The Philadelphia 76ers’ playoff push may have begun, but let’s not forget what got them there. The 76ers are the number one seed in the Eastern Conference because of a stellar regular season. They are on their way to an easy sweep of the Washington Wizards because of that. As a way of recognizing what got them to the playoffs, here are the Philadelphia 76ers’ regular season awards.
MVP: Joel Embiid
Could it be anyone else? Embiid would’ve had a great chance to win the actual MVP award had he not missed so many games. Embiid took his All-NBA game to another level in 2021. He averaged a career high 28.5 points (33 PPG per 36, which would’ve put him second to Stephen Curry), and chipped in 10.6 rebounds on average. Not only was he scoring, he was doing so with ridiculous efficiency. He posted career highs in field goal percentage, three-point field goal percentage and free throw percentage. Many of those improvements were significant too, not just a small bump.
Scoring wasn’t Embiid’s only improvement either. He showed an increased ability to pass out of double teams for much of the season, a requisite skill given how often he sees multiple defenders. Embiid also seemed to have gotten better conditioning this season. He often played deep into the 4th quarter without any overt signs of fatigue beyond what is normal for such a physical sport.
Beyond the numbers, Embiid clearly put the team on his back time and time again, and had magnificent performance after magnificent performance. He came in the clutch multiple times and was all around unstoppable nearly every game he was in. He had five games over 40 points this season and one 50 bomb against the Chicago Bulls on February 19th. Considering he only played 51 regular season games, Embiid scored 40+ points in 10% of his games. That’s ridiculous.
Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris
Harris was an easy choice for the runner up spot as well. After Embiid, Harris was the second highest scorer by a clear margin (19.5 points per game), and just like Embiid, the efficiency was unbelievable. He just barely missed the 50/40/90 club, posting a 51.2/39.4/89.2 shooting line. More than just his scoring, Harris’ consistency was equally impressive. He played the most games of the Sixers Big Three and come hell or high water, Harris was basically always giving you 15+ efficient points in every single one. He had just four games under double digits, and just 13 games with under 15 points. Not only that, but he also generated most of those points himself, an immensely valuable asset to have.
Harris was also a closer for the 76ers, someone that could be trusted to take over late in games. Look no further than the second tilt against the Utah Jazz. Despite struggling for most of the game, it was Harris that scored 11 of the Sixers’ 13 points in overtime to hand Philadelphia the win against the NBA’s best (record-wise at least) team. Consistent elite production even when the pressure was the highest makes Harris the easy choice for runner up MVP.
Rookie of the Year: Tyrese Maxey
Let’s just get the obvious ones out of the way shall we? Maxey was the only rookie to play any significant time, appearing in 61 games and starting in eight. As for the other two rookies, Paul Reed spent most of his time in the G-League and Isaiah Joe only came in for mop-up duty besides a few occasions when COVID protocol left the Sixers shorthanded. Maxey was great for a rookie, so much so that he was reportedly a hanging point on multiple trades that could have brought some of the NBA’s biggest stars to Philly like Kyle Lowry and even James Harden.
The potential he showed was incredible, the prime example being his ridiculous 39 point explosion against the Denver Nuggets (in just his first start!) when the Sixers were missing four starters and most of their bench. Maxey’s playtime waxed and waned as the season went on, but he finished strong. Strong enough to force his way onto the playoff rotation. When the competition gets tougher it will remain to be seen how many real minutes Maxey will play, but for a rookie to do that is still impressive.
Maxey still has a long way to go to become a star. He needs to continue to grow at playmaking for others and adding to his offensive arsenal, but he’s already got multiple NBA level skills (his floater is a thing of beauty), and he has the beginnings of the rarest and most valuable tool in the NBA; creating your own shot off the dribble.
Most Improved: Shake Milton
Although his star has faded of late, Milton was an early Sixth Man of the Year candidate. There were games, especially when Embiid was out, where it was actually Milton who carried the offensive load. His growth from a spot up shooter to first name off the bench was astounding. He added so much to his game, really making his dribble drive a weapon and adding a functional mid-range pull up game. His playmaking is not a primary strength, but he displayed some passing chops as well, and for most of the year he was the only person that could do anything with the ball on the bench unit.
Milton scored 13 points per game in 2021 (4th on the team behind the Big Three) and was third on the team in assists per game as well. Both were career highs for the young guard. His percentages did take a dip, but considering how much harder his role was this year compared to last that can be excused.
Games against the Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers showed off his expanding offensive repertoire, and the stretch of games he missed were some of the ugliest for the 76ers. His presence leading the bench unit was crucial, and even though his playoff role has shrunk (and many are expecting Maxey to replace him in that scorer off the bench role soon) he was undeniably invaluable in securing the Eastern Conference first seed in 2021.
Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris
Harris appears again here, and again it’s well deserved. Even though his points per game were the same as they were in 2020, it’s clear his offensive impact took a leap. His percentages went up despite getting assisted less, meaning he was shooting better on more difficult shots, something that almost never happens. According to NBA,com’s official tracking data, his percentage of assisted field goals dropped by 13.2%, and as previously established he increased his field goal percentages. He also averaged his career high assists and was second on the team with 3.5 per game. That one wasn’t a large increase, but Harris could be trusted to bring the ball up and run the offense when required.
Beyond the offense, he also improved massively on defense. He wasn’t terrible on that end before, but he went from meh to a legit positive on that end. He took on many tough assignments and handled them admirably, and he posted his best defensive season by any advanced metric. DBPM, D-LEBRON, DWS, you name it, Harris had his best season.
Defensive Player of the Year: Matisse Thybulle
Look, I’m biased. I’ll admit that. Thybulle is, after all, my current favorite player in the league. His singular ability to affect every play on defense is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Thybulle unfortunately was one of the worst offensive players in the league this year. What kept him on the court for 20 minutes a night was his otherworldly defense.
Every trait a defender must have, Thybulle possesses in spades. Freakishly long arms, athleticism, lateral quickness to stay in front, an unwavering tenacity to never give up on a play, and a rare sixth sense that tells him where to be. He often knows what the offensive player is going to do before they do. Take a look at this play. Thybulle begins moving to intercept the pass well before Kelly Oubre has decided to throw it, and his Mr. Gadget arms and acceleration allows him to take it for an easy transition slam. The finish ain’t too shabby either.
Watching Thybulle on defense is every bit as entertaining as the best scorers on offense. You simply don’t know what logic-defying thing he’ll do next. The rate at which he accrued blocks and steals was historic and every advanced defensive metric loved him. He passed the eye test too, locking up many of the league’s best night after night. He’s a shoo-in for Second Team All Defense in just his second year. To make the team on 20 minutes a night is something very few have done (per the article linked above only Dejounte Murray and Tony Allen have done so), and if he had starter minutes, First Team and even Defensive Player of the Year would be well within his reach. Just ask Ben Simmons, who will probably finish runner up for the award this year.
His impact on the team extends beyond himself as well. Others are learning from him, his signature block from behind has been taken up by Tyrese Maxey and Furkan Korkmaz has credited his defensive improvement to Thybulle as well.
While this is a regular season award, what he’s doing in the playoffs right now can’t be ignored either. In just two games (32 total minutes), Thybulle has amassed an absurd six steals and seven blocks, and his game two performance put him in legendary company. On any other team this would be a no-brainer, but on this team alone Thybulle could be a controversial pick.
Honorable Mention: Ben Simmons
This could be a case of voter fatigue, as Simmons was one of the best defenders in the league last year and carried it into 2021. Perhaps his greatness on this end has become routine. Make no mistake though, Ben Simmons would be the best perimeter defender on any team you put him on. His speed and size are unmatched in the NBA, and he uses every bit of his physical advantage on defense. Smaller guards get swallowed up by his 6’10 frame and seven foot wingspan, and bigger guys can’t muscle past him either.
He’s one of the most switchable defenders in the NBA, arguably the most, and he has the tape to prove it. He collects steals and blocks in bunches, and is always taking the toughest assignments each and every night. Simmons prides himself in his defense, and it is readily apparent why. It’s not just physical traits either. Just like Thybulle, Simmons has the unstoppable will to clamp the opposing players and instincts that are near impossible to teach.
There isn’t necessarily a clear cut reason to put Thybulle over Simmons to be honest. Both are incredibly deserving. Advanced stats and per 36 numbers all favor Thybulle, however Simmons actually plays 30+ minutes a night against the opposing team’s best player and still puts up great numbers. That can’t be overlooked. In addition, while Thybulle handles certain matchups better (faster guards like De’Aaron Fox for instance) Simmons is still good in those spots and can guard bigger guys that Thybulle has no hope of defending.
At the end of the day, Simmons would be a fine choice for Defensive Player of the Year in the league, and on his own team. Thybulle just edges him out for me due to sheer wow factor. No one in the NBA does what Thybulle does defensively, and the only thing really holding him back from DPOY consideration is his offensive game that cuts his minutes.
Marksman of the Year: Seth Curry
If not for Curry’s run at the end of the year, Korkmaz could have easily won this. Curry does have by far the highest percentage, a whopping 45% from beyond the arc, but he’s tied second in attempts per game with Korkmaz. Considering Curry plays way more minutes and gets to play the majority of those minutes with Ben Simmons, one of the premier stars at getting his teammates open looks from three, that number really should be higher. Curry did manage to let go of his infuriating hesitancy to shoot as the season went on, and his ridiculous percentage earns him the award. If you had to pick one man on the team to shoot a wide open three, it’s Curry everytime.
Honorable Mention: Furkan Korkmaz/Danny Green
Despite that, let’s not forget Korkmaz. Korkmaz has the fastest release on the team and the least hesitancy to shoot. Korkmaz let’s fly at the drop of a hat, and he’s accurate to boot. He may only end up with an overall 37.5% from deep, but most of that comes from a dreadful February. In January, March, and April, Korkmaz hit well over 40% of his triples. He also plays without a legit playmaker for many of his minutes, and more than any of the other shooters on the team he had to take bailout shots at the end of the shot clock.
His height and release allow him to get shots (three-pointers specifically) easier than anyone else on the team which is invaluable, and Korkmaz is still just 23. There’s a lot more time for Korkmaz to grow, and there’s no reason he can’t be one of the league’s premier marksman ala Duncan Robinson in a few years.
Lastly, Danny Green is also a strong candidate. He took the most threes on the team by a large margin (6.3 attempts per game) and still hit an elite 40.5% of them. Green gets the benefit of Ben Simmons like Curry though, and has a worse percentage which makes him hard to put over Curry. Still, any order of the three is fairly acceptable.
Performance of the Year: Joel Embiid vs. the Chicago Bulls, February 19th.
Honorable Mention: Ben Simmons vs. the Utah Jazz, February 15th.
Dunk of the Year: Rayjon Tucker vs. the Orlando Magic, May 16th.
Honorable Mention: Dwight Howard vs. the Dallas Mavericks, February 25.
Play of the Year: Joel Embiid game-tying three vs. the Utah Jazz, March 3rd.
Honorable Mention: Joel Embiid near game-tier vs. the Phoenix Suns, April 4th.
Block of the Year: Dwight Howard vs. Julius Randle, March 16th.
Honorable Mention: Ben Simmons vs. Patrick Patterson, April 16th.
Assist of the Year: Furkan Korkmaz to Matisse Thybulle vs. the Utah Jazz, February 15th.
Honorable Mention: Ben Simmons to Danny Green vs. the Denver Nuggets, March 30th.
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