Last season, the Philadelphia 76ers had the third-best record in the NBA with 54 wins and the third-best scoring differential at +4.3 points per game. They battled with the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics for the top of the Eastern Conference, and their regular-season success led to individual award success for Joel Embiid as the NBA MVP.
This offseason, their other former MVP,James Harden, made it clear he wanted to be traded. Harden was dealt for a package that did not include another All-Star-caliber player in return, leading many to fear that the 76ers would not have the high-end talent to continue to contend at the same level.
Instead, more than a month into the season, the 76ers are again competing with the Bucks and Celtics for the best record in the Eastern Conference, with a +7.8 scoring differential that is third best in the NBA.
How have they been able to maintain their competitive level? And what does their level mean for the 76ers in the NBA futures market? Let's dig in.
The trade of Harden was not the only change the 76ers made at the top. In fact, they made an even higher move, firing Doc Rivers and bringing in Nick Nurse to replace him as head coach. Nurse has different approaches on both offense and defense that take advantage of the team's strengths in different ways while decentralizing the 76ers' attack. And the primary change, of course, starts with the big MVP in the middle, Embiid.
Rivers liked to run the offense from the center out, getting Embiid deep on the block and collapsing opposing defenses to the middle. This allowed Embiid to dominate the interior, particularly in the regular season, and earn that MVP.
But the downside to that approach is that teams with strong interior defenders -- such as last season's Celtics or the 2022 Heat -- could collapse onto Embiid, take advantage of times when he wasn't at full speed in the playoffs, and either force him into difficult reads or force the rest of the 76ers' offense to beat them. That often put the onus for the 76ers' success more on Harden than Embiid, with unsatisfying team results.
Nurse, on the other hand, schemes to get Embiid into decision-making spots out on the perimeter to a much higher degree. Embiid still operates from the post, but he does a lot more dribble handoffs (DHOs) on the perimeter, where he is able to make decisions in space instead of in the post and create easier looks for teammates more consistently.
Embiid was the screen setter on handoffs 23% of the time last season, generating 1.1 points per chance, according to Second Spectrum. This season, that frequency has risen to 33% of the time for Embiid, and it is creating more efficient offense at 1.2 points per chance.
Those decimal points represent large changes in efficiency in team offense, but it's easier to see on an individual basis. Last season, Embiid averaged 4.2 assists per game. This season, he's on what would be a massive career-high pace of 6.6 APG. In this way, Embiid is using his own dominance to create easy offense for his teammates.
Teammates including Tyrese Maxey.
Last season, as the understudy to Harden on the perimeter, Maxey broke out to average 20 PPG for the first time in his career. During the offseason, there was the sense that if Harden was moved, Maxey had the potential to up his game further and develop into a true second option next to Embiid.
The results to date have far exceeded every expectation.
Maxey, who just turned 23 years old in November, is pulling off the extremely rare trifecta of assuming a much larger role, dramatically increasing his volume across the board and simultaneously increasing his efficiency as well. He leads the NBA in minutes played at 38.1 MPG and has taken on the joint tasks of primary floor general and leading backcourt scorer for the 76ers.
Maxey has upped his scoring by 6.5 PPG, an increase of almost a third from last season's 20.3 PPG, while at the same time increasing his true shooting percentage (TS%, a measure that incorporates a player's scoring efficiency including both 3-pointers and free throws) to 61.4%, second only to Stephen Curry (68.5 TS%) among guards averaging at least 12 PPG.
As a distributor, Maxey has more than doubled his assists per game to slot in as 11th in the NBA, while lowering his turnover percentage to a career-low pace of 6.3%. His assist-to-turnover ratio sits at a scintillating 4.8. This is the sixth-best mark in the NBA among starting guards, trailing only pure floor generals such asMike Conley, Chris Paul and NBA assist leader Tyrese Haliburton.
Maxey is doing this by taking full advantage of opposing defenses tilted toward slowing down reigning MVP Embiid. Maxey is making incredible use of his dribble, using the bounce to get into the lane and create high-efficiency looks for both himself and his teammates. These statements are supported in the numbers.
According to Basketball-Reference, only 34.2% of Maxey's 2-point shots are assisted (down from 44.4% last season) and only 51.1% of his 3-pointers are assisted (down from 68.8% last season). This means he's creating his own shot off the dribble much more often.
Broken down by the distance of the shot from the rim (0-3 feet, 3-10, 10-16, 16 feet to the 3-point line and 3-pointers), Maxey is taking more shots this season in only one of those categories: from 3 to 10 feet. He is taking a career-high 25.9% of his shots 3-10 feet from the rim ... and making those at a career-best 50% clip. In other words, Maxey is using his functional dribble to get into the paint and create both high-volume and high-efficiency shots for himself.
He is also making relatively low-risk passes to teammates who are creating high-efficiency looks, as well. Recall his excellent assist-to-turnover ratio this season. According to Second Spectrum, Maxey has dished the 10th-most passes leading to a shot in the NBA (271, just behind Nikola Jokic at 273), but Maxey has a higher pass completion percentage (98.6%) and a lower percentage of turnovers from those passes (0.9%) than any of the nine players ahead of him on that list.
With Nurse's system providing the framework and both Embiid and Maxey operating at such an efficient level, it has boded well for the entire 76ers lineup.
Both Embiid (58.2 FP/G, up from 56.7) and Maxey (51.5 FP/G, up from 33) are averaging more fantasy points per game this season than last. In Maxey's case, it's dramatically so. Tobias Harris has moved into the third scoring role and increased from 14.7 PPG last season to 19.5 PPG.
De'Anthony Melton, the other starting guard, is up from 10.1 PPG and 2.6 APG last season to 11.8 PPG and 3.8 APG. Even Kelly Oubre Jr., who was expected to have a smaller role on a contending 76ers squad than he did on the rebuilding Hornets last season, is averaging 16.2 points, on pace for by far his highest scoring efficiency at 61.1 TS%, up from 53.4.
This across-the-board team improvement is what has allowed the 76ers to remain a contender this season and gives them some interesting storylines in the futures market.
With the changes at the top, the improved efficiency and production from Embiid and Maxey, and a team full of productive players who know their roles and play them at high levels, the 76ers indeed remain contenders even in the post-Harden era.