Defense, Bench Scoring Remain Problematic for Sixers


While Philadelphia’s slow start needn’t be a disqualification, it demands a correction, lest the NBA’s hurdles suddenly intrude on success’s track.

Is it too early to overreact to the 76ers’ issues? Probably. After all, we’re just under two weeks into this young, exciting season. The sample size is incredibly small to judge, and there are still 75+ games left per team and about five more months of regular-season basketball remaining.

But if issues linger, the short-term concerns for the Sixers could realistically become long-term problems.

Philly’s first two games were against Boston and Milwaukee, arguably the two best teams in the Eastern Conference. And again, we’ve only got a four-game sample size on to base any analysis.

However, the Sixers are off to a slower-than-usual start. Given the team’s lack of financial flexibility and fallback options, internal improvement is the best-case scenario for Philly.

Usually, the concerns for Joel Embiid and company are geared more toward the playoffs than the regular season. And on paper, this team still projects to be one of the best teams in the East.

But after a 1-4 start and only an easy win against the Pacers to show for it, it appears that the team still needs adjustments. Come and take a deeper examination of what’s going on with Philly.

The Defense is a Major Shortcoming

You would think with an Embiid-led team, the Sixers would at least be somewhat above average defensively. That hasn’t been the case this season, however.

Philly’s paint defense is the most significant weakness for the team after their first four games. Surprise, right? The team ranks last in the league in opponent two-point efficiency.

The main issue isn’t necessarily Embiid. Instead, it’s the James Harden and Tyrese Maxey backcourt pairing.

Both Maxey and Harden are below-average perimeter defenders at the guard positions. To start the season, teams have attacked the backcourt pairing, particularly in the pick and roll. This forces Embiid to step up on the ball, allowing for easy penetration and potential kick-out opportunities for open shooters.

To date, Maxey’s defensive box plus/minus sits at -2.9 points, ranking third-worst out of the Sixers players who have played in all five games. His small frame and minimal height make him an easy target for opponents to attack.

Yet again, a substantial problem is how Philly can play (translate: survive) in the non-Embiid minutes.

The Sixers acquired Montrezl Harrell to fill in as backup center. Unfortunately, he’s been anything but playable to begin the year. Both his offensive box plus/minus (-7.7) and defensive box plus/minus (-4.2) show he’s been a net negative on both ends of the court.

The result: Philly is giving up easy points in the paint, leading to extra help and way too many open three-point opportunities. The Sixers rank 29th in opponent three-point attempts and 26th in three-point makes. Also, it’s not like this team is forcing turnovers either, sitting at 28th in opponent turnovers per game.

So far, Philly’s current defensive performance is not a recipe for success.

What’s Going on With the Supporting Cast?

This was hinted at with Harrell, but Philly’s supporting cast generally underwhelmed to start the season. It’s also incredibly thin.

After the Sixers’ starters, the team’s rotation — although much improved — still feels thin, especially on offense.

Danuel House, one of the team’s new acquisitions, is sitting at 22% from three on the year after shooting above 40% last season on greater volume. Harrell and Paul Reed are borderline unplayable based on each of their respective starts. De’Anthony Melton is fine, but he’s more of a bench spark plug than a go-to sixth man, which is his current role. That’s all of the main options Philly has off their bench.

Bench depth has been a concern of the past for the Sixers. Similar to last season, Philly is relying heavily on the Embiid-Harden pairing.

Embiid (28/10/3) and Harden (25/8/10) both look superb to begin the year. That’s not the problem.

What is a concern, though, is if the Sixers can bank on this trend later in the season.

As always with Embiid, the question is if he can be fully healthy once the postseason commences. That hasn’t been the case since 2019. Meanwhile, Harden is a shooting guard playing in his age-33 season, coming off back-to-back injury-riddled years. It isn’t a certainty both stars will be healthy come playoff time if each is taking on 36-38 minutes a night.

Off the bench, Philly could use a defensive-minded backup center and another combo guard and/or wing who can fill in for 10-15 minutes a night.

Panic Meter?

Again, it’s too early in the season to make any assertions. After all, the case for the Sixers is clearly there.

The big concern for Philly is going all-in on this iteration of the team. The Sixers are lacking financial flexibility, draft picks and trade assets. Other than buyout candidates later in the year or an under-the-radar free-agent signing, there’s no Plan B for this team. It’s the gamble the Sixers made to maximize the team this year around Embiid and Harden.

The only logical move would be to fire coach Doc Rivers, and it’s way too soon to panic on the Sixers on that front.

Ultimately, Philly’s current problems will only go away mainly through internal improvement and time. This team still needs to work out kinks and build chemistry. That will come within the next couple of weeks.

The bottom line is this— the Sixers have no outs, fallback options or anything along those lines. This is likely the final iteration of this team from a roster perspective, and the issues with the defense and the lackluster bench are real concerns.

Philly still has 77 more games to go. Few should sound the alarm just yet.

But for Sixers fans, these concerns aren’t going away anytime soon.

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About Dominic Chiappone

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