76ers Takeaways from 1st Month of 2020-21 NBA Season

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 21, 2021

76ers Takeaways from 1st Month of 2020-21 NBA Season

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    After teasing such a leap in recent seasons, the Philadelphia 76ers seem ready to join the NBA's elite after an impressive opening month to the 2020-21 season.

    They sit atop the Eastern Conference standings with a 10-5 mark, and they've assembled that record with both overwhelming offense and a dominant defense. A healthy Joel Embiid is a nightmare for opponents, Tobias Harris is basically shooting with a flame-thrower and Ben Simmons remains equal parts productive and polarizing.

    Their season nearly took a dramatic turn when they became finalists in the James Harden sweepstakes, and it could perhaps be jolted by a blockbuster exchange down the line.

    Let's run a quick assessment of the first month and see what stands out about these Sixers.

Joel Embiid Looks Like an MVP

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Watching the 76ers, it's almost like they have two different teams: one with Joel Embiid on the floor and one without.

    With him, this is basically a steamroller, laying waste to the opposition to the tune of a plus-10.1 points per 100 possessions advantage across 377 minutes. Without him, Philly falls to the wrong side of the ledger with a minus-4.3 net rating.

    That's strange in a way, considering Dwight Howard might already be the best backup Embiid has had. And yet, it's totally understandable, because Embiid is the superstar of this squad and an MVP candidate by every measure.

    He's never shot a higher percentage from the field (54.5), from three (36.8) or at the line (83.9). He's turbo-charging the defense by coupling his 1.4 blocks with 1.4 steals a night. And while his assist average is down to a four-year low (2.8), the eye test sees a more capable and willing passer than he's been in the past.

    If Philadelphia finishes somewhere near the top of the conference, that will almost certainly mean Embiid has been healthy enough to log a metric ton of minutes. And if that happens, he'll have a great chance of being named an MVP finalist.

The Investment in Shooting Is Already Paying Dividends

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    First-year 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey could surely teach the rest of us a thing or two (or 20) about time management.

    When Philadelphia hired him in early November, he inherited a roster that was fatally flawed in the shooting department. It wasn't just that the 76ers lacked spacers, it's that their top two stars—Embiid and Simmons—needed optimal spacing to truly succeed.

    So, Morey got busy searching every nook and cranny for sharpshooters. He found several on draft night, trading for Danny Green and Seth Curry and selecting Isaiah Joe. The Sixers are already reaping the rewards of that work.

    Curry is proving that fire-balling runs in the family with a ridiculous 60.3/59.5/100.0 shooting slash. Green is splashing 2.5 triples per night at a 38.0 percent clip. Joe is converting 38.6 percent of his long-range looks. All three make the offense more efficient with them than without.

Ben Simmons Trade Talks Won't Go Away

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    The 76ers were reportedly ready to close the door on the Ben Simmons era. They even swore they could see it swinging shut.

    Granted, it would've been for former MVP James Harden, so it's not like Philly was just giving away 2016's top pick. But still, Philadelphia felt close enough to the finish line with Harden that they informed Simmons' agent of an expected trade, per Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

    That deal obviously didn't get done, but that hardly guarantees Simmons a reprieve from the rumor mill. Given his reluctance to shoot and the schematic challenges that presents working alongside Embiid, it's possible Simmons' best value to the Sixers could be as a trade chip that nets a dynamic perimeter scorer. Saying that, it's hard to tell exactly how Simmons is perceived around the Association.

    "Every team executive recognizes Simmons is one of the league's best defenders and a dynamic open-floor playmaker," The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor reported. "Perhaps in a different situation, he could fill a role resembling Giannis Antetokounmpo's. But Simmons also has plenty of skeptics who see his inability to shoot as a fatal flaw."

    This give-and-take with Simmons could spur ongoing conversations about his future in Philadelphia, especially if the Washington Wizards ever decide to make Bradley Beal available.