Ja Morant and crew are heading out east to commence their four-game road trip with a showdown against the Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers are situated just a half-game behind the top-seeded Brooklyn Nets at 33-15. Stifling team defense and an MVP-caliber season from Joel Embiid has propelled the red and blue to full-on contender status. Additionally, the Sixers are incredibly formidable on their home floor, boasting a dominant 19-4 record. There is little room for error for Memphis if they wish to steal a victory in a hostile environment.
I reached out to Daniel Olinger of SB Nation’s Liberty Ballers for his insight on all things Philadelphia 76ers.
Is Joel Embiid a top-five player in the NBA?
If you’re talking about top-five players based on this season of play alone, then no doubt Joel Embiid has been a top five player. Before his injury he was deservedly the favorite to win MVP, as he’s maintained all the things that made him excellent in seasons past (racking up foul shots to be an efficient post scorer, forcing opponents to take garbage shots) while transforming from a meh 41% shooter on mid-range shots to an elite 48% marksmen per Cleaning the Glass.
If you’re just going from the standpoint of five players you’d pick in a must-win playoff scenario, it gets a bit trickier. Healthy LeBron obviously rules that throne. The Nets have two players with legit claims in Kevin Durant and James Harden. Giannis and Kawhi need to be mentioned, as do Steph Curry, Damian Lillard and new MVP front runner Nikola Jokic (who would easily get my vote if the season ended today). I think I can see the Embiid > Curry and Dame argument right now given Joel’s improvement and vast superiority to those two guards on defense. I think I’d lean to Embiid being right at No. 6 in a vacuum, though the margins between guys like him and Jokic are razor thin. We’ll probably have a clearer answer come playoff time.
What makes Ben Simmons an elite on-ball irritant?
This was the first game of the season:
Not many players can do what Ben Simmons does here in immediately reacting to the dump off pass, pivoting in the complete opposite direction and blocking Thomas Bryant. A truly special defender. pic.twitter.com/8fsbzEU7vw— Daniel Olinger (@dan_olinger) December 24, 2020
Over the past five years, we as a collective intellectual hoops community have learned that big guys and non-shooters still have a place in the NBA, so long as they can move their feet at a high level. And boy can Ben Simmons move. He’s like the anti-Kyle Anderson, freaking opponents out with his speed and dynamic sprinting skills in short spaces despite standing at 6’10” with the shoulders of a tight end. Add on to that a mean streak in which he seemingly never takes a play off on that end of the floor, and you get a player worth of Defensive Player of the Year consideration.
Philadelphia’s defense ranks in the top ten in opponent field-goal percentage, three-point percentage, and points allowed. Where do the Sixers stack up against the best defensive teams in basketball?
Check out this tweet from ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry:
The Efficiency Landscape. What Jumps Out? pic.twitter.com/rdcawDaXzC— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) April 2, 2021
The Sixers offense was just slightly above average in their recent stretch of play, during which Joel Embiid missed 10 games. Yet they still dominated in Net rating due to a) an admittedly easy schedule of opponents, and b) lights out defense. They have a lot of tall dudes with long arms and quick hands, basically what every team needs to form a great defense. Seth Curry and Furkan Korkmaz are their worst defenders in the rotation, and neither is crippling in any sense. Meanwhile they bring guys off the bench like Shark-Octopus hybrid Matisse Thybulle, who racks up at least one “holy crap how did he get a hand on that” play a game. They rock.
Is it NBA Finals or bust for the Sixers this season?
I would tone that down and say it’s Conference Finals or bust. Sixers fans weren’t expecting the regular season to go this well. After last year’s catastrophe, a meager return to their run of the mill second round flameout felt somewhat acceptable. Then Embiid turned it up 11 notches, Tobias Harris became an all star caliber forward once again and now they’re seen as contenders. As crazy as they appear, Sixers fans are smart and know that their team probably isn’t as talented as the Brooklyn Nets. Losing to them in a competitive Eastern Conference Finals won’t be celebrated, but I think Philly would see this season as a net positive regardless should that be the endgame.
How confident are you that Philadelphia will keep Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid around for the long haul?
Incredibly confident that Joel Embiid is kept around. I legit believe there’s a chance he has that type of Steph Curry career arc where he becomes inseparable from the city and plays his entire career in Sixers blue. Prognosticating Ben Simmons future is more dicey, as he’s been in several trade rumors the past two years, but is locked in to a contract with the team through 2025. I’d bet he stays in Philly for that whole deal, and playing for the team following that contract’s end is definitely possible. Ultimately Ben will probably wear a different franchise’s jersey at some point in his career, but fortunately I think we’re a long ways away from that strange day.
A huge thank you to Daniel for participating in this piece! He’s an incredibly talented writer who I highly recommend following on Twitter at @dan_olinger.