The secret sauce of how the 76ers have quietly forged the NBA’s No. 1 offense

The Philadelphia 76ers’ blowout win over the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday wasn’t exactly devoid of drama. The franchise that gave us general manager burners, normal collars and the mysterious disappearance of multiple No. 1 draft picks’ ability to shoot briefly induced hyperventilation throughout Delco when Joel Embiid MVP favorite and franchise standard-bearer — went into the locker room at halftime and just … never came out.

After more-pulse-pounding-than-usual stints from reserve bigs Paul Reed and Dewayne Dedmon as the Sixers held the Bulls at bay, the word came down on the Sixers’ broadcast: “Because of the score differential, Joel will not return.” You certainly wouldn’t blame Philly fans if they had some notes about how the franchise communicated that Embiid was taking the rest of the night off with mild calf tightness; it’s worth noting, though, that the off-court intrigue stemmed directly from the lack of any on the floor. Even with James Harden resting a sore Achilles tendon, the Sixers absolutely crushed Chicago with a game-opening 23-1 run, effectively ending the game in less than five minutes.

It was an extreme example, I’ll grant, but it sure felt like a tidy encapsulation of the way Philadelphia has been destroying defenses for months.

After a momentary early-season spasm, the Sixers quickly clicked into place, owning the NBA’s best record since Dec. 1, thanks in large part to an overwhelming offense that ranks first in the league in offensive efficiency in that span. They’ve elevated to an even higher level of late, too: Behind Embiid’s MVP push and Tyrese Maxey’s return to the starting lineup after spending more than a month coming off the bench, Philly’s scoring a scorching 128 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions in March, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Since the start of the month, the gap between the Sixers’ league-best offense and the No. 2-ranked Kings is about the same as the difference between Sacramento and No. 14 Dallas. And it’s not like they’ve just been flame-broiling weak competition, either. During this run, they’ve torched the Cavaliers, Bucks, Heat, Wolves and Bulls — five of the 10 stingiest defenses in the league.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 10: Joel Embiid #21 and James Harden #1 of the Philadelphia 76ers in action against the Detroit Pistons at the Wells Fargo Center on January 10, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Joel Embiid and James Harden make up the engine of the most potent offense in the NBA. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

The headliners of this marauding attack, of course, are Embiid and Harden, the league’s leading scorer and its top assist man, in whose shared minutes Philly’s offensive rating has been essentially an imaginary number, like “threeve” or “$Texas.” And while Embiid and Harden are obviously both eminently capable of getting buckets on their own — they rank third and sixth, respectively, in isolations this season, according to Synergy, with both averaging more than a point per iso possession — they’ve made their most beautiful music as a duet.

Harden-to-Embiid is far and away the No. 1 assist combination in the league. The most common starting point for all those dimes comes when Embiid sets a high screen: Nobody has set more picks for a teammate this season than he has for Harden, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking. All those reps have ironed out any wrinkles that lingered after Harden’s midstream arrival at last season’s trade deadline, leaving one of the smoothest offensive interchanges in the sport. Watch the Sixers for any extended stretch and you’ll see them tweak and tinker on the fly: Harden bobbing and weaving while Embiid shifts the side and angle of his screen, leaving defenders unsure if they’re leaning the wrong way at the wrong time until, too often, it’s too late.

We wondered, at first, if they’d arrive at this kind of seamless interplay, chiefly because it would require Embiid to fundamentally change when, where and how he addressed the defense. In 2020-21, the season before Harden got to Philadelphia, Embiid set 27.4 screens per 100 offensive possessions and posted up 16 times per 100 trips, according to Second Spectrum. That mix worked out fine in the aggregate; the Sixers won 49 games and the No. 1 seed in the East while scoring at a near-league-best clip with Embiid on the floor. It’s a tough way to live in the smaller sample of a postseason series, though, when a low-post threat — even one as dominant as Embiid — can be swarmed with bracket coverage to deny entry passes and swarmed with kitchen-sink doubles from all angles, particularly if there’s not enough complementary shooting around him to force defenders to stay at home on the perimeter.

The arrival of Harden — a virtuosic pick-and-roll playmaker and, crucially, pull-up 3-point shooting threat unlike any Embiid had ever played with — promised to make the center’s life easier … provided he was willing to rumble up to the top of the floor and set more picks rather than parking himself on the block and waiting for service. The big fella has obliged, setting 47.7 screens-per-100 this season (nearly double his rate the year before Harden got to Philly) while averaging 9.6 post-ups per-100 (a drop of 40%).

That reorientation fundamentally changed the geometry of the Sixers’ offense — and introduced miserable new geography problems for opposing defenses.

Initial concerns about Embiid not being the kind of rim-running lob threat that Harden was accustomed to playing with have proven silly. As it turns out, there’s more than one way to get a layup:

Because Harden’s an absolute surgeon at slipping pocket passes through any crevice a coverage leaves, all Embiid has to do is short-roll off the screen and present a target, and Harden will find him. From there, Embiid can open up shop at the nail to work defenders over with what has become a damn near automatic free-throw-line jumper; he’s made more midrange Js this season than everybody but DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Durant, shooting a career-high 51% between 14 feet and the arc.

Whether he’s rising right up off the catch, taking a rhythm dribble before going into his hesi pull-up, bumping the defender off before unleashing a one-legged Dirk Nowitzki step-back, or deciding to rumble straight to the rim, Embiid feasting off Harden’s setups has fueled Philly’s voracious offense. When Embiid shoots after taking a pass from Harden in the two-man game‚ the Sixers score nearly 1.25 points per possession, according to Second Spectrum — head-and-shoulders above what the league’s best offenses manage.

Sliding Embiid from the block to the nail also helps Philly’s offense in a very basic way: It’s harder to sneak-attack somebody when they can actually see where every defender is.

That’s not to say teams don’t try (no player in the league has been double-teamed more on isolations or post-ups than Embiid), or that Embiid’s not still prone to the occasional miscue under pressure (he averages 3.5 turnovers per game, though that’s hardly a crime considering his gargantuan usage rate). But while dealing with doubles when your back’s to the basket or you’re pinned up against the baseline is one thing, dealing with them when you’re in the middle of a spread floor, flanked by quick decision-makers who can shoot — and, in Maxey, a lightning bolt in space who at times feels like The Speed Force given corporeal form — is quite another.

Philly’s been brilliant in those scenarios, too: When Harden takes the screen, drops the ball off to Embiid, and the big fella passes to a teammate who shoots, the Sixers score 1.36 points per possession … which is, I don’t know, head-and-shoulders above head-and-shoulders?

In these situations, you really feel just how much shooting Daryl Morey and Co. have accumulated on this Philadelphia roster — in how difficult it becomes for opponents to overload to Embiid, and in how much it weaponizes Harden’s incredible floor vision and playmaking touch.

Given the option, defenses will obviously prefer to make anybody besides Embiid and Harden beat them. But Philly really makes sure that the poison you pick will kill you, too: Seven of the eight Sixers to log more than 1,000 minutes this season are drilling more than 40% of their catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, with Maxey (43.8% on 3.6 attempts per game) and two-way, godsend offseason pickup De’Anthony Melton (43% on four a night) leading the way. The lone straggler: Tobias Harris, who’s shooting just under 39%, also on four a night.

Maxey, Melton, Harris and Shake Milton all have enough ballhandling chops to do damage on the second side against a defense already bent toward the superstars. Georges Niang’s lethal whether he’s stationed in the slot or the short corner. P.J. Tucker rarely shoots outside of the corners, but he ventures out plenty, whether to attack the offensive glass or make himself a handy dump-off option in the dunker spot. New addition Jalen McDaniels and Danuel House Jr. offer just enough shooting to keep defenses honest, plus enough athleticism to flash into spots where Harden can make them scoring threats.

And he has. Harden wouldn’t be leading the league in assists without Embiid’s finishing, but the offense functions as well as it does in part because of how willing he is to spread the love. When Harden takes an Embiid screen, passes to somebody besides Embiid, and that teammate shoots? Well, the Sixers score nearly 1.2 points per possession — once again, No. 1 offense-in-the-league territory.

Harden’s steady hand at the steering wheel — Philly boasts a top-10 turnover rate when he plays with Embiid and when he plays without Embiid — ensures that there are just so many ways for this offense to create good scoring chances … including, by the way, getting to the free-throw line. No team in the NBA generates a higher share of its points from freebies, thanks to the nearly unguardable Embiid going to the charity stripe more often than anybody but Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Harden, even firmly ensconced in his second-banana role and posting his lowest usage rate since Oklahoma City, still getting there 6.5 times a game.

Some of those free throws will probably dry up in the postseason, which is ultimately where this team was always going to be judged. All of the questions we had about Philly heading into the season persist. Can some mix of Tucker-at-center, Reed (a.k.a. Bball Paul), Dedmon and Montrezl Harrell finally enable the Sixers to survive Embiid’s brief rest periods? Will Doc Rivers remember that he doesn’t have to stagger his stars and run all-bench lineups in the playoffs? (As Derek Bodner of The Daily Six recently noted, those lineups have largely gone away since the trade deadline. Progress!) Can those complementary shooters make enough swing-swing corner 3s to beat defenses designed to force the ball away from Embiid? And, most importantly: Will Harden rise to the challenge when it matters most, or once again fizzle in the face of the season’s highest-pressure moments?

Those are big questions. The Sixers, though, feel like they’ve got their answer: an offensive machine with enough spacing, passing, shooting and playmaking to consistently create good looks, all fueled by a nuclear scoring option who’s been destroying everything in his path for months. We’ll find out soon if that’s enough in this brutal Eastern Conference. It’s a pretty damn good start, though.

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