A young team like the 76ers is expected to grow and make improvements to their game season to season. Many of the 76ers’ players did, and it points to a team that is actively getting better. That may be the reason that they avoided trading young assets for aging stars just to have a better chance at a ring this year. Whatever the case, here are some improvements for most of the 76ers players, focusing on the younger guys.
Joel Embiid: Mid-Range Game
The world already knows Embiid is a monster inside. This year, he went from All-NBA candidate to an MVP front runner (if he didn’t miss games) by adding an absolutely lethal mid-range game. The three point shooting comes and goes but it’s worth noting he also shot 40% from deep for half the season on average attempts.
His mid-range game though has been wet. Defenders have to give him acres of space outside the paint, terrified of Embiid’s speed and power getting him to the rim with ease. Embiid has been able to take advantage of that space more than ever this year. His mid-range jab step fade away becomes more common than his post ups at times, and his numbers on that shot are remarkable. Per Basketball-Reference he’s shooting 48% from 10-16 feet and 50.4% from 16 to the three-point line. His last year percentages from the same ranges are 41.3% and 37.2% respectively. That’s an unbelievable improvement.
They are so good at times that Embiid will over rely on it, settling for his mid-range jumper too often, forgetting he can score inside on anyone. Even when that happens, it works out more often than not because he’s gotten so good at those shots. Cleaning the Glass doesn’t quite measure mid-range shots the same, but they list the league averages for a short mid-range shot at 42.8% and 41.7% for long mid-rangers. Embiid is smoking the league average from both.
Along with his stellar mid-range game has come great free throw shooting. Embiid was averaging a record amount of free throws for the majority of the season (he still leads the NBA in free throw attempts per game), and was able to hit a career high 85.9% of them. He’s always been a good free throw shooter for a big, but now he’s just a good free-throw shooter in general and often takes the technical free throw for the 76ers. Embiid is nearly impossible to guard when established down low, forcing defenders to foul him. Unlike a certain teammate (no hate, just being honest) Embiid makes you pay for each blow he takes.
The addition of an elite outside game to go with his normal dominance inside has led to his record-breaking season. The key is for Embiid to not fall too much in love with his jumper and remember what he does best while keeping the mid-range game as a good change up option.
Tobias Harris: Shot Creation
It was a tough decision between this and defense. Harris has improved immensely on the defensive end, going from a passenger to a legit asset on that end. His D-LEBRON quadrupled this year from his next highest season. The thing is, it’s an offense driven league. If he just improved his defense the 76ers wouldn’t be the one seed. His offense has really been the key to the 76ers’ sustained success this season. He’s putting in 20 points a game on historic efficiency each and every night. Historic may sound like an over exaggeration but considering he was on the cusp of joining the exclusive 50-40-90 club (he ends up in the round up club instead, posting a 51/39/89 slash line) it’s really not.
What’s startling is that his offense has come pretty much self generated. His threes are almost entirely assisted, but most of his other shots (the majority of his scoring) aren’t. His assisted percentage is down (dramatically in some cases) by every single shot type yet his shooting percentage is up in every category as well.
Harris’ game plan doesn’t seem all that different, as he mainly takes guys off the dribble or posts up, but he’s just doing it better. Many articles have been written about Doc’s emphasis on quick decisions and Harris seems to have been the main beneficiary. He’s been remarkably efficient in his mid-range game, and he’s been able to bang down low or penetrate against a majority of defenders.
It’s telling that on a team with Joel Embiid it’s often Harris that gets his number called in clutch situations. He’s been tough to stop 1-on-1, and that’s so valuable when Embiid is getting double or even triple-teamed in crunch time.
Seth Curry: Willingness to Shoot
A bit of an odd one, but honestly it’s been a massive change. Curry has always been far too cautious a shooter for his ability, and he started his Philly career the same way. Sure he was shooting 50% from three, but he was only taking four-five a game, and only when he was completely wide open. When defenders closed out aggressively or were remotely close Curry would either attack the close out or pass it up. He’s okay at doing both, but everyone knows his true value is in his elite three-point shooting, and it was far too easy to stop him from using it.
Doc seems to have finally coached that reluctance out of him. He’s not shooting 50% anymore, but someone who shoots 40% on more attempts is more valuable than his previous self. He’s letting it fly with much less hesitation and much less space, and he’s still making a majority of them. This is making him score more in general with the increased shots, and also making him more of a threat for opposing teams. You can’t neutralize him just by running at him anymore. This opens space for everyone, and the 76ers are getting better shots in every way. His teammates have more room to operate, and Curry is not passing up good shots anymore. Those passes used to lead to stalled possessions.
It’s not something that’s fully shown up in the game stats as his three-pointers attempted are about the same month to month, but it’s a marked difference watching him from the start of the season and watching him now. It’s something Doc touched on as a point of emphasis for Curry, and it’s something others are noticing as well.
Danny Green – N/A
Danny Green is a long veteran of the game who’s pretty much been the same player his whole career, and that hasn’t really changed this year either. He’s still a great three-point shooter and a good defender (although at times it’s clear he’s lost a bit of speed on that end). The “improvements” to his game this year can be attributed more to the way he’s being used. He’s shooting the most threes of his career, and he’s hitting a fantastic 40.5% of them. He’s also averaging the most minutes of his career since his San Antonio Spurs days, so that’s not entirely surprising. Green has been taking more corner threes (the most in the league in fact) but again that’s not surprising given he’s taking more threes than ever before and playing with Ben Simmons who is a constant leader in three-point attempts generated.
Ben Simmons – Defending?
There’s a reason Simmons was left for last, and it’s honestly the biggest criticism for Simmons in my mind. A lack of offense and offensive tools can be somewhat excused. The real issue is that there has been no development on that end at all. Lots of players, even the great ones continue to improve. Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo are two contemporaries who improved their offensive game dramatically. Simmons hasn’t. His numbers speak to that. Year one he averaged 15.8/8.1/8.2. Year two was 16.9/8.8/7.7, year three he averaged 16.4/7.8/8.0 and this year he posted a 14.3/7.2/6.9 line. It’s almost the same numbers year to year, and offensively this year was the worst of his career.
One can attribute that to his smaller role on the team because of Embiid and Harris stepping up which is fine, but it’s not like his shooting numbers are getting any better either. He still takes no threes (or jumpers in general), his overall field goal percentage is still around 55% and his free throw percentage is still around 60%. There’s just no improvement to speak of on the offensive end. The free throws are particularly frustrating.
The one area Simmons has improved over his career is defensively. He’s always been a solid defender due to his overall physical gifts, but last year especially he took it to the next level, and was rewarded by making the first team All-Defensive Team. That’s great of course. He’s one of the game’s best defenders, and he’s arguably the best perimeter defender in the NBA. Thing is, that’s kind of the problem with talking about his improvement THIS year specifically.
When you’ve already become the best, any improvements you make are rather marginal. Even if you can claim his defense has improved this year (the numbers are back and forth; he’s got a higher D-LEBRON this year compared to last, but a lower DBPM and the same DRTG) how much better could he have possibly gotten? How much better of a player is he now compared to last year? Does that improvement (if there was one) in his defense make him THAT much more valuable? I guess he might be higher in the DPOY race this year (it’s not like he was a scrub last year coming in fourth), and may even win it. It’s not like he wasn’t already a candidate though, and awards like this can be narrative and reputation based more than any other various reasons.
Point is, he’s pretty much maxed out his defensive potential while there is still so much further to go offensively, and it seems like no headway is being made there. Games exist where Simmons looks unstoppable on offense so the ability is there somewhere, it’s just not being realized and that is incredibly frustrating.
Shake Milton – Shot Creation/Driving
It’s not always pretty how Shake does it but more often than not he gets it done. His 2019 role was much more of a spot up shooter than a spark plug off the bench. Milton’s assisted field goals went down 10% this year from last and half of his shots were three-pointers last year compared to about 1/3rd this year.. He’s become a true sixth man by adding shot creation to his game and he’s attacking in a number of ways.
Taking it to the hoop for a layup or pulling up off the bounce to take a mid-range shot, he’s shown a much more varied offensive game. In addition, while it’s not his game, he’s also occasionally able to set up teammates. It’s not a finished product yet, but that’s pretty great progress from a spot up shooter to what he is now. If he can continue, Milton is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. His good games have been on that level (see his games against the Miami Heat, the Memphis Grizzlies and the Cleveland Cavaliers amongst others) but he’s also had games where he completely disappears. Consistency is the next thing to add for Milton, and the leap he’s already taken this year is encouraging for his future improvements.
Matisse Thybulle – Defense
Even though Thybulle has always been a defensive specialist, he’s somehow improved. His defensive stats are up across the board, and the silly fouls have been cut down. He’s doing the things he’s always done at a higher level, and he’s keeping the mistakes down. His defense this year was literally historic and he’s being recognized for it, with most personalities and media members campaigning for his inclusion on the All-Defense team despite his low minutes. Unlike Simmons whose improvement is not as clear, Thybulle has successfully handled more tough assignments than last year, and his numbers show a marked jump in every way. D-LEBRON, DRTG, DBPM, steals, blocks, you name it.
Philly fans wish offense could be the improvement here, but there’s simply not enough evidence to assume that. Every few games or so you’ll see flashes of an offensive game. A hard drive to the rim and finish, attacking closeouts, he even had a pull up jumper once. It never lasts game to game. Same with the three point shooting. He did dig himself out of his abysmal first half performance but he went from dismal to merely below average. As you’ll hear in every Sixers broadcast or discussion thread, if Thybulle can just figure out any semblance of offense he’ll be special.
Already at the age of 24 though, who knows if it’ll come. That’s not old per se, but considering some kids come into the league at 19 it kind of is. At the same time, he’s only two years into his NBA career despite his older age, and there is potential. He’s clearly athletic, both in speed and jumping ability. His shot form doesn’t look broken and his willingness and eye to try harder passes is encouraging. At the end of the day though, Thybulle has basically hit how good a player can be on defense, and it’s time for the rest of his game to show some improvement.
Furkan Korkmaz – Defense
One could also argue Korkmaz’s improvement is also willingness to shoot, as he’s become the resident off-screen sniper that so many teams utilize. Kind of like Duncan Robinson, Korkmaz is at his best when he’s catching and immediately releasing, no hesitation, no thoughts, just three pointers.
That seemed like a natural progression for Korkmaz though. The more surprising and greater development has been on defense. Defense could be in the list for nearly everyone, as Doc Rivers has really inspired pride on that end for the team and with that emphasis comes improvement as a squad.. Not only that, but Matisse Thybulle seems to have influenced the team a disproportionately high amount for a player so early in his career. Thybulle has been credited by many players including Korkmaz for improved defense. That’s evident in Korkmaz’s steals numbers, which were pretty significant especially towards the end of the season.
Beyond the turnovers though, Korkmaz has done a better job as an on ball defender. He went from a turnstile able to get beat by strength and speed to occasionally able to stay in front of guys. He’s still not amazing on that end, but it’s a major improvement from what he was. He posted career highs in D-LEBRON, DBPM and had his highest DRTG since his rookie year where he played 80 total minutes. Combined with the increased steals and Korkmaz is not a plus defender yet but he’s not really a minus either. For a shooter like Korkmaz, that’s acceptable. He shouldn’t hemorrhage points when he’s out there and that’s a big improvement for him.
Only three more members of the 76ers have seen any significant game time. Two are 30+ year old vets (Dwight Howard and Mike Scott) that haven’t really improved. It would be surprising if they did. The other is Tyrese Maxey, who can’t really have made improvements from last season. There were some improvements during the season however. His main weapon has always been his driving and his floater and that didn’t change, but he did show more of a jumper as the season went on. He also displayed some passing chops, averaging 4.3 assists in May. Expect Maxey to be a prime candidate for this article next year as his potential is through the roof.
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