When the Philadelphia 76ers dropped their first two games of the 2022-23 season to two legitimate contenders in the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, the concern level was pretty low. It was the beginning of the season, and the Sixers were trying to incorporate several new pieces while those teams had the advantage of continuity. When the Sixers lost their third game of the season to the rebuilding San Antonio Spurs, eyebrows were raised, but the team then got the first win of the season over the upstart Indiana Pacers, and there was a sense of relief.
"It felt good," Sixers guard James Harden said after the win over Indiana. "It felt like we were 0-82."
Those good vibes didn't last long, though, as Philadelphia followed that win up with a 119-100 loss to the Raptors in Toronto to fall to 1-4 to start the season. Now, with a handful of games as a sample size, the concerns facing the team are becoming a bit more legitimate, albeit not dooming yet, given the fact that it's still extremely early in the season, so the team has time to figure things out. If they don't improve in the following areas in short order, the season could quickly spiral downhill for a team that entered with championship aspirations.
Despite making several additions to it over the offseason, the Sixers haven't gotten nearly enough production from their bench so far this season. In addition to prying P.J. Tucker away from Miami, the Sixers also added Danuel House, Montrezl Harrell, and De'Anthony Melton. The hope was that these additions would take Philadelphia's bench -- a problem area in recent years -- to the next level, but that hasn't been the case.
Through five games, the Sixers rank dead last in the NBA in bench points per performance with just 17.6. They're the only team not getting at least 20 points out of their reserves in the young season. The new guys have struggled with consistency while trying to figure out their respective roles on the team. In contrast, carryover players -- like Matisse Thybulle, Shake Milton, and Furkan Korkmaz -- have been largely removed from the rotation.
Moving forward, coach Doc Rivers is going to have to shake things up a bit when it comes to the bench. Maybe more minutes for Milton in order to try to get the offense going, or perhaps more time for Thybulle in an attempt to ignite the unit with defense and transition opportunities. Or maybe he should stagger the starters' minutes differently. I don't know what the exact answer is, but something should be tried because things haven't worked well so far.
The Sixers need to pick up the pace. After the first five games, they have the slowest pace in the entire NBA. In fact, they've played at the slowest pace of any team in the past six seasons, per StatMuse.
That's a staggering stat. As a team that starts Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, and P.J. Tucker, the Sixers were never going to lead the league in pace, but they're doing themselves a disservice by being last. A lower pace means fewer possessions, and it also means more time playing offensively against a set defense, as opposed to getting potentially easy baskets by attacking in transition. Moving forward, the Sixers need to emphasize getting up and down the court quicker on both ends.
Philadelphia's transition defense was extremely poor last season, and it's been the same story this season. The Sixers are giving up 21.2 fast break points per game this season -- 29th league-wide, with only the defending champion Golden State Warriors (21.3) allowing more. Sure, some of it is the result of roster construction, as the Sixers aren't the quickest team that the league has ever seen, but a whole lot of it comes down to effort. There have been multiple instances in each game this season where the other team easily beats the Sixers down the floor off of a simple defensive rebound. Here are two examples from just the first half of the loss to Toronto:
This is a very concerning trend early on for Philadelphia -- one that could ultimately prove to be an Achilles' heel if not adequately addressed. The team's sluggishness in transition is also indicative of a bigger problem.
Lack of energy
Even in the age of analytics, there's no stat that measures energy, but the Sixers have been noticeably lacking it early in the season. Too often, the team and its individual pieces look lethargic or uninterested. Players don't make an extra effort, or sometimes even an initial effort. There doesn't look to be an overwhelming sense of comradery, and there also doesn't seem to be a whole lot of accountability. Mistakes get made, and a collective shoulder shrug seems to be the response too often.
For example, look at Embiid on this play from the third quarter against Toronto:
He turns the ball over and then makes zero effort to get back down on the other end. The Raptors get an easy transition basket as a result. The possession prior, Embiid got caught ball-watching and lost his man, which led to an uncontested dunk for Scottie Barnes:
It's not all on Embiid, who is fresh off of a bout with plantar fasciitis. However, as the leader of the team, his energy and effort is going to trickle down to his teammates, and it's been lacking thus far. The good news for Embiid and the Sixers is that the season is only a week old, so there's time to right the ship. In a competitive Eastern Conference, though, a slow start could have a major impact on playoff positioning, so they need to operate with urgency when it comes to correcting their issues.