The Philadelphia 76ers currently sit tied for eighth spot in the the Eastern Conference early in the year. Yes, that is about where we expected our young team to be fifteen games into the season. The season thus far has been a pleasure to watch as the young team has fought in every game despite the score. What makes the team so unique is that they show me something different every time I watch them. It starts with the two future super stars: Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Every night they do something special that makes me say “Yes, we have something special here in the making” whether it may be a no look pass from Simmons or Embiid with a monstrous dunk. They simply find a way to impress me each time they take the court.
Sure, the 76ers lost four of their first five games of the 2017-2018 season, allowing just under 114 points per game in those four losses. It’s no surprise that, with that start, Philadelphia is allowing opponents the third-most points in the NBA per game (110.4 ppg). Some of that is to be expected when you are trotting out the second-youngest team in the NBA, with an average age of 24.7 years old (only the Phoenix Suns are younger), and when three of the four players you have selected at the top of the NBA Draft lottery over the last four years have played a combined 11 games together (and the fourth guy—Jahlil Okafor—is rotting away on the 76ers bench, while the team tries to find a willing trade partner).
And yes, Brown has still managed to get this team to a 8-7 record, which is good for the 8th spot in the Eastern Conference early in the year. Now, so much can—and will—change over the next four-and-a-half months; teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat, and possibly the Charlotte Hornets should leapfrog the young 76ers in the standings as the season wears on.
But Brown has at his disposal something that no other coach in the entire league has: two players under the age of 24 years old who are not only freakishly talented players, but have already become bonafide stars, and yet are still scratching the surface of their enormous, superstar-caliber talent. The question is, can Brown get those two stars—Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons—to fully realize all that talent, and more importantly, do so together?
Of course, that is what Brown is getting paid to do. And it is not like the organization is asking him to do the impossible. When Embiid and Simmons have both scored more than 20 points in a game this season, the 76ers are 4-0. They pass the ball to each other more than any two players in the NBA; they’re at 88 passes per 100 possessions. Their two-man lineup has a net rating of 10.4, leading to six wins in their last eight games.
In this era of zero patience and immediate gratification, it is really easy to forget that Embiid might have been drafted way back in 2014, but entering Monday’s evening game, he has played in a grand total of 44 games in his career. After suffering a Jones fracture of the fifth metatarsal in his right foot during training camp of his rookie year, Simmons missed all of his first season in the NBA, and will have played in a grand total of 15 real games as a professional come into today. So in terms of their “NBA life experience, this is the just the beginning.
And that’s exactly the source of Brown’s greatest challenge and great opportunity.
At least so far in his career, we haven’t seen a big man who shows the court vision of Simmons (who is 6’10) since LeBron James. But after being a one-man show in college, he is still figuring out how to best set the table for his team. For all his talents, we know he is not a good outside shooter. He relies too much on the fall-away baby hook shot, if not driving to the basket outright.
Simultaneously, Embiid is figuring out the best way to play off Simmons. They clearly have chemistry on the court, but it’s still a lot of one reacting off the other. There is no consistent pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop game as of yet. They’re both figuring when and how to ensure they’re not clogging the lane.
But what makes this team so compelling is watching these two incredible talents continue to blossom. Simmons leads all rookies in points (17.8), rebounds (9.2) and assists (7.5) per game, and recorded his first career triple-double just four games into his NBA career. He is already recorded the most triple-doubles by a rookie (two) in 17 years. Despite the minutes restriction placed on him (he is averaging less than 29 minutes per game), Embiid is ranked third among all centers in scoring (20.9 ppg) and ranks among the top 10 overall in rebounding (pulling down 10.8 per game).
When the lights fully go on for them, and the fully understand how to play off of one another, the rest of the Eastern Conference could have hell to pay.
Yes, The Sixers Have Arrived.