The Sixers were a trendy pick to make a run at the top half of the Eastern Conference playoff field this season, to such a degree that Sixers fans and Sam Hinkie loyalists were doing preseason touchdown dances about signs of arrival as abstract as the drafting of Markelle Fultz and the extension of the team’s third-best player via a fair contract. You hear a little less gloating these last few weeks, as the Sixers have sagged to 10th in the conference, and lost nine of ten, and all of their last five games.
So what the hell’s going on in Philadelphia? Well, for starters, health is still an issue. Obviously Fultz has been out for most of the season, and wasn’t any help at all when he was healthy; Embiid’s been in and out, and returned from a four-game absence in Saturday night’s loss to the Raptors; Richaun Holmes and J.J. Redick have both missed games. Even stalwart Robert Covington missed a game with a minor back injury. The Sixers have been cursed (or blessed, depending upon their immediate stance towards lottery incentives) with bad health luck for several years, and this season hasn’t offered much of a reprieve.
But that’s not the only issue. The Sixers also lead the NBA in turnovers per game and fouls per game, two measures of precision that demonstrate how sloppy their brand of fast-paced, youth-based basketball can be. That’s not disappointing, necessarily, or it shouldn’t be: the best and most prominent Sixers players are still very much learning how to play in the NBA, however excellent they might occasionally be. It may have always been hasty to peg the Sixers as a playoff team in 2017; the bet would have to be that their top-level talent would be so powerful as to lift the team beyond the growing pains of handing over most of their offense to players with a combined 31 games of NBA experience.
Saturday night, against the Raptors, the Sixers turned the ball over another 23 times. In a game in which neither team shot the ball especially well (41.1 percent from the floor for the Raptors, 41.2 percent for the Sixers), the Raptors benefited from the turnover differential, to the tune of five more attempts from the floor, and six more free throws. The Sixers go into most games with a free throw vulnerability—they’re the ninth-worst free throw shooting team in the NBA, and rookie Ben Simmons is Hack-A-Simmons-level bad from the stripe—but giving a sharp team like the Raptors additional possessions and freebies is a recipe for death. In what superficially looked like an even contest of cold-shooting teams, the Raptors wound up with a comfortable 16-point victory.
Philly’s offense on the season is a crummy but not catastrophic 20th in points per possession, but over their current 10-game swoon it’s slipped down to 26th, an offensive rating of 101.4. They’re turning the ball over on nearly 20 percent of their possessions. Part of that is indicative of just how punchless and unfocused their offense can get without Joel Embiid on the floor, but another important part is the Sixers are, you know, really goddamn inexperienced, and while they’re learning how to do things against NBA competition, the NBA’s veterans are learning how to exploit their youthful cluelessness. The Raptors are exactly the sort of sharp team that will eagerly accept any wins you’re giving away, and the Sixers are definitely expressing the spirit of the season.
Belief that the Sixers will reverse the current direction of their season rests upon faith that they will have better injury luck in the second half of the season than they’ve had in the first, and that the in-game experiences gained by their young stars will accrue nightly to the benefit of the team’s overall performance. But doesn’t that strike you as, um, optimistic? A player like Joel Embiid, with his history of big man injuries, would seem more likely to break down over the course of his first extended stretch of NBA games, rather than come into more stable health. And young players tend to slip down the stretch of their rookie seasons—the “rookie wall” is a thing you’ve heard of for that very reason. So the Sixers might have better luck with health, and their players might become savvier NBA players, but fatigue and general wear could more than cancel out those gains.
The Sixers have at least two of the, say, 12 most exciting players in the NBA, and they play a wildly telegenic brand of basketball. Their early season performance has been encouraging, so long as your expectations have been remotely realistic. If Embiid plays another 35 games this season, and Ben Simmons continues to put up Rookie of the Year numbers, and Markelle Fultz returns from the shoulder issue and gives the team a glimpse of intact potential, and the Sixers play anything like .500 basketball the rest of this way, their 2017-18 campaign will have been an enormous success. A playoff berth, at this stage of their development, would be a bonus.