The Philadelphia 76ers have had an extremely strong start to the 2020-21 season. The halfway point of the schedule is rapidly approaching, and the Sixers have occupied the top spot in the Eastern Conference for a majority of the current campaign. Joel Embiid has played like an MVP candidate, Tobias Harris has played like an All-Star (even though he wasn't actually selected as one), and Ben Simmons is a bonafide Defensive Player of the Year candidate. The team has clearly responded well to new coach Doc Rivers, who has brought experience and accountability to Philadelphia, and as a result, the Sixers look like a legitimate contender.
But despite their solid start, the Sixers are far from perfect. Just ask Rivers. "There's so many things that we still need to improve on," Rivers said after Philadelphia 111-97 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday night. "We have a long way to go."
Like all of the other teams from across the league's landscape, the Sixers have areas where they could improve, and some issues that they will need to address in order to put themselves in the best possible position moving forward. With that said, here's a look at three problems that have plagued the Sixers so far this season that they will undoubtedly look to improve upon.
For the Sixers, turnovers aren't a new issue. In fact, they're a lingering issue that dates back several seasons. Three years ago, during the 2017-18 season, the Sixers were dead last in the league in turnovers per game (15.9). Though they improved slightly the following season, they were still near the bottom of the barrel, as they finished No. 25 overall (14.5). Last season, they actually improved drastically in the turnover department. They shot all the way up to ninth league-wide (13.5), as then-coach Brett Brown emphasized ball control. However, this season they've regressed in a major way. At about the midway point in the season, the Sixers are No. 28 in turnovers per game (15.0). They're also last in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio.
Part of the problem for Philadelphia is that their two top players are turnover prone. Embiid leads the Sixers with 3.4 turnovers per game on the season, and Simmons is right behind him with 3.3. Both players are in the top 20 league-wide in turnovers per game. Obviously, they both have the ball in their hands a lot, so some mistakes are bound to happen. Nonetheless, they could both be better in that area, and moving forward the Sixers as a whole will have to do a better job of taking care of the basketball. My old high school coach used to say that he'd rather we shoot the ball backward from half court as opposed to turning it over because the shot at least has a chance of going in. Perhaps this is a lesson that the Sixers should take to heart.
2. Bench production
Bench production has been another issue for Philadelphia. The Sixers starting five of Embiid, Simmons, Harris, Curry, and Green has been great. In fact, the Sixers are 15-2 on the current campaign when they have their full complement of starters. On the season, the Sixers starters are fifth in the league in total points per game (82.3). Only the Nets, Bucks, Pelicans, and Hawks have more productive starting units. Philadelphia's first five is also sixth in plus/minus (+3.4). However, the team's production falls off of a cliff when the bench unit takes the floor.
Only two teams in the league (Hawks, Pelicans) produce fewer points from their bench than the Sixers (31.6). Shake Milton is the lone bench player for Philadelphia that is averaging double-digit points per game on the season, and when he was forced to miss a handful of games earlier this month with an injury issue, the Sixers' second unit looked lost far too often. Milton is a solid scorer off of the bench, but he can't do it alone. Rookie Tyrese Maxey looks like he will ultimately be a consistent contributor, but he's not quite there yet. Bench play becomes less important in the postseason when starters log more minutes, but nonetheless, it sure seems like the Sixers could use some more firepower behind their first five. Daryl Morey will likely try to address this issue prior to the trade deadline.
3. 3-point shooting
The Sixers have much better spacing on the offensive end this season compared to last, there's no doubt about it. Switching out the lane-clogging Al Horford for Danny Green, and flipping Josh Richardson for the sharp-shooting Seth Curry has done wonders for Philadelphia offensively. But while the floor is spaced for Embiid and Simmons, the Sixers aren't actually taking -- or making -- a lot of 3-pointers. In fact, they're actually making fewer 3-pointers per game this season than they were last season.
So far this season, the Sixers are No. 28 league-wide in both 3-point attempts (29.1) and makes (10.6) per game. Only the Cavaliers and Knicks are making fewer shots from long distance than the Sixers, who have been regularly outscored from beyond the arc on the season. During their 134-123 loss to the Jazz in Utah on Feb. 15, the Sixers were outscored by 30 from long distance. In an 11-point game, that was the difference. That wasn't an isolated occurrence either. In a league that has wholeheartedly embraced the 3-point revolution, the Sixers are still a bit behind in that area. Again, this is an issue that Daryl Morey will likely look to address prior to the trade deadline by potentially bringing in some more shooting around Embiid and Simmons.