DETROIT — There’s something noticeably different when watching the Philadelphia 76ers play, something different that goes beyond the obvious emergence of Tyrese Maxey and Joel Embiid putting together another stellar campaign.
It’s easy to pin whatever you see on the exit of James Harden and the understandable relief the players could feel, no longer having to answer questions about a teammate’s standoff with the organization, no longer wondering if said player was in or out.
Beyond the irresistible notion, it feels like the 76ers are playing with something that goes beyond confidence, beyond effectiveness.
It was always something, but usually a meltdown, no matter which iteration of the roster was on the floor.
It was to the point where they couldn’t even make the list of “could’ve beens,” but simply another underwhelming franchise that had more drama than wins, more potential than production and ultimately, a team that isn’t good enough to compete with the upper crust.
And it’s early, way too early to deem this season definitively better than the last few when every iteration has fallen short of reaching the NBA’s version of the Final Four. But it would be unfair to dismiss the way the 76ers have performed to date, especially considering very few teams have their regular season legs underneath them in a topsy-turvy start.
The month of May will be an ultimate test, but in these preliminary times, they’re passing checkpoints that are worthy of attention. An 8-1 start is the league’s best to date — a half-game better than both the defending champion Denver Nuggets and surprising Dallas Mavericks.
Their net rating is second in the league, and they’re third in offensive rating — doing so without the player who led the league in assists last year.
They throttle opponents in the second half, outscoring them by an average of 7.3 points per game, leading the league. Surprisingly, they led the league in that category last season (+2.2 points per game) so it would stand to come back to Earth a bit.
But they’re making adjustments in the interim and look sure of themselves for now.
In last year’s playoffs, it was a -1.4 and against the Celtics in Round 2, they were outscored by nearly eight points in second halves — with respect due to the disastrous seventh game in Boston.
“I think it speaks a little bit to our composure, right,” head coach Nick Nurse said Friday night. “I think that’s the word I would use. I think we kind of don’t look like we’re too frantic about trying to find our next play or next shot or next action and that kind of goes to maybe just the mentality even of the game. I didn’t feel us getting very frantic.”
Frantic would almost seem to describe the direction of the franchise, from league embarrassment to charming disaster to whatever they’ll turn into now.
Nurse, replacing Doc Rivers, is the newest piece to this puzzle. He has championship bona fides but didn’t bring Kawhi Leonard with him. Rivers had a ring when he arrived in Philly, too, but couldn’t seem to work his magic in the playoffs, resulting in his dismissal soon after.
Harden’s playoff meltdowns are worth noting here, but they happened before he got there, too. His fit with the Clippers has been clunky, to say the least, while the 76ers have looked impressive with the freedom.
Nurse said composure was one of the things he highlighted when taking the job, that he didn’t want to see the offense devolve into a two-man game and everyone else standing around. Embiid’s assists aren’t at Nikola Jokić levels, but having him near six a night is damn near a miracle for someone who struggles with turnovers. And Maxey averaged 2.3 assists in last season’s 11-game playoff sample, but is up over seven to date. When defenses adjust and blitz him, that’s where his growth will truly show — and prove if last season’s playoff showing was Harden-induced rather than the stage.
This exact success won’t last until infinity, but here is where it gets tricky and fun for the 76ers: Milwaukee hasn’t found its footing with Damian Lillard yet, and Boston does look as good as advertised. But as long as Maxey continues to play at this level, Daryl Morey can kick this can down the road and be patient in his apparent pursuit of another superstar to pair with Embiid. He has the extra first-round draft picks to play with, and even though his mystique has been dinged a bit with the Harden saga, the 76ers could be in a position of strength to bolster themselves.
Nothing is settled in the standings and there will be underperforming teams looking to unload talent. But that’s a two-way street and Morey has to be willing to deal and not fleece — a delicate balance with the league as it is with his own team.
It’s still a three-game losing streak away from the Embiid rumors starting up and the fragility emerging.
Maxey and the 76ers didn’t come to terms on a rookie-scale extension before the season, and Tobias Harris is entering the last season of his deal.
Harris is always an interesting piece, because he can score at every level and has worked himself into a reliable defender. There’s always a sense he can do more because of his efficiency, size and ability to shoot.
Scoring 20 a night as a third option would represent his highest output as a 76er, and he’s shooting a blistering 56.5% so far.
“I tried to, like, look at basketball a little different. It’s a true flow and elegance the way the ball moves,” Harris told Yahoo Sports recently. “The way you know you come off on the pocket pass, for another 3, those things win games.”
He nods and talks about being OK in his role — Harris’ usage of 19.4% seems low for someone of his talent.
“Could I go out there and post up every time? Sure,” Harris told Yahoo Sports. “But we have the MVP and a point guard who [can] score at any time he really wants.”
One of their most recent wins in their eight-game winning streak was a come-from-behind victory over Detroit in an in-season tournament game Friday night that saw Embiid attempt a 3-pointer at the buzzer with the game already decided.
Pistons players and coaches apparently took umbrage with Embiid, believing he violated the unwritten rules, but Embiid rightfully shot back later, point differential matters in the race for the NBA Cup, so he implored everyone to “know the rules.” “When it comes to [the] tournament, points matter … I wish that shot would’ve counted,” Embiid said. “I actually didn’t know they were trying to fight me. I wish I would have seen that, but everything counts.”
Luckily nothing escalated and Embiid could go back to his trolling ways, able to do so freely for a night. The specter of the playoffs is a while away, but being the MVP places an extra responsibility on him as the lone award winner to never have played in a conference finals.
At least for now, the Harden return has bolstered the 76ers' depth — a depth that will be tested in the aftermath of Kelly Oubre Jr.’s absence from injuries sustained when a car struck him over the weekend.
“We got a good group of guys, tough mentally, and believe in each other,” Embiid said. “When we went to the bench, we knew what we had to do.”
Does Morey think this is sustainable? Or good enough to beat the Celtics, Heat or Bucks in a playoff series? They have options, and they have time — a little more than we previously believed.