The Mystery of the Philadelphia 76ers Road Woes
The Philadelphia 76ers are the NBA's great enigma in 2020. As the league prepares to enter "the bubble" in Orlando, perhaps no team has a higher variance of potential outcomes than the team lead by Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.
At 39-26 the team is good, but not great. However, when you look at home and road splits, you truly see the tale of two teams, one great and one simply bad. So as the team "built for the playoffs" prepares for an 8 game warmup heading into the playoffs you have to ask, which is the real 76ers?
Before we can answer which is the real team, the one who went 29-2 at home, or 10-24 on the road, we must determine the cause of those struggles. So let's explore the potential causes and what it would mean for a very unusual set of circumstances for this post-season.
"I’ll keep it real, we haven’t had the best chemistry throughout the whole year. It took us a while to kind of get everyone together". - Tobias Harris on ESPN First Take
There have been whispers of chemistry issues for quite some time around this team. Tobias Harris is an active leader in the locker room, particularly with young players. Harris routinely gathers younger players for pre-game chapel and consistently provides quiet steady leadership. As you spend time in the locker room you don't see outward signs of problems. This team is full of generally introverted good guys, and the fear is that it has created a lack of crucial conversations that every team must have to gel.
Elton Brand and Brett Brown have both confirmed that the players are holding regular zoom meetings to build and maintain camaraderie during the NBA suspension of play due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The hope is that the personalities on this team, who don't seem to spend much time together off the floor together, build connective tissue that will carry over into the month(s) together in the Orlando Campus.
“I don’t think that there’s enough accountability in our locker room right now, honestly” Josh Richardson - January 2, 2020
The downside of having quiet and low maintenance players is a potential lack of accountability. Accountability starts from the top down in any organization and this team is no different. Brett Brown is 7 years into a grand experiment and has been a fountain of energy for a team that was often young and chaotic. Brown's ebullient manner can inject enthusiasm and energy into a team at times but as his roster matures, his expressiveness may provide diminishing returns. "I only have so many bullets in the chamber" Brown is fond of saying when it comes to fiery locker room speeches to motivate the team. The responsibility is transitioning from coach to its veterans in front of our eyes, but the transition has not been a smooth one.
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Ben Simmons will not turn 24 until July 20th. His responsibilities as a lead ball-handler revolve around his world-class basketball IQ but the other aspect of a point guard's responsibility is communication. Brett Brown often calls it "ear tug, winks, nods" in reference to the subtle art of on-court communication.
When those little details get missed, you have to have leaders take a player quickly aside, talk about what they are seeing with the defense, and setting clear expectations for where he expects his outlets. This is not just a Ben Simmons issue, the team overall shoots 35% from three on the road versus 37.6% at home. Al Horford specifically has seemed to be hesitant from the shot locations that he is being asked to inhabit. That has resulted in shooting just 30% from three on the road.Image
Joel Embiid can become turnover prone at times when passing out of double teams. Embiid averages nearly 1 extra turnover on the road per game versus at home. Embiid has an incredible feel for playing defense but his back to the basket play recognition is average.
“I don’t talk much; I lead by example. But if I feel the need to say something, I will. As a leader, you kind of have to do that.” - Joel Embiid January 2, 2020
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Both verbal and non-verbal communication is key to set and reinforce those expectations of the players on the floor. At home, those little details might be overcome by other factors, but on the road, the margin of error is much smaller. Three-pointers that might fall at home, even after reaching for a pass because a player is just a hair out of position, might rim out on the road.
Perhaps the most concerning suspected culprit for the difference in performance is crowd energy. Perhaps the Philadelphia 76ers are a big clunky engine that doesn't quite fit together but is inspired or dare I say scared by the passion of the home crowd in Philadelphia. This was one of the reasons for optimism in a 7 game series under normal circumstances. But the NBA, and the world, in 2020 is dealing with anything but normal circumstances.
The teams will be playing in front of no fans when the league resumes play. The energy will be provided by coaches, teammates, and perhaps other NBA players looking on. If Joel Embiid and the 76ers thrive on energy, they will have to manufacture it on their own, together.
Finally, the ultimate issue seems to be a lack of focus and mental resilience. All of the above considerations are simply potential underlying conditions that manifest in a team that does not consistently put teams away on the road.
“I really feel like we go to a different place in fourth periods, especially defensively. That’s where I have my sights set, because I think that side of it produces a physical toughness, I think that it feeds into a mental toughness.” - Brett Brown January 17, 2020
This team works hard, it is full of good people who want to do the right thing. There are no locker room coach killers this season. But ultimately, when the fourth quarter comes, and crunch time hits, the team must look at each other, know what they are thinking, and block out all distractions. If they can "lock-in" consistently, as Ben Simmons often says, this team has championship-level talent. If they choose to find reasons to remain apart, they could easily be sent home before September.