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Are the Big-Three Sixers As Good As They’ve Seemed?

Philly is 8-3 with Jimmy Butler in the lineup, but its success in close games isn’t necessarily an encouraging sign for its chances of getting back into the East’s elite

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Even after losing in Toronto on Wednesday night, and even with the latest development in the Markelle Fultz saga still swirling, the 76ers, from a macro lens, are flying high. They have Jimmy Butler. They have the MVP candidate version of Joel Embiid. They have an 8-3 record since reshaping their roster with a mid-November trade, and in our staff ranking of the 25 best players of the season’s first quarter, the 76ers were the only team with three on the list.

But problems still loom in Philadelphia, and they’re not all connected to Fultz’s balky shoulder. Brett Brown’s team has plenty of work to do before it can call itself a legitimate threat in the East, which has lost LeBron James but gained a dominant, Kawhi Leonard–led Raptors squad and a Mike Budenholzer–coached Bucks team that leads the league in point differential and net rating and, it is worth noting, is still scoring more than 120 points per game.

The first issue is that the 76ers’ 17-9 record, which ranks them third in the East and has them on pace for a 54-28 final mark, masks a more concerning set of numbers. Most notably, the 76ers are a league-best 12-3 in games that enter “clutch” situations—defined by NBA.com/Stats as those that feature a margin of five points or fewer within the last five minutes—but a more pedestrian 5-6 in games that don’t enter clutch territory. (Since Butler’s first game with the team, they’re 6-1 in clutch games and 2-2 in others.)

The best clutch team on record, unsurprisingly, is the 2015-16 Warriors, who went 30-4 in clutch games but also went 43-5 in non-clutch games en route to setting the single-season wins record. The other teams at the top of the clutch leaderboard, which dates back to 1996-97, were also successful in both; here are the 10 with the highest clutch winning percentages, along with their overall regular-season records:

2015-16 Warriors, 73-9
2006-07 Mavericks, 67-15
2012-13 Heat, 66-16
1999-2000 Lakers, 67-15
2003-04 Lakers, 56-26
2005-06 Spurs, 63-19
2014-15 Warriors, 67-15
2001-02 Kings, 61-21
2013-14 Spurs, 62-20
2011-12 Bulls, 50-16 in a strike-shortened season (extrapolates to 62-20)

Either the 76ers are an exceptional historical aberration, or they are doomed to start dropping close games more frequently than they have to this point. Since 1996-97, 48 teams before this season won at least two-thirds of their clutch games. Those teams also combined to win 75 percent of their non-clutch games—but remember, Philly this season is winning less than 50 percent of non-clutch games. Looking at all teams since 1996-97, the correlation between winning percentage in clutch games and winning percentage in non-clutch games is a robust 0.71, on a scale where 0 means no relationship and 1 a perfect link. An elite team in clutch games is almost always an elite team across all its games, but this year’s Sixers don’t follow that rule.

The outcomes for past look-alikes don’t bode well for these 76ers, either. Out of the 48 teams to win at least two-thirds of their clutch games, only five won in the range of half of their non-clutch games: the 1997-98 Hornets, 2011-12 Lakers, 2011-12 Hawks, 2013-14 Grizzlies, and 2017-18 Cavaliers. The Cavs were the only one of those teams to win more than one playoff series, and as good as Embiid is, these 76ers don’t have LeBron on their team to make them an obvious outlier candidate.

Frankly, a team with Philadelphia’s talent shouldn’t need to win so many close games. The only double-digit wins since Butler arrived have come at home against the moribund Wizards and the Knicks, who were on the second night of a road back-to-back, but even bad teams haven’t given the 76ers a total reprieve: In the same span, they lost to Cleveland and beat Phoenix and Brooklyn by a combined seven points. Thus, the 76ers’ Pythagorean record—which estimates a team’s “expected” wins and losses based on point differential—is just 14-12, sixth in the Eastern Conference. That’s an important distinction because like in baseball and football, Pythagorean record is a better predictor of future success than straight win-loss numbers.

The issues that have made Philadelphia look like a .500 team rather than a world-beater are small but numerous. They also look rather familiar. Ben Simmons’s rate statistics haven’t budged since last season, and while a lack of improvement in his second year might seem disappointing, he has at least outperformed sophomore slumper Donovan Mitchell, who competed with Simmons for last season’s title of best rookie. Simmons might seem to float a bit more instead of maintaining an aggressive cadence throughout his minutes, but his numbers are almost eerily similar.

Last season: 15.8 points, 8.2 assists, 8.1 rebounds, 1.7 steals, 0.9 blocks per game; 22 percent usage rate, 36 percent assist rate, 56 percent true shooting, 20.0 PER

This season: 15.2 points, 8.0 assists, 8.8 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 0.7 blocks per game; 21 percent usage rate, 38 percent assist rate, 59 percent true shooting, 19.5 PER

Yet Simmons has also drifted to a greater extreme with his shot breakdown. All 11 of Simmons’s 3-point attempts last season were end-of-clock heaves, but he hasn’t taken any long-range shots this season, and in fact has narrowed his selection even further: Less than 10 percent of Simmons’s attempts this season come from at least 10 feet out, according to Basketball-Reference, and he’s shooting just 12.5 percent on those tries. That translates to three makes—three!—all season long; among 315 players with at least 20 such attempts, Simmons ranks last in shooting percentage.

Simmons’s unwillingness and apparent inability to stretch the floor rendered his pairing with Fultz untenable, and the 76ers scored just 96.4 points per 100 possessions when the two guards shared the floor. All other lineups with Simmons have a 109.1 offensive rating, but the overall roster issue—a lack of shooting—remains. There’s a reason that, besides Embiid, the 76er with the best on/off-court split is JJ Redick. With their one trusty shooter on the floor, the 76ers outscore their opponents by 6.3 points; without him, that margin flips to negative-6.5.

Despite playing on the wing, Butler doesn’t fit the mold of a floor spacer: He’s just a 34 percent career 3-point shooter and has never taken four per game in a season. He’s at 42 percent this season, to be fair, but through only 81 shots; it’s more likely than not he’ll regress to career norms as the season continues. And even in his current hot streak, he doesn’t command the gravity that the league’s elite shooters do, which in their cases opens up opportunities elsewhere on the floor.

Robert Covington and Dario Saric placed second and third, respectively, in 3-point attempts for the 76ers, but are now stretching the floor in Minnesota after the Butler trade. Their replacements bring other problems to the floor. New fifth starter Wilson Chandler often disappears on the court and posts anonymous box score numbers. Rookie Landry Shamet has shot 43.5 percent on 4.2 3s per game since the trade, but he’s also raw everywhere else; public defensive metrics bring questionable accuracy, but it’s still discouraging to see him rank 87th out of 92 point guards in ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus, with the worst on/off-court defensive split of any Sixers rotation player. And while Mike Muscala has managed effective rotation play thus far, he’s also already recording a career high in minutes; it’s hard to think they could extract any more value from him.

The good news for Philadelphia is that it’s still early. By trading for Butler in November rather than right before the trade deadline, the team could see how its new Big Three jelled and where new holes arose, and still have time to adapt accordingly. Midseason buyout options are always a possibility, as Philly found to its benefit with Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova last season, and the 76ers have plenty of goodies to entice trading partners. In addition to all of their own draft picks, they hold eight extra picks spread across the next three drafts, including juicy selections like Miami’s 2021 first-rounder and a second-rounder next June from Chicago, which will likely end up in the 30-35 range.

For now, though, the roster with Butler seems stuck with the same overarching issues that plagued the roster without Butler. Part of the problem is that Philadelphia already boasted a stellar starting five, so even another All-Star could make only a marginal improvement. The current starters have a net rating of plus-15.2 points per 100 possessions in 122 minutes together, which rates among the most effective in the league in that span, but among high-volume lineups last season, the Sixers’ five of Simmons, Redick, Covington, Saric, and Embiid produced the absolute best net rating, at plus-21.

Depth remains a concern beyond the core group, as Wednesday’s loss in Toronto showed: The Raptors broke open a close game with a 13-2 fourth-quarter run with all five starters on the bench. Philadelphia couldn’t dream of such supplemental production around its stars at this point. The stars might be good enough on their own to win most nights. But both Simmons and Embiid struggled on Wednesday, and the team was at least one role player, maybe two, short to pick up their slack.

It’s also still unclear how Simmons’s particular style will translate to the playoffs, after Boston throttled the 76ers offense last May, and it’s worth noting that in two games against the Raptors this season, Simmons has been harassed into 18 turnovers with only 19 points in exchange. Philadelphia should at the very least prepare for the possibility that the postseason will exacerbate the problems his lack of shooting wreak once again.

Philadelphia as an organization has undergone a tremendous amount of turmoil in the past six months, from a scandalous GM change, to parts 4, 5, and 6 of the Fultz story, to the Butler trade. The addition of a true third star has been a net positive for the roster but hasn’t much budged the team from its secondary place in the Eastern hierarchy. If the problems look too much like last season’s, Embiid could be the difference-maker as he matures into the most dominant center in the sport. But he’s already shouldering an immense workload, having played 47 percent of his previous career high in minutes through just 32 percent of the season. If anything, the 76ers should work to limit some of his present production to conserve his famously tenuous body for the playoffs. The question is: With all their close games and all their difficulties finding production outside the starting five, can they afford to make that tradeoff?