How Does The Current Sixers Roster Stack Up Against 2017-18's?
Rock, TJ and JJ out, Curry, Green and Dwight in.
Mike O’Connor is the best O’Connor in basketball writing. Previously of The Athletic, you can find Mike on Twitter @MOConnor_NBA.
If you zoom out a bit, you’ll see that the infrastructure of the 2020-21 Sixers’ roster is quite similar to that of the 2017-18 Sixers’ roster -- Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and a whole bunch of shooting. The Sixers have taken quite the route to get here, but they have indeed returned to roughly the same framework that brought them their highest win total of the past 19 seasons.
For this exercise, I’ll be going through both rosters and comparing how they stack up. Are these Sixers better set up for postseason success? Can they replicate that season’s elite defense? Let’s go step by step to find out.
Stats are courtesy of Cleaning The Glass unless noted otherwise.
Let’s start with the most obvious distinction: there is no JJ Redick on this roster. The Sixers have acquired a few players this offseason who can run around screens off the ball (Seth Curry, Danny Green, Isaiah Joe), but none can do so at anywhere near the level of Mr. Redick. In ‘17-18, the bulk of the Sixers half court playbook involved Redick in one way or another. This year’s roster doesn’t have anyone who unlocks as many possibilities as Redick.
However, on the whole, this year’s Sixers indisputably have more shooting than the 2017-18 team. Many people forget this: for the first two-thirds of that season, the Sixers played a whole bunch of iffy to bad shooters next to Simmons and Embiid. T.J. McConnell played 1493 possessions alongside Simmons. Trevor Booker played 772 possessions alongside either or both of Simmons and Embiid. Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot, Markelle Fultz and Justin Anderson also played major minutes in that rotation. Even Richaun Holmes saw 223 possessions at power forward.
This year, the two worst shooters in the guard/wing rotation (aside from Simmons) should be Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle, who both figure to be marginally below average. The lack of a manic off-movement shooter like Redick hurts, but these Sixers clearly have more shooting at the beginning of the season than the ‘17-18 squad.
That ‘17-18 team, of course, took off once they acquired Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, which helped eliminate the non-shooters from the rotation. I don’t think that this squad has quite the level of shooting that the final version of the ‘17-18 team had, but it’s in the same ballpark. The fact that they’ll have that type of shooting for an entire season will likely help them rank better than 13th in offensive rating, which is where they finished in ‘17-18.
Once again, Redick’s absence causes a major gap in this department -- not only did Redick’s off-ball movement and dribble hand-offs create a ton of shots for himself, but they also led to defensive lapses that created shots for others. The Sixers also had Marco Belinelli to run all of his actions whenever Redick took a breather.
That said, I’d still view this year’s Sixers as having a slight step up in the self-creation department. Robert Covington gave absolutely nothing in terms of shot creation. Dario Saric gave very little. T.J. McConnell and Markelle Fultz didn’t give anything that couldn’t be replicated and then some by the Sixers’ current guards.
The hope here is that Green, Curry, and the other shooters are able to cobble together 80-ish percent of Redick’s half court contributions, and that having capable pick and roll ball handlers like Curry, Tobias Harris, Shake Milton, and Tyrese Maxey will help offset the remainder that still lacks. This Sixers team should have four players who can create a shot out of those situations, which is a clear upgrade over the ‘17-18 team.
Another key upgrade: while it isn’t what we would generally consider “shot creation,” this year’s Sixers team has far more players who are capable of attacking close-outs, which players like Covington, Saric, Redick, and Belinelli struggled mightily with. Compared to that bunch, Harris, Curry, Milton, and Maxey are far more equipped to attack off the bounce against a rotating defense, which should help lead to better offensive flow and ball movement.
The obvious downgrade here is losing Covington, who made First Team All-Defense in 2017-18. Danny Green could perhaps be called a poor (or perhaps less wealthy) man’s Covington, but the drop-off is still significant.
The only other potential drop-offs are not personnel related, but are still worth considering. The Sixers may have benefitted from opponent 3-point shooting luck that season (opponents shot 34.9 percent from deep against the Sixers, the 2nd lowest mark in the league) which may not carry over -- last season, for example, the Sixers ranked 11th in that mark despite playing largely the same defensive schemes.
Also, one must consider the fact that Simmons played 81 games that season and Embiid played 63, which is the former’s career high and the latter’s second-highest. Not having either of their two anchors for any extended stretch would naturally dovetail the team’s defensive prowess.
That said, the Sixers’ defense is better on paper outside of the loss of Covington. Remove Covington, Simmons, and Embiid, and the ‘17-18 Sixers roster consisted mostly of below average defenders. Three of them -- Redick, Saric, Belinelli -- were major rotation players. Comparatively, no player in this year’s rotation should be as big of a liability as any of those players.
While players like Milton, Curry, and Maxey might get picked on in the playoffs due to their lack of size, all three are fine regular season defenders. The only subpar defenders who figure to be in the rotation should be on the fringes -- Furkan Korkmaz and Mike Scott. Additionally, Dwight Howard should be an upgrade on defense from Amir Johnson, Richaun Holmes, and Ersan Ilyasova.
Once again, I think part of the Sixers’ defensive success from that season is attributable to shooting and injury luck, so I’m not expecting them to rank 3rd in defensive rating. But on paper, this is almost as strong of a defensive team, with fewer elite defenders but fewer glaring liabilities.
Simmons and Embiid
And of course, the final area where we need to compare this year’s team to the ‘17-18 team is the two stars to the former versions of themselves.
For Simmons, it’s obvious that he’s made at least one meaningful improvement: he’s a considerably better defender than he was as a rookie. Back in ‘17-18, Simmons would float in and out of games from an effort perspective, and was not as savvy of an off-ball defender as he is now.
Simmons has also improved in terms of free throw rate and free throw percentage, even if he has stalled out in other areas offensively, the most meaningful of which being his jump shot. As always, there’s a possibility that Simmons develops a jumper and transforms his game this season, but I’m not counting on it. On the whole, we can say that Simmons is definitively better than he was as a rookie, even if the gap isn’t huge.
As for Mr. Embiid, I’d argue that he’s roughly the same, and if anything slightly worse. Embiid’s conditioning has declined slightly year-over-year since he was a rookie, and he doesn’t cover as much ground defensively as he did three years ago. He also has not made much meaningful progress on offense (not that there was an awful lot of room there to begin with), aside from cutting down slightly on turnovers and increasing his free throw rate. All things considered, Embiid is mostly the same.
With both players, there exists the tantalizing potential that they improve on their long standing weaknesses and become vastly different players -- Simmons with his jump shooting, and Embiid with his conditioning. If either or both of those happen, this team becomes significantly better than the 2017-18. But my estimate is that neither does happen, and Simmons and Embiid remain largely the same players as they were during their first year playing together.
These teams are certainly similar, and have similar caliber supporting casts for Simmons and Embiid. The key difference between the supporting casts is that the ‘17-18 team featured one truly elite player on either end (Redick’s movement/shooting on offense, Covington’s playmaking on defense) whereas the ‘20-21 supporting cast will rely more so upon players who lack elite skills but are versatile and balanced.
There is, of course, a chance that replacing Redick and Covington’s value just can’t quite be done -- that two nickels doesn’t equal a dime, and the ‘20-21 team fails to capture the same magic. But my inclination is to give a narrow edge to the ‘20-21 supporting cast due to the upgrade in depth, versatility, and shot creation.
Look: no matter what, these teams are in the same ballpark, and even have the same weaknesses and limitations. We know what a team with Simmons, Embiid, shooting, and not much else looks like -- a good, fun team that has an obvious second round ceiling. Both teams lack point guard play, a lockdown defender to stick on opposing point guards, and a truly elite perimeter shot creator. Those weaknesses will be difficult to overcome in the playoffs.
Still, I’m fairly convinced that the ‘20-21 team is better than the ‘17-18 team, given that they are starting with a slightly more balanced roster in terms of skill sets. Also of note: this year’s team has multiple avenues for unforeseen improvement. Anything from a potential midseason trade, to major improvements from Simmons and Embiid, to a career year for Harris, or even a wildly unexpected leap from Milton or Maxey could help push this team forward in a significant way.