How the Hell Did Last Year's Sixers Go 20-7 to Start the Season?
Let’s pretend this never happened.
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The good times have rolled for the 2020-21 Philadelphia 76ers like they're starting Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr in the backcourt. A feel-good win over the championship Lakers at home was followed by a feel-good beatdown of the Timberwolves in Minnesota which was followed by a feel-fucking-fantastic comeback W against the Pacers in Indiana, bringing us to a sparkling 15-6 record on the season. It couldn't be farther removed from last year's disappointing, misshapen, irresponsibly conceived squad, where at this point in the season we were [checks notes with a cartoonish sense of eye-rolling dismissiveness].... also 15-6? Wait, what??
Unbelievable, right? It gets worse: The Sixers actually started last season 20-7 in their first 27 outings, meaning -- as you may have seen me tweet incredulously about over the weekend -- that we'd still have to go 5-1 in our next six games just to stay level with them. It feels absolutely impossible: How could this team that we all remember so entirely unfavorably have gotten off to such a blistering start to the season? And if that team was that good in their first few months, what does that say about how 4 Real this year's squad might actually be?
The dissonance here, I believe, can be directly traced to a 15-game stretch that comprised roughly a month of last season, from mid-November to mid-December. Before that, you may very well remember that the Sixers got off to a 5-0 start to the year, capped of course by the Furkan Korkmaz game-winner in Portland. And you'll likely also recall that the Sixers went on to lose five of their next seven, largely disavowing us of the notion that this team was some dominant powerhouse that was going to just juggernaut its way through the league all season. But what you might not remember -- what I certainly didn't -- was that the team would then win a staggering 13 of their next 15 games, including Ws over the Pacers, Heat and Raptors, to make it seem like maybe they were legit contenders after all. (They weren't, natch, as they would decisively demonstrate by going exactly .500 -- 23-23 -- over their final 46 games.)
So what the hell happened in those 15 games? Well, there are certainly some parallels with the start to this season, which could be interpreted as worrisome if viewed at a certain angle. For one, the Sixers feasted on a relatively soft start to their schedule. Though the 15 games included those three wins over legitimate East playoff teams, all three of them came at home, with 10 of the 15 total games from that stretch being played in Philly. The five road games included two losses against the Raptors and Wizards, two wins against cellar-dwellers in New York and Cleveland, and one legitimate Thursday night win in Boston -- outside of the Portland game, the Sixers' lone impressive win on enemy grounds from the entire 2019-2020 season.
Meanwhile, the sparkling stretch could also be attributed in large part to the elevated play of one 76er in particular: Tobias Harris. Over those 15 games, Tobias averaged a smashing 22.2 PPG on 51/39/81% shooting splits, with a 2:1 assist to turnover ratio -- easily his best month-long run as a Sixer to that point. (Tobi in his last 15 games this year: 21.5 PPG on 53/48/83% shooting, with an assist to turnover ratio closer to 1:1.) Joining Tobi in generally playing above his station was everyone's most appreciated Sixer of last season, Al Horford. Horf's numbers weren't gaudy, just 12-7-4 averages, but he put them up with sizzling 54/44/82% shooting splits, and barely ever turned the ball over (3.8 to 1.3 AST:TO). Add in some wild three-point percentages off the bench from Matisse Thybulle (56%!!!) James Ennis (48%), and Mike Scott (36%, but with a couple absolutely scorching nights in New York and Boston), and you have a team whose supporting cast was absolutely humming.
As for Embiid and Simmons, the team's co-anchors? Well, both certainly had their nights -- Joel had a statement 38-13-6 during the win in Boston, and Ben flayed the Cavs with 34 points on 14 shots (including a three!) in just 26 minutes of a 47-point blowout -- but they were also fairly erratic, with Joel also putting up a goose egg in Toronto, Ben scoring more than 10 just once across the first six games, and both averaging numbers well below their career norms. However, as Mike Levin always says, the best ability is availability, and it's conspicuous that across the 15 games, just one game was played over that stretch that didn't feature both stars: the Cleveland game where Ben went nuclear. They were healthy, they were productive by mortal standards, and they were dramatically handicapped by a big-balls-dancing supporting cast and a patronizingly soft, home-heavy schedule. (And even if with all that, you still don't remember this team feeling as triumphant as they do this year, consider the conference competition -- last year, 20-7 was still only good for third in the East behind the dominant Bucks and unkillable Raptors; this year it would already be enough for first, likely by a wide margin.)
From there, the Sixers quickly plateaued, for a variety of reasons -- the biggest of which being the team's utter inability to perform on the road. They lost seven of their next eight outside of the not-WFC, then swept a mini-series against the two NY teams, then lost their next nine away games, at one point going over a month in between road victories. Meanwhile, injuries and regression struck: Horf missed the final two games of the 15-game golden period with knee issues and wasn't the same when he returned, shooting just 37% from the field and 28% from three over his next ten games, while getting to the line a grand total of twice. Tobias was still good but never quite as consistent again, with some of his worst performances coming in big games. Embiid sat for December road losses in Brooklyn and Indiana, then missed nine games in January with a gruesome finger dlslocation. Shortly after he returned, it was Simmons' turn to miss eight games with a tweaked back -- which would've probably been a lot more had the season not had its March shutdown. What happened when the season restarted, you probably still remember.
What does it all mean for this year, then? Well, I think there is something to be said for being hesitant to assume that last year's hot start was fool's gold and this year is 1849 California: The 2020-'21 Sixers have similarly benefited from a home-heavy, relatively unchallenging start to their schedule, as well as some unexpectedly scintillating play from a number of their role-players, and by COVID-era NBA standards, pretty decent health. They've also performed exceptionally well in close late games, which wasn't always a hallmark of last season's squad -- for every triumphant Portland win, there was a heartbreaking Denver loss -- but which is often a strong sign of a team due to fall to earth a little, since "clutchiness" usually proves to be just as much a coincidence as a skill. A couple more games away from Philly, a couple more DNPs from Embiid and Simmons and a couple more shots not going in during the final minutes that went in before, and a team winning 71% of their games can very easily become a team winning 61% of their games. (And for what it’s worth, the team’s average scoring differential through 21 games last year — 4.9 — was higher than their 4.1 differential this year.)
But if there is a reason to believe that this regular season's Sixers team is markedly different than last -- beyond the good vibes and better-fitting supporting cast and general other context-dependent stuff that a couple losses can flip the narrative on real quick -- it's of course Embiid. We've already seen him turn a few games that would've been schedule/matchup Ls last year (against Toronto, against Miami, in Detroit) into unexpected Ws this year. A good part of the reason why the team has been so good in the clutch this season is because he's been the most reliable late-game performer we've had since at least peak Iverson. We'll see if he can stay at this level of play and health all season -- the rest game he's been getting every 3-4 outings may ultimately help him stay otherwise consistent in both areas -- but having a real MVP candidate always makes a difference, and changes your entire team's ceiling. (So does having a coach and front office that fans trust and aren't calling for the firing of after every loss, I should say.)
In any event, the Sixers would certainly do well to hedge against any such regression by looking to actively upgrade the team before the trade deadline -- I won't specifically mention him for a third column in a row, but the guy whose name rhymes with Snack MaChine would still be my top target. That way, some of the problems that have already manifested with this team without costing them many games (namely, a backcourt offensive focal point) can be addressed before they do start tipping the win-loss balances. Beyond that, all we can do is hope that Doc does whatever he can to keep the team safe, healthy, and connected -- so that the good vibes don't suddenly turn bad, and come this time 2022 I'm back here writing a How the Hell Were Last Year's Sixers Still in First Place at the End of the January? column.