76ers' Biggest Early-Season Surprises

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 4, 2021

76ers' Biggest Early-Season Surprises

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The excitement around a new NBA season isn't just about the return of basketball.

    It's that breath of fresh air that comes along with a clean slate. After all, each campaign inevitably ends in disappointment for 29 teams, so almost every organization is eager for a do-over.

    The Philadelphia 76ers certainly fit that bill coming into the 2020-21 campaign. They easily ranked among last season's biggest disappointments, securing only the sixth seed in the East before being unceremoniously swept out of the postseason's first round.

    Armed with a new coach, a reworked front office and the welcome arrival of some needed sharpshooters, the Sixers were ready to see something different. The following three areas have all surprised in a good way.

Pole Position in the East

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    Believing in the Sixers is rarely easy.

    Sure, this roster ranks among the Association's most talented, but it's been loaded for a minute, and the franchise still hasn't booked a conference finals spot since Allen Iverson led the way. All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons aren't the most complementary fits, and the supporting cast hasn't always made sense around them.

    Throw in the enormous distraction of the James Harden sweepstakes, and there were many reasons to worry whether this club might get thrown off course. It has cruised to the top of the Eastern Conference instead, sporting a 15-6 record and the sixth-best net rating in basketball (plus-4.4).

    A healthy Embiid has been an MVP candidate (more on that in a minute). Simmons is flying around the floor defensively. Tobias Harris has been spectacular (more on him later, too). The hired guns are pulling their weight, to an extraordinary degree in the case of Seth Curry and his ridiculous 48.5 percent splash rate from distance.

    Philly has long hinted at having heavyweight potential, but to see it packing this much punching power has been a welcome surprise.

Joel Embiid's Sniping

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Opposing defenses have always had to pick their poison with Embiid, who's the closest clone we've seen to Hakeem Olajuwon. Given Embiid's plethora of post moves, defenses have tried overcrowding the paint and forcing him to beat them with his jumper.

    That's still probably the smartest strategy to employ—it just isn't really working. Nothing that opposing defenses are doing is working, actually.

    To say he's having a career year as a shooter undersells just how accurate he's been from everywhere. His percentages from the field (54.9), from three (42.3) and at the line (84.3) are all career highs, and the 4.5-point climb at the charity stripe is the smallest increase of the lot. But there's more: his accuracy rates are also at all-time highs from zero-to-three feet (77.4), 10-to-16 feet (49.1) and 16 feet to the three-point arc (62.2).

    He's essentially unguardable, and while he's perhaps felt that way in certain situations before, now it rings true regardless from where he's taking aim.

Tobias Harris' Efficiency

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    No matter how you described Tobias Harris before this season, it probably wasn't super complementary. Labels like "overpaid" and "volume scorer" were lobbed in his direction, and arguably for good reason.

    It's time to update those descriptions.

    He's had scoring binges before, so the 20.6 points per game don't automatically jump off the page. What do, though, are the uber-efficient shooting rates that support them. He's hitting 51.5 percent of his field goals and 45.5 of his triples. Both are career-best conversion rates—by comfortable margins.

    It all adds up to personal-best production in player efficiency rating (18.6) and true shooting percentage (61.0). Those aren't shabby marks for a 10-year veteran with career averages of 16.8 and 56.3, respectively.


    All stats used courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.