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Friday, October 21, 2022

Short-Handed Bucks Beat 76ers in Philadelphia

The "best offensive player of all-time" who is a "better scorer than Michael Jordan" and the self-proclaimed "Process" have led the Philadelphia 76ers to an 0-2 record to start the 2022-23 NBA season. James Harden and Joel Embiid put up superficially impressive individual numbers but did not play much defense in Philadelphia's 126-117 loss at Boston on Opening Night, and on Thursday night they lost their home opener to the short-handed Milwaukee Bucks, 90-88.

The 76ers have the full roster that they hope/dream will be able to win a title, while the Bucks are far from full strength. Three-time All-Star Khris Middleton did not play, and he is expected to miss the first few weeks of the season as he continues to recover from offseason wrist surgery. The Bucks are also without the services of Joe Ingles (torn left ACL suffered last season when he played for Utah) and Pat Connaughton (calf injury).

Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Bucks in scoring (21 points on 9-16 field goal shooting) and rebounds (13) while tying Jrue Holiday with a team-high eight assists. He is a dominant player without being ball dominant. TNT's Kenny Smith pointed out during the halftime show that Antetokounmpo regularly draws the attention of three or four defensive players. It should be added that Antetokounmpo is focused not on padding his individual numbers but on creating the best possible shots for his team--and his team is going to be a handful once they are at full strength. Antetokounmpo had a game-best +13 plus/minus number, but only three other Bucks had positive plus/minus numbers, with none of those numbers exceeding +3. Antetokoumpo committed just one turnover. The Bucks shot just .405 from the field, and the four starters other than Anteotkounmpo shot 13-44 (.295) from the field. Antetokounmpo can create open shots for his teammates, but he cannot make the shots for them.

Harden led the 76ers with a game-high 31 points on 13-24 field goal shooting while also posting a game-high nine assists plus eight rebounds. He appears to be in excellent shape, and in the first two games he has put up big individual numbers. He may also break the unofficial records for dribbles in a single game and dribbles in a single season. As TNT's Charles Barkley put it, "The Dribbler is back." That is not a compliment, but it is an apt statement. 

Joel Embiid is the 76ers' best player but--in case no one has figured this out yet--he does not have as strong of a personality or presence as Harden. Do not make the mistake of confusing Embiid's social media antics or at times demonstrative on court persona with leadership qualities or a strong presence; if Embiid had leadership qualities and a strong presence then he would be in shape all of the time, he would demand that his teammates be in shape, he would play hard all of the time, and he would demand that his teammates play hard all of the time. In short, he would be an MVP and champion like Antetokounmpo, instead of being someone whose career has been long on potential and short on tangible results. "Stat gurus" will scoff at this next sentence, but part of Embiid's problem is that he spent his formative NBA seasons on a tanking team that had no strong veteran presence; consequently, he never learned how to be a leader or how to be a winner, so even though he is very talented and even though he has developed his individual skills to some extent (but not to his full potential) he has yet to provide any reason to believe that he can lead the 76ers to an NBA title.

Embiid finished with 15 points on 6-21 field goal shooting. He had 12 rebounds, three assists, four turnovers, and a game-worst -10 plus/minus number. A player with his physical gifts and basketball skills should rarely--if ever--have a 6-21 shooting performance.

The 76ers' offense should flow through Embiid, but Harden has the ball in his hands and Harden will dribble the air out of the ball until he decides to shoot (or pass if he thinks he can pad his assist totals) without any concern that Embiid will assert himself. TNT's Shaquille O'Neal noted at halftime that Embiid should wait no more than three Harden dribbles before ducking into the paint and demanding the ball, but it is evident that Embiid is not going to do that. This is going to be a fun team to watch in the playoffs--assuming that you are rooting for their opponents!

The Bucks led by as many as 13 points, but the 76ers rallied to tie the score at 80 midway through the fourth quarter, and they took an 86-84 lead at the 1:43 mark after Harden drained a midrange jumper. The 76ers were clinging to an 88-86 edge before a defensive breakdown left Wesley Matthews open for what proved to be the game-winning three point shot with 24.7 seconds left. With just four seconds left, Harden missed an off balance runner and then begged for a foul call that he did not deserve. As Barkley noted after the game, Harden not only missed the shot but he missed passing to a wide open Tyrese Maxey. Brook Lopez closed out the scoring by splitting a pair of free throws.

The 76ers have 80 regular season games remaining, while the Bucks have 81 regular season games remaining. Both teams will have ups and downs, but this game provided a good microcosm of the strengths and weaknesses of each squad. The Bucks have size, versatility, a team-first ethos, and the best all-around player in the league. All they are missing right now is depth, an issue that should be resolved as soon as their three injured players return to action. The 76ers have two All-Star caliber players whose roles are not properly defined in terms of maximizing team success, they have other talented players who are often underutilized while Harden overdribbles, and they have some tough-minded wings who are good defensive players; the 76ers will pile up wins against the tanking teams and the other teams that lack top level talent, but when they face elite teams they will come up short more often than not.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:17 AM



At Sunday, October 23, 2022 4:17:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

0-3 now. I didn't see a contender before the season started and don't foresee them becoming one.

They are poorly coached, poor on perimeter defense and are at best 2nd round fodder

At Monday, October 24, 2022 8:46:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Using infallible "advanced basketball statistics," I have determined that the 76ers project to have an 0-82 record and are thus the worst team in basketball history.

That is only a slight exaggeration of the type of narrow-minded, spreadsheet-focused thinking that builds teams like the 76ers (and Daryl Morey's previous team, the Houston Rockets).

Perhaps when the 76ers faced the tanking Spurs they got confused and reverted back to the years that they spent tanking!

Seriously, though, by the end of the season the 76ers will probably win 45-50 games. They have enough talent on their roster to have a decent regular season. Their weaknesses will be fully exposed no later than the second round of the playoffs, the annual graveyard for Joel Embiid-led teams.

I don't think that Doc Rivers is a poor coach, but I am not sure that he is really coaching the 76ers now. This is Daryl Morey's team, and one of Daryl Morey's goals appears to be to prove how great James Harden is. Rivers' teams typically do not run isolation-heavy, dribble-dribble offense, but that is what they are doing now with Harden monopolizing the ball at the expense of Embiid and everyone else. That has Morey's fingerprints all over it, and if the 76ers fall short of internal expectations then I suspect Rivers will be the scapegoat.

At Monday, October 24, 2022 10:45:00 AM, Blogger beep said...

I am surprised Doc Rivers allows that and doesn't quit the job he has not much to say.

Also hiring Mike D'Antoni would be much more effective at making The Beard shine. Even otherwise mediocre (for NBA) PGs have their stats much inflated in his system.

At Monday, October 24, 2022 11:46:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Doc Rivers (and all NBA coaches) get paid a lot of money, and perhaps that influences what each coach "allows" or doesn't allow.

It would not surprise me if Morey gets rid of Rivers and hires D'Antoni.

While it is true that PGs shine under D'Antoni, it is also true that D'Antoni has never led a team to the NBA Finals.

I have asserted for a decade that Harden will never be the best player on a championship team, and I have expressed skepticism that he will ever be even the second best player on a championship team. Third option--assuming that Harden accepts that role--is about right for him, but Morey will never relegate Harden to third option (and I am not sure that Harden would accept that role, anyway--he clearly did not accept the notion of being relegated to that role in OKC).

At Monday, October 24, 2022 12:02:00 PM, Blogger beep said...

I get that perfectly, the more money one earns the more he "allows", but there is also a pride in the job one does and after earning literally hundreds of thousands $, one could allow himself to "screw it, just do it".

I never asserted D'Antoni was good at getting anywhere with his flashy style. I think hiring him would basically signal everyone that GM doesn't care about winning it all. Let's be honest, if we know that, then anyone with two brain cells in NBA knows that too. It may not be popular opinion or one that is voiced anywhere publicly, but it is kind of common knowledge imho.

At Monday, October 24, 2022 2:37:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Speaking in general because I am not privy to the specifics of Doc Rivers' situation, it is my observation that no matter how much money a person makes people tend to do whatever they can do to make more money, even at the expense of pride. In short, guaranteed millions to coach an NBA team is not easy to turn down, even if the work environment is less than optimal.

We already know that Morey either does not care about winning or does not understand how to win. If he cared and/or understood, he would not have built the Rockets around Harden, and he would not be in the process (pun intended) of squandering Embiid's prime years to showcase Harden.


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