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How Daryl Morey and Doc Rivers made the Sixers a contender again

What a magical time it is to be a Sixers fan. Joel Embiid is playing at an MVP-caliber level, we have shooters on the outside to spread the floor that mesh almost perfectly with Ben Simmons’ game, Tobias Harris has had a resurgence, and last but not least, the team sits atop the Eastern Conference. After an awful ending to last season – getting swept by the Celtics in the bubble – not many of us could say we saw this coming. In a year where so many bad things have happened, getting to see this Sixers team thrive has been a bright spot.

How did we get here?

Again, there was only a four-month gap from the final buzzer of the dreadful Celtics series to the 2020-21 season tip-off. What changes could happen that quickly to turn this team around? It all started with a change in leadership at the top. The Houston Rockets let go of Daryl Morey, and to the Sixers’ credit, Joshua Harris and co. opened up the checkbook and quickly landed him.

Morey was hired only in November, but he came in and made several moves that are already paying dividends. First, he removed the Al Horford problem. While Horford has been a very good – and at times great – player in the National Basketball Association for over a decade, he was an absolutely awful fit here and seemed to bring out the worst in everybody when he was on the court. I was honestly scared for the second half of last season that his contract might be the official death of The Process™. But somehow, someway, Morey found a way to move Horford and get a piece back in Danny Green that somewhat fit the mold of what the team needed – shooting. Green is in the top 50 all-time in three pointers made and can play good defense on the wing, the definition of a perfect fit for this Philadelphia team. Yes, the team gave up some draft capital in order to get the deal done, and Green is on an expiring contract, but the trade overall was a slam dunk. I wouldn’t say that Green has fully found his stride yet, but just his presence as a shooter helps out Embiid and Simmons, and we can see that play out on game days.

Just days later, Morey made another move in acquiring Seth Curry from Dallas for Josh Richardson. To Richardson’s credit, he was a very good player during his time in Philly. He’s not the pure shooter Curry is, but he was versatile in that he played good defense against multiple positions and was fine to play on or off ball on offense. He played hard and reports claimed he stepped up as a leader in the locker room when no one else wanted the role, so for that I thank him. All that being said, Curry fits that mold Morey wanted; surround this core with pure shooters to spread the floor. Curry is second on the all-time leader list in three-point shooting percentage, only behind Steve Kerr. Curry has been thriving this season, currently shooting over 48% from three-point land and the team is 15-5 when he plays.

Two other acquisitions in the off-season have also been parts of this improved version of the Sixers: Tyrese Maxey and Dwight Howard.

Maxey, a 6’2″ guard from Kentucky and the Sixers’ first pick [No. 21 overall] in this past year’s NBA Draft, was strong out of the gate. He’s shown great potential as a scorer and solid defense. He still needs to grow as an outside shooter, but for a player picked in the 20s to contribute right away is rare in the NBA, and right now it appears the Sixers hit on this pick.

While he has certainly had his struggles with fouls and finishing at the rim, I do think Howard has been an upgrade over the Sixers’ backup centers of the past. The only backup to Embiid who had more talent than Howard [excluding Christian Wood who never really got a fair shake] was probably Horford. Like I stated, that fit just wasn’t there. Howard is a bruiser inside and while he hasn’t been efficient in chances around the rim, he has been great on the boards. Per 36 minutes played, he is averaging 16.6 rebounds, which is a career-high. A career-high for a future Hall of Famer whose career is based primarily on rebounding and defense is a game-changer. Again, I know he hasn’t been perfect, but I think he is the best fit backup for Embiid the team’s had since they drafted him third overall in 2014.

New coaching, new winning wayss

You didn’t think I was going to go through all of these new acquisitions and not give Doc Rivers his due credit, did you? Of course not, the only reason he is in a separate section is because Morey didn’t acquire him; Doc was already the head coach before Morey arrived.

I don’t think it’s fair to blame all the past errors on Brett Brown. He did not get to work with this year’s roster, which has been the most optimal lineup surrounding Embiid and Simmons, and I do believe this league is more player-driven than coach-driven in terms of what teams are successful. I believe Brown was a great coach to get us through The Process™, and it’s possible with this roster he would have found success. We can’t say we know Brown wouldn’t succeed in the current situation, but I think we would all agree it was time for a change regardless.

Rivers was a very successful player in this league and has followed that up with an even better coaching career. The man is 10th all-time in wins, and even if he only stays a few more seasons, he should be able to move up to seventh or eighth. Rivers has taken the pieces on this team and maximized their abilities in a short time. He had success with Harris when they both were with the Clippers, and it seems the 28-year-old forward has returned to that form after a couple of lackluster seasons here. It’s also no secret that Embiid is an MVP candidate and playing the best ball of his career, for which the head coach deserves some credit. We will have a deeper dive on the big three players in later sections, but Rivers has been as good as advertised and is exactly what the Sixers team needed.

The Tobias Harris we wanted

I had given up on Harris after last year. He was given a max contract, but he was playing like an average small forward at best. His three-point shooting was a shell of what it was in L.A. and it appeared as though he did not know how to fit in with the other pieces on the team. For those reasons, I was done with him and was ready to trade him to anybody just to take that contract away. I’ll admit – maybe it was just a little too early to make those assumptions. Harris is now a great asset to the team. So for that, I am sorry, Tobi.

Let’s get into some of the details that make him so good. Harris is currently averaging the exact same amount of minutes per game he did last season, and his points per game are only up by .4 (19.6 to 20.0), yet we can see this guy has improved so much year over year. The improvements are really coming from his efficiency in scoring and the timeliness of it. First, the efficiency improvements. This season, his three-point percentage is back over 40%, currently sitting at 41.6%. In Harris’ first two season with the Sixers, he averaged 32.6% [2019], and 36.7% [2020]. While five percentage points doesn’t sound like a ton, it really makes a big difference over the course of a season. Harris is also at a career-high for overall field goal percentage and free throw percentage, which again are examples of him maximizing the value of his shot attempts.

Now to the timeliness of his shots. With the team’s best player being a 7′ center, the final shot scenario has been a question for this team over the last few seasons. Simmons doesn’t have the shooting ability to be the guy in most cases, and in today’s NBA, working the ball inside with five seconds or less on the clock isn’t something you see too often. In 2018, when the team made two blockbuster trades, we were hoping one of those players would be able to fill that role. It wasn’t Harris, however, it was Jimmy Butler. While I do think Butler was good for the Sixers and I wish he was still here, I do believe he had a negative impact on Harris. With Butler here, there wasn’t a real need Harris could fill unless he was shooting 45% from three, and that was not happening.

Since then, Butler’s gone to Miami, and Harris took another year to have that role as a guy who can create his own shot when needed. He has restored our confidence in him, and I now have faith the team has a few good options at the end of the game, with Harris being at the forefront. The culmination of this was the team’s win over the Lakers this season when he drove down and hit that final shot to cement the victory over the defending NBA Champs.

The most polarizing player in Philly

The first listed definition of polarize is “to cause (people, opinions, etc.) to separate into opposing groups.” Based on this definition, there are only two people nominated for the most polarizing player in Philly, and they are Simmons and Carson Wentz. I’m not discrediting how people have different views on the Eagles’ quarterback, but this season especially, I feel like the people defending him as a viable option for the future need to start their argument with, “Well, I know he was bad this year, but…”.

Since both arguers of each side primarily agree on that, I believe that catapults Simmons into the top spot for most polarizing player in this city.

Simmons can do so many incredible things on the court. Coming out of LSU, he was touted as having a similar skill set to LeBron James, and I would not say that was wrong. He is a near seven-footer who is ball dominant, pass-first play style, and elite defender … sound familiar? While I’m not saying he’s definitely comparable to LeBron, I am saying he does share a lot of the same skills and characteristics. I know he isn’t the scorer people expect out of a top player in today’s game, but he does bring a ton of value to the team and you can see it when he misses a game or is just not on the floor.

I can, however, see the frustrations people have with Simmons when it comes to scoring. He does not have that fourth quarter takeover mentality in him like so many other stars in today’s game do. Adding to not having that skill, he is right now averaging a career-low in points per game at 14.1. The hope of many, including myself, was that new coaching and pieces around him would have that stat going the opposite direction. He also has that pesky problem with not attempting outside shots [have you heard?], and while he is averaging a career-high in three-point attempts per game (0.3!), I have now accepted that part of his game is never coming.

That was your one-minute breakdown of why he causes such a divide amongst the fan base, and I do understand both sides of it. Without fully taking one side or another, I will say this: regardless of your opinion, this Sixers team is better with Simmons on the court than without him. The additions of Curry and Green have spaced out the floor for him, and allows the offense to flow more efficiently through his playmaking, even if he’s not increasing in scoring himself. He is the second-most important player on the team with the best record in the East, has been an All-Star in the last two seasons, was an All-NBA first team defensive player last season, and is a DPOY candidate this year. I think all players have a price in trades, including the big fella that I’ll talk about next, so as those rumors come up in the future, we will need to evaluate them as they come. But there is no denying that Simmons is a huge part of why this team is where they are atop the standings, and that should not be taken lightly.

Joel Embiid

No need here for any clever section title. That name alone is now a major headline around the league for what he has done this season. Embiid is averaging almost 30 points per game (29.6, third in the league), 10.8 rebounds (12th in the league), and is leading the league with 31.2 PER (player efficiency rating). He has been an elite player in the past, but we haven’t seen this level of elite in Philadelphia in a long time. This team is the best in the East because of a lot of reasons, but the number one reason is simply Embiid is playing MVP level basketball. We’ve seen what happens when he misses a game. The team looks helpless and likely wouldn’t even be sniffing the playoffs.

Since the playoff sweep in the bubble, Embiid has had more of a serious tone in his messaging with the fans. He still has the charm that we love, but he has come into this season in what appears to be the best playing shape of his life while saying he wants to bring championships to Philly. He’s said this in the past, but he’s proving it with his actions off the court. I loved hearing the stories of him ordering ten pitchers of Shirley Temples to hotel rooms and eating eight Chik-Fil-A sandwiches on a plane as much as the next guy, but I’d give those up in a heartbeat to watch this version of him on the court every night.

Let’s talk about the MVP conversation for a minute. First off, I’m going to give some credit to LeBron’s “It’s about politics” argument. LeBron has been the best player in the NBA for the last 15 years or so. With the exception of two years ago when he was hurt for half the season, and maybe one of the Curry MVP seasons because he revolutionized the game, I believe there is an argument he should have won every other MVP.

Come on, you’re telling me that there was ever a season that would have rather had Westbrook, Harden, or Giannis over LeBron? I do believe the voters like to mix up who wins the award to keep it relevant because it would be boring if every year they just gave it to the same guy. That being said, since this is now the world we live in, I think it has actually shifted what the criteria are for the vote.

For this single season, I don’t think the Lakers could trade LeBron for any other single player and improve as a team. But, that’s no longer who the award goes to; it goes to a player on a top four or five team in there conference who are putting up stats that we haven’t seen in a long time. Think Russell Westbrook averaging a triple-double for a mediocre Wizards team. Embiid has a chance to lead the league in scoring and PER as a pure big man (I don’t count Giannis as he plays outside most of the time). That is something we haven’t seen in a long time, and the voters might also see it that way. On top of that, the fact that the Sixers could hold the top spot in the East could be a late boost for an Embiid MVP case as the team over-performed expectations, primarily due to his performance. Again, I can’t say LeBron shouldn’t win MVP, because, by the old definition, he probably should. But times have changed and Embiid is matching this new definition that the writers have inadvertently created, and you best believe I’m rooting for him to take home the hardware.

Going forward

If you’ve come this far, maybe you’re willing to go a little bit farther. I’ll keep this wrap-up short and sweet. This Sixers team has the chance to win the NBA Title. They currently sit at 14/1 from the oddsmakers, which is fifth-best in the league. They have an MVP caliber leader, two other All-Star caliber players next to him, a perfectly fit supporting cast, and a coach who has won titles before. It will be extremely important for this team to keep winning in the regular season, though. I see the East coming down to two teams: the Sixers and the Nets. If you’re making me call it, the Nets have too much firepower on offense and after having more time to gel, I think they are my pick to win the title. But if the Sixers want to have a shot in that series, it will be very important that they get home-court advantage. You don’t need to be the one seed, but you need to be above the Nets come regular season’s end.

If they can get out of the East, I think they actually match up well with several teams that could come out of the West, primarily the Lakers. This doesn’t mean I think they will beat the Lakers if we get to that point, but if anybody can take down the defending champs, I think the Sixers are one of maybe two or three teams.

But before we start the parade down Broad Street, this team needs to keep their focus and do what they’ve been doing. As of this writing, they have lost two in a row, and are seven-point underdogs Monday night against the white-hot Utah Jazz. It is potentially the first three-game losing streak of the season, and the Nets seem to be figuring things out.

This Sixers team has the best chance to win a title right now in Philadelphia [yes, over both the Flyers and Union], and while overall things have been great, there is still a lot of work to do to see that potential pan out.

You can follow Tim O’Keefe on Twitter (@TOKeefe1992) and e-mail him at [email protected].

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