Six major questions for Sixers after All-Star break


There’s twenty-four games left this regular season for the Sixers and anticipation aplenty about James Harden’s debut.

After Tyrese Maxey’s first All-Star weekend appearance and Joel Embiid’s 36-point Sunday night in Cleveland, we look at six questions for the remainder of the Sixers’ season: 

Which James Harden will Sixers get?

Harden is where he wants to be and believes the Sixers can immediately push for a championship. Those basic points should coincide with excellent effort in high-stakes games. 

But what exactly is Harden’s top level these days when fully invested? 

In all likelihood, still very, very good. He was a clear choice for the NBA’s 75th anniversary team and remains an extraordinary offensive player at 32 years old. 

But Harden, who’s continued rehabilitation on his left hamstring since joining the Sixers, hasn’t played since Feb. 2. And in 44 games this season with the Nets, Harden shot only 41.4 percent from the floor and 33.2 percent from three-point range. He was 53.9 percent at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass, his worst mark since his rookie season. 

Harden is the sort of talent who could make this question look silly with 40-point, 15-assist performances. And tossing the ball to Embiid in the post is always a nice option for a player returning to action. 

So, how do you guard Harden and Joel Embiid? 

For the most part, as the Sixers relinquished large leads in Games 4 and 5 of their second-round playoff series last year against the Hawks, their offensive options were limited. The team relied on the Embiid-Seth Curry two-man game or difficult shotmaking from one of that pair. 

Embiid has never had a teammate who creates half-court offense like Harden. The 10-time All-Star draws ample attention, too — and quite a few foul shots. With no games yet from Harden, the Sixers rank first in free throw rate, per Cleaning the Glass.

“It would be pick your poison,” Georges Niang said last week. “You’re going to find a scheme that’s going to slow Joel down, and then you’re really going to find a scheme that can slow James down? And then you have to do it at the same time? You only have five players on the court. So I would say if you could have 10 players on the court, that’d probably be a good start.”

Zone defense was a prominent pre-Harden issue for the Sixers. We imagine zones are not going away, and that opponents will generally aim to limit Harden and Embiid’s time and space while challenging other Sixers to produce.

Who starts and finishes?

As Sixers head coach Doc Rivers showed last Thursday in his team’s win over the Bucks, there’s nothing wrong with pulling the plug. 

Rivers started Matisse Thybulle but ended up giving him just 15 minutes. Furkan Korkmaz scored 13 points in 30 minutes off the bench.  

When healthy, Thybulle has been a regular starter the past two months. He’s an all-world defender, which the Sixers have deeply appreciated without Ben Simmons, and he's improved with the subtleties of cutting and occupying the dunker spot. But Thybulle is a 28.6 percent three-point shooter and, despite Embiid’s prodding, still declines some open jumpers. Opponents have still felt comfortable using the defender on Thybulle mainly as a roamer. Even for an exceptional defensive player, that’s a lot to overcome.

So, which lineups — whether starting, closing or both — might the Sixers prefer that don’t involve Thybulle? Assuming Tyrese Maxey keeps starting, Niang’s shooting (and size) is an appealing on-paper option. In playoff situations where the Sixers want a conventional wing, Danny Green has been there and done that, and he’ll unabashedly fire from long range. 

The best-case scenario for the Sixers is likely Thybulle playing good enough offense that it’s obvious he must play 30-plus minutes every playoff game. If that doesn’t happen, we’ll see whether the Sixers can find other strong lineups, and whether Rivers pushes the right buttons game to game. 

Any fatal flaws? 

Harden won’t plug every Simmons-related hole. 

He could help the Sixers in a multitude of areas, including pick-and-roll potency, perimeter shot creation, rebounding and overall star power. But it’s not tricky to foresee ways the Sixers might lose playoff series.

The Sixers’ bad rebounding nights have often been damaging because the team doesn’t force many turnovers, meaning possession disparities can become extreme. Harden’s presence alone won’t solve that. He’s also a substantial defensive downgrade from Simmons, although players like Thybulle, Green and even Tobias Harris might enable the Sixers to switch frequently in certain situations. 

Rivers made mistakes last postseason with how he used his second unit, sticking with Dwight Howard and bench-heavy lineups. He knows there’s pressure on him to get those decisions correct and steer his team through whatever adversity it faces, including dwindling leads. None of Maxey, Thybulle, Korkmaz or Shake Milton have extensive postseason credentials, which might contribute to that being a tough job for Rivers.  

How do Sixers match up with East contenders?

At 35-23, the Sixers are third in the Eastern Conference standings, two and a half games behind both the Heat and Bulls.

The conference is unpredictable, though here’s one encouraging note for the Sixers: They already have road wins over eight of the nine other East teams in a playoff or play-in tournament position — Miami, Chicago, Milwaukee, Boston, Toronto, Brooklyn, Charlotte and Atlanta. The Sixers haven’t visited the Cavs yet.

Still, so many games this year have been impacted by COVID-19 and widespread injuries. And especially with Simmons now in Brooklyn and Harden in Philadelphia, it's hard to forecast much about possible playoff matchups at the moment. 

Will Embiid win MVP?

In 37 games since coming back from COVID-19, Embiid has averaged 31.6 points, 11.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.1 steals. 

Optimizing Embiid’s health and performance for the postseason needs to be a high priority. MVP is a massive deal, though, and Embiid has a chance to win it. While the Sixers are playoff-focused, that's a valid reason for fans to care about the rest of the regular season. 

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