While Joel Embiid’s rampage towards an MVP award continues to gather pace, the rest of the Philadelphia 76ers starting line-up has also outperformed expectations.
Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Danny Green and Seth Curry have been unstoppable together – going 14-0 in the games they have started as a unit.
Those 14 victories have for the most part come against Eastern Conference opposition, with the exceptions being Tuesday’s 119 – 111 win against the Sacramento Kings, a 24-point demolition of the Timberwolves to end January and a nail-biter against the Lakers a couple of days before that, when Harris hit a game-winning 12-footer with just over two seconds remaining.
The warning signs are there for all to see come the playoffs.
Curry and Green have been excellent acquisitions by new president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, formerly of the Houston Rockets.
Foundational pieces Embiid and Simmons have long been bereft of quality shooters bar J.J. Redick’s two seasons in Philadelphia. Now with Curry and Green whirring around them, it is no surprise to see Embiid dominate every time he sets foot on the floor and Simmons’ exceptional playmaking and defensive instincts – which he always had – come to the fore.
It also helps that Curry is breaking entirely new ground with his shooting percentages, posting a preposterous 50/50/100 split so far this season. And you thought Steph could shoot the lights out.
New head coach Doc Rivers also deserves credit for implementing an offense focused on creating space around his star big man Embiid, who is equally destructive deep in the post as handling the ball on the perimeter.
Swingman Harris has improved immeasurably too, thanks to the continued guidance of Rivers, who he played under at the Los Angeles Clippers, as well as being another beneficiary of the gravity created by Curry and Green. Rotating defenders can’t stray too far to double Harris when he attacks off the dribble as it would mean leaving one of Philly’s other sharpshooters open.
Of the starting five, it is only Simmons who opposing teams feel comfortable leaving open for too long.
Due to this, Harris is averaging 20 points, eight rebounds and three assists per game this season, on par with his career-best year, but at a higher field-goal percentage from both two-point and three-point range. He’s shooting 51.5 percent from the field overall having never previously cracked the 50 percent mark during his decade in the league so far, testament to the quality of shots he is now getting on the Sixers.
He has also – along with Embiid – become an important crunch-time scorer for Rivers which only bodes well ahead of the playoffs, where they will could end up duelling it out against the Nets and Celtics – two teams boasting fourth-quarter killers in the form of Tatum, Brown, Irving, Harden and Durant.
Harris might not make the All-Star game with those guys this year, but he’s certainly playing like one.
When the Embiid-Simmons-Harris-Green-Curry line-up starts the game for the 76ers, they don’t just win, they do so comfortably.
In total they’ve outscored opponents by 177 points in those 14 games, an average winning margin of 12.6 points. Their bench unit, boasting veteran center Dwight Howard, microwave scorer Shake Milton and rookie point guard Tyrese Maxey, is stronger than most and should be capable of holding or even extending the leads their starters inevitably jump out to.
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The Sixers remain at the top of the Eastern Conference standings at 18-7 for the season and in Embiid have a genuine MVP frontrunner. However, what’s most impressive is the balance and chemistry achieved by this starting five in such a short space of time.
The Brooklyn Nets might be the scariest team in the East on paper, but given the way this Philly starting unit is steamrolling everything in its path, while also posting the fourth-best defensive rating in the conference, it might be time to reassess who the real threat is.