’t stopped the rumors. Especially because Harden has 44 and 17 [assists] one night ( albeit in a loss), and Ben lost to the Cavs by twenty-something without Joel. The fact is still the same, James Harden is a better player than Ben Simmons, especially offensively.
This seems pretty obvious though, there weren’t many arguments that say Ben is a better player than a guy who was top in MVP voting almost every year. However, actually seeing both on the court for a couple of games the chatter around moving Ben for James has picked up. All this being said, the Sixers should still stick to their original plan, and not overreact to these small sample sizes. If Harden’s trade value wasn’t worthy of Ben Simmons, it still isn’t. Trade value is based on the market, not just play in the first three games of the season, and from the outside looking in the market for James Harden trade doesn’t seem robust enough that the team would have to give up Ben, as of now.
This isn’t to excuse Ben’s start though. Simmons is averaging 15/8/6 but only on 9 shots per game, which is actually lower than his average other seasons. He hasn’t shown much of a willingness to shoot, hasn’t been as aggressive as some would like, and when Joel Embiid went down he didn’t seem to get into that next gear that is needed from their second-best player to help win when their best player goes down. One good thing to note is Ben has improved at getting to the foul line these last three games, averaging almost 2 more FTs per game than his career.
Personally, I don’t change my mind on small sample sizes. Three games aren’t enough to change what I thought about Ben or Harden. However, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t something to keep an eye on. According to an ESPN report, Doc gave both Ben and Joel a very emotional speech about them needed to make it work because they were running out of time. Ben is going to need to show he can take over games on a more consistent basis in order to stop the chatter, and really cement himself as a top 20 player. Going into year four-player, at some point, you would hope to see a leap from him. Again, I am not too concerned right now, not after the first three games, but it could be something to keep an eye on as we get a much larger sample size.
The hot and cold bench
Game one may have been won by the 76ers bench. Shake Milton dropped 19, Dwight Howard was a terror, and Maxey looked good in the limited time he had. Korkmaz had 11 on 50% shooting from beyond the arc and no bench players was a negative plus/minus while all the starters were. The second game was not the case so much, all bench players had a negative plus/minus and Shake Milton cooled off significantly, and Maxey saw fewer minutes than in the first game. This was the same vs the Cavs, in non-garbage time. The Cavs game is a tricky one to judge though, because the team went small, with Mike Scott as the “center”, which proved to be a disaster.
The biggest take away from the bench play, is the guys they will need to rely on most are still inexperienced. Outside of Howard, the bench players are relatively inexperienced. Scott is the only real veteran other than Dwight, on the second unit, and Mike is really what he is, if his three-point shot isn’t falling he is going to struggle. Mainly Shake, and in some cases, Maxey, are still going to have growing pains as they take on bigger roles in the NBA. Down nights from Shake may be a thing he has to go through, the hope is he can bounce back quickly and not allow bad games to get himself stuck in quicksand.
Maxey looks like he will be an interesting piece going forward. He is still young and raw, and his shot hasn’t translated (again small sample size so nothing to worry about yet), but he is so crafty, can get to the net, and has shown his ability to pass as a playmaker. The future may be bright with Tyrese, but he still will have some issues adjusting to NBA rim defense, which we saw a little when Noel in the game for the Knicks, and his shot needs to eventually translate. The hope is with playing time and experience Maxey will be fine, and given that Furkan is out for at least two weeks Maxey should have a chance at more minutes which means more experience, which would be a good thing for the first-year guard.
Finally, Dwight Howard has been a breath of fresh air as a back up big and rim protector. He really is the perfect player to sub out Joel Embiid, as long as he can stay out of foul trouble.
The hot and cold nights will continue for the bench. Hopefully, it will be more hot than cold. As they play together more, one would hope things get ironed out, and they can play off each other and make each other better. Finally, the Sixers have a bench to be excited about, but it is definitely going to come with some growing pains.
Forced half-court play
This is completely based on the eye test, but the first two games, when Joel played, it looked as if there was a conscious effort to get Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons into some sort of pick and roll or a two-man game majority of the time in the half-court. At times the two linked up well, including a pretty back cut for an easy lob by Joel when his defender overplayed anticipating the screen for Ben, but other times it didn’t work out as well. This should really be expected knowing these actions aren’t something that has been used in their three years playing together prior.
One thing I believe should be monitored is how the guys around those two adjust to this forced learning by fire. My guess is in the beginning, forcing a two-man game between Joel and Ben the majority of the time on offense, the players around them may take a step back or struggle. Once the half-court offense, including Joel and Ben’s pick and roll play, gets more natural the guys around them should start to play better, even Tobias.
Bonus thought: Joel Embiid is dominant
Joel seems to be picking up where he left off after the 2018 regular season. He is seeing doubles better and making good passes. He is also playing a little faster than last season, although he goes back to his bread and butter face up midrange that will slow the pace down a little. It’s a worthy trade-off, though. His rim protection and energy on defense seem to be rejuvenated from last season too. If he continues to dominate, make passes out the double team (with these shooters teams will have to pick their poison), and if he and Ben can figure out this two-man game, the league is in trouble.
When you have an offseason as different as this one was, while replacing 2/5 of your starting five, basically your whole bench, and entirely new coaching staff it makes sense that they aren’t perfect out the jump. That’s not even taking into account that in year 4 together their two stars are just now being taught how to play together. These aren’t excuses for the whole season though, they are going to play enough games together in a short time, that they should be able to figure it out.
With these issues and the small sample size, it is hard for me to get a good read on the team, and not very fair to really say that this is who they are. There are some bright spots to the new team, like spacing and a young up and coming bench, but also plenty of concerns. All of which are worthy of mental notes, and keeping an eye on as we continue to build a bigger sample size with this new look 76ers team.