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What’s popping on Air-Ball:

Let’s all be honest here, before the season you didn’t think the Sixers would be this good. In fact, unless you live in Philadelphia and are an irrational Sixers fan, the idea this team would be the best the East would’ve been inconceivable.

Yet, 24 games into the shortened 72 game season and the Sixers are in first in the conference.

Now I thought they’d be good but not even I saw this coming. With the additions of Seth Curry and Danny Green and the removal of Al Horford, I expected improvement to like a solid second-round team who was maybe the right matchup from a conference finals appearance. However, the way they’re looking right now, this team is much more than that.

While Milwaukee and Brooklyn have gotten all the media hype from their newest additions and Boston and Miami was the class of the conference last year, here is quiet old Philadelphia running away with first place. 

What’s crazy is how they’re doing it is pretty simple and it’s why they have to be considered contenders for the Finals and to even potentially win them. 

They aren’t unrealistically hot from three to sustain and their opponents aren’t randomly cold either. Instead, new lead executive Daryl Morey finally put a roster around Joel Embiid that kind of makes sense and the results are devastating for the rest of the NBA.

Embiid currently leads the NBA in win shares per 48 minutes, player efficiency rating and is second in box plus-minus and fourth in scoring. The number that stands out most to me is free throw attempts where he’s leading the NBA with over 11 a night. 

Why that stands outs out is it shows the type of aggressive mindset Embiid is bringing to the court every night. After years of being slightly out of shape or randomly aloof in some quarters, Embiid has been locked in all season and the results speak for themselves.

On offence, no one can guard him and defensively, no one can score on them. 

While Embiid has been on a rampage since the season tipped off, Ben Simmons has needed some time to get going. For the first time in his career, Simmons was in trade talks and it’s clear when you look at the numbers it impacted him

Pre-Harden Trade

Now post-trade, Simmons is back to the All-Star level player he was last season.

Post- Harden Trade

Where he’s really helped this team is much like last season on the defensive end. He leads the NBA in defensive box plus-minus and is seventh in defensive win shares. 

Of course, you can’t talk Simmons and the Sixers without talking about how he’s played with Embiid. So far this season, the results aren’t great for his many, many doubters.

1J. Embiid | B. Simmons473:50+15.7+3.5-6.0+.076-0.4-6.1+.067+.079+9.2+10.0+.060-0.9+1.1+6.4+1.1+2.7+6.6+0.9+2.9+2.2+0.2-2.5
I thought they couldn’t play together?

As you can see, the two All-Stars are +15.7 on the court together this season which ranks in the top ten of two-man lineups in the NBA for players who have played at least 400 minutes together (there’s about 150). It appears that putting shooting around these two has led to improved play, who could’ve guessed?

Much like he was with JJ Redick, Embiid and Curry have a two-man combination that’s ruining opposing teams. Together the two are an absurd +19 per 100 possessions. 

Beyond just Curry and Green’s additions though, one of the really big stories of improvement this season is Tobias Harris. New head coach Doc River’s is once again working his magic on Harris who is in the middle of a career season with highs in pretty much everything including points per game, three-point percentage, PER, true-shooting percentage and more. 

The big reason for how this has happened for Harris is pretty simple. Last year he played only 74% of his minutes at the four, causing him to be used in ways that just didn’t fit him. This year though, it should surprise no one that he’s excelling on a team using him at the four 97% of the time, the correct number. 

For this team to be a contender on the level of the Lakers or even Clippers, I think they’re probably a bench piece away. However, with the continued growth of Shake Milton and rookie Tyrese Maxey contributing early, it may be a smaller piece than I would’ve said preseason. I hear there’s a guy in New Orleans available who has some experience in Sixer land for example.

Even without that piece though, this team is a bad matchup for most of the NBA because of Embiid’s dominance and their unique ability with Simmons and Matisse Thybulle to guard big wings. We saw it against the Lakers a couple of weeks ago for example, even with AD and LeBron they couldn’t really handle what the Sixers had to offer. 

If I were to nit-pick them, their offence being 14th obviously isn’t ideal but I think as Simmons continues to play more aggressive post-Harden that’ll improve. 

The reality is, this team is really damn good and a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference. Next time you’re arguing with your buddies between Milwaukee, Brooklyn and maybe Boston over who’s going to come out of the East, remember there’s a team in front of all of them with an MVP candidate on a vengeful mission to prove all his and his team’s doubters wrong.

It appears the processes’ conclusion may be closer than we all anticipated a couple of months ago. 


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