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Will the Sixers Cough Up Their Chance at a Title?

Joel Embiid is dominating at an MVP level, but Philly’s offense as a whole may need more help to fix one big problem

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 76ers’ offense should be better. The components are in place to be. Joel Embiid ranks second in the league in scoring, en route—perhaps—to an MVP trophy. Offseason addition Seth Curry is making 45 percent of his 3s. Tobias Harris has a career high in efficiency.

Yet the offense ranks just 13th in overall efficiency—about six points per 100 possessions behind Brooklyn and Milwaukee, their two closest contenders in the East. Last season’s Lakers (11th) are the only team since 2010 to reach the Finals without having a top-10 offense, and the 2003-04 Pistons (19th) are the last team to win the title ranking any lower.

The 76ers could stand to shoot more accurately as a group, but perhaps an even greater culprit behind this relative disappointment is the team’s turnover troubles. According to Cleaning the Glass, which strips out garbage time, Philadelphia ranks 27th in the league in turnover rate—its worst position, by far, in any core statistic. The team could use a steadier hand just as the trade deadline approaches. That need might be why recent rumors have linked Kyle Lowry to his hometown team.

This is a long-running problem for Philadelphia, dating back to the early days of the Process. For seven of the past eight seasons, the 76ers have ranked among the most turnover-prone teams in the league. Last season was the exception—but now Philadelphia has reverted to coughing up the ball far too frequently.

76ers’ Turnovers

Season Rank
Season Rank
2011 1
2012 1
2013 2
2014 30
2015 30
2016 29
2017 30
2018 30
2019 25
2020 13
2021 27

The 76ers’ turnover problems start with their two stars: Among active players, Embiid and Ben Simmons both rank in the top 10 in career turnovers per 100 possessions.

For Embiid in particular, turnovers stand out as the one blight in his otherwise dominant offensive profile. Out of 37 qualified players scoring at least 20 points per game, Embiid’s assist-to-turnover ratio is last by a wide margin. He’s at 1.01 assists per turnover; nobody else in that group is below 1.28.

In part, Embiid’s low assist-to-turnover ratio reflects his unique place in the modern NBA. Other big men in the 20-points-per-game group are offensive hubs, like Nikola Jokic, Nikola Vucevic, and Domantas Sabonis. Zion Williamson is now a dynamic pick-and-roll ball handler. Embiid, conversely, has never been an ace passer or ball handler; even if he looks better at times on film, his overall assist numbers this season are right in line with his career averages. (That goes for passes that don’t lead directly to assists, too: Embiid is averaging only 0.4 “secondary assists” per game, according to NBA Advanced Stats.)

As the Raptors exposed in a pair of games near the end of February, when they compensated for a size difference by swarming the big man, Embiid can suffer from a loose handle when pressured. The Raptors felt especially comfortable crashing on Embiid when he shared the floor with 76ers reserves—many of whom are shooting poorly from distance this season, cramping the team’s spacing possibilities.

In all three plays in that clip, Embiid’s turnover not only stalls an offensive possession for Philadelphia, but leads to fast-break points on the other end. In this way, the 76ers’ turnovers influence their defensive rating, too: The 76ers rank third in the league in half-court defense, per CtG, but they’re allowing the fourth-most transition opportunities to their opponents. Only the Timberwolves, Cavaliers, and Pistons—perhaps the three worst teams in the league—rate worse.

The 76ers’ greatest source of turnovers on a per-minute basis is not Embiid, however. That would be Dwight Howard, his backup, who is collecting offensive fouls like pet snakes. Howard is second in the league in total offensive fouls this season (25), behind only Giannis Antetokounmpo (29), despite playing only about half as many minutes as most others near the top. (Fellow 76er Simmons, with 22, is in third.)

Howard has amassed 1.6 offensive fouls per 36 minutes—a truly astounding statistic. For context, nobody else with at least 500 total minutes played this season is even at one offensive foul per 36 minutes. In the entire play-by-play era (beginning in 1996-97), only Danny Fortson for the 2004-05 SuperSonics had a worse offensive-foul-per-minute rate than Howard has this season.

Howard led the league in offensive fouls every season from 2007-08 through 2012-13, as well as 2017-18, but that came when he was an offensive focal point playing big minutes. This is a different story. Most of Howard’s offensive fouls come via moving screens and the establishment of post position. The internet adores videos of people falling down, so here’s a compilation of Howard knocking people over this season. (Some of these clips might involve a generous amount of flopping from the defender; alas, they count as offensive fouls nonetheless.)

The 76ers don’t need to panic, as a propensity for turnovers is not prohibitive for a contender; just last season, the Lakers ranked 23rd in the regular season in turnover rate, and place 25th now. But turnovers have conspired to limit the 76ers’ ambitions before: In their seven-game loss to Toronto in the 2019 playoffs, they turned the ball over 110 times versus the Raptors’ 73, a difference of 51 percent.

Which leads back to Lowry, an architect of that 2019 playoff defeat, and the obvious trade target if president of basketball operations Daryl Morey wants to make a great cannonball splash at the deadline. Lowry—a Philadelphia native and Villanova star—would certainly add ballhandling oomph in the backcourt without compromising the team’s broader advantages. It’s hard to spot any weaknesses in a Lowry-Simmons-Curry-Harris-Embiid closing group.

Lowry could also help stabilize the team’s non-Embiid minutes, which offer another frightening parallel to that 2019 Raptors series. This season, the 76ers are 19.3 points per 100 possessions better with Embiid on the court than off, according to CtG—the widest margin in the league among rotation players. When Embiid sits, the offense musters just 104.7 points per 100 possessions, worse than the worst offense in the league.

Whether Toronto wants to trade Lowry is a different question. Despite a .500 record, the Raptors are within a point of the 76ers in net rating, with especially encouraging results since moving to a small-ball lineup.

That could lead Morey to search for a backup option instead. George Hill would fit the bill as a steady ball handler and heady defender who also led the league in 3-point percentage last season in Milwaukee. Now with the Thunder, Hill hasn’t played in a month due to a thumb injury, but he should return before the deadline.

But with Embiid, Simmons, and Howard, plus an unproven set of young reserve guards, the 76ers aren’t set and steady just yet—either as a holistic roster, or when handling the ball.

Stats through Monday’s games.