For an elite home team with a top-ten net rating (and a top-ten defense) that’s only two and a 1/2 games out of second place in the East, the Sixers are in somewhat of a precarious position. Philly has lost three in a row and six of its last nine games after a New Year’s Eve blowout at the hands of the Pacers, and shooting guard Josh Richardson publicly called for his teammates to show more accountability after the latest loss. The Sixers have had some eye-opening highs this season—like the Christmas win over the Bucks, or their 2–0 record against the Celtics—as well as some fear-confirming lows, like the recent losing streak, or the struggles of the starting lineup. Now nearly halfway through the 82-game schedule, if there’s one thing becoming clear about Philly, it’s that there are no simple answers for a team inviting numerous questions.
Here’s something that’s indisputable about the Sixers: Their starting lineup is the worst its been in three seasons. The 2018 group of Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and Joel Embiid had an absurd 20.5 net rating in 601 regular season minutes together. After that group couldn’t get it done in the playoffs, the Elton Brand-led front office retooled the roster significantly last year, sacrificing numerous assets to acquire Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris in separate trades. The Simmons, Redick, Butler, Harris and Embiid group posted a 19.4 net rating in a scant 161 minutes together last year, and after a second-round loss and questions about team chemistry, Brand again shifted gears this offseason, acquiring Richardson and signing Al Horford, while losing Butler and Redick.
The new group was intriguing defensively, but while its lived up to the hype on that end of the floor, it’s equally lived up to its low expectations on the offensive end. The Simmons, Richardson, Harris, Horford, and Embiid starting five has a 7.6 net rating, which is nothing to scoff at, but clearly pales in comparison to previous iterations. And for a championship hopeful, it’s not particularly inspiring. The Bulls—the 13–21 Chicago Bulls!—have a lineup that’s outperforming Philly’s starting five, to put that group’s lack of success in context.
The Sixers’ problems are more or less what you’d expect. Brett Brown is constantly caught in between playing styles. Embiid probably doesn’t receive enough post touches, but there’s not quite enough shooting for him to do so when the starting five is on the floor. Letting Embiid bang down low also takes the ball out of Simmons’s hands, and his usefulness drops significantly when that’s the case. There’s nothing all that particularly new or novel about any of this, but how the Sixers handle this conundrum moving forward remains a complete mystery.
Brand has been bold in how he’s shaped the roster, but the efficacy of his wheeling and dealing remains in doubt. Simmons is in the last year of his rookie deal. Next year him, Embiid, Harris, and Horford will combine to make over $119 million. That is a huge commitment to a group that’s already causing some level of concern not even a half-season into its time together. That foursome only has a 3.9 net rating, and the offense just isn’t working unless someone catches fire from three.
So what in the world are the Sixers supposed to do? Brand could make another trade, but could Philly’s fragile ecosystem handle another shakeup? It’s obvious chemistry was a concern after the playoff loss to the Raptors. Philly has touted the chemistry of its current group rather publicly...which is exactly the kind of thing you do a year after there was a lot of friction. Making another big trade wouldn’t definitely mean bringing in another big personality, but it would push the team closer to square one on building a roster that’s implicitly trusts one another. And asking Brown to figure out how to work a new starting lineup after he’s dealt with constant, massive changes since the end of the 2018 season would be cruel at this point.
The Sixers could certainly ride out the season with the group they have now. And Philly has had success against the East’s best teams. In addition to the wins against Boston, the Sixers also have wins against the Bucks, Raptors, Heat, and Pacers. It’s not like Philly can’t compete on any given night. But going into the playoffs with a group that’s already shaky offensively seems crazy, especially considering how defensive intensity typically increases in the postseason. The Sixers have already struggled in some close games this year. Late during a one-point loss to the Heat on Dec. 28, for example, Brown tried to call a crunch-time post-up for Embiid. Miami zoned up, the Sixers couldn’t space the floor, and Embiid was literally quadruple-teamed until he turned over the ball.
Maybe Philly will have to get radical and consider other ways to utilize the players on the roster. It sounds insane, but would it make sense to bring one of the current starting five off the bench instead? Matisse Thybulle is up to 48.4% on his catch-and-shoot threes, maybe he can add spacing to the starting group while maintaining its defensive prowess. (The Embiid-Thybulle-Harris-Simmons-Richardson group has been awful, but it’s played only 13 minutes together. The same group with Horford instead of Embiid has been very good.) But even if Brown does have the confidence to close without one of his four most talented players now or in the future, how would that reflect on the front office?
What’s so frustrating about the Sixers is how close they’ve come to being incredibly dominant. The 2018 group lost its last three playoff games by a total of 10 points, and was dismantled by the next trade deadline. The 2019 group lost a seven-game series that ended on a highly improbable buzzer-beater, and was broken up by the start of this season. Perhaps the 2020 version of the Sixers has a higher ceiling than either of the two previous ones, but it remains to be seen if the new group can be consistent.
Philly isn’t quite a cautionary tale, though it is a fascinating study in the fragility of championship contention. The Process put the Sixers in the fight, but the latest front office has felt forced to be assertive, whether it was the result of bad bounces or shaky chemistry. From well-intentioned trades for star players to the softness of a Toronto rim, so many events big or small could derail a championship contender. The Sixers absolutely still deserve to be in the conversation. But after years of buildup, their path toward a title could be the bumpiest one yet.