The Philadelphia 76ers are the NBA’s greatest enigma.
At home, the Sixers are a powerhouse. Their 25-2 record speaks for itself, but that number still fails to encapsulate their impressiveness in their own arena. The 20-point drubbings of the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, the teams with the best record in each conference, add a little context. As does the 30-point rout against the Miami HEAT back in November.
Outside the Philadelphia city limits, though, the team has looked downright feeble. Their 9-19 road record, while fittingly bad, also lacks context. For that, look no further than the 30-point beatdown dished by the same HEAT team, or the 20-point waxing handed to them by the Boston Celtics.
To say the Sixers have been two different teams is an understatement. They have been playing two different sports.
How does this wide of a gap come to be? Is it simply an effort issue, as some believe, or is there something more going on here? To best answer that question, Basketball Insiders did a little research on all 28 of these road games, broken into stretches. The statistics are taken from the Cleaning the Glass game logs unless otherwise noted.
The First Two Weeks
For the first stretch of road games, the Sixers had moderate success. The started the season 3-0 on the road with wins over the lowly Atlanta Hawks and Detroit Pistons, and then a wild win in Portland that saw them come back from down 21 late in the game.
They did lose Joel Embiid to a suspension and Ben Simmons to a shoulder injury in this stretch, so the ywent 0-3 to close out a west coast road trip against the Phoenix Suns, Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets.
Each of those games was hard-fought, however, and came down to the wire. The Sixers put themselves in a position to win against good opponents.
In summation, the first two weeks of road games went about as you would expect given the circumstances. The Sixers went 3-3 in this stretch, with four of those games and all three losses coming without one of their two best players. They probably should’ve lost in Portland, but it can be argued they should have won in Denver. The effort level in these games was not of much concern and there was no reason to set off any panic signal just yet.
The Rest of November
Record: 2-3, 5-6 overall
While the effort level may have sufficed over the first two weeks of road contests, it did not continue. The Sixers went down to Orlando after a two-game homestand and were trounced by the Magic 112-97. It is notable that this was the second night of a back-to-back and without Joel Embiid yet again, but that still does not excuse the low energy level that becomes clear on the stat sheet.
The Sixers only attempted 17 shots at the rim and 13 free throws in this game. You can credit the Magic defense for some of that, but a team with Ben Simmons and Al Horford playing should be able to carve out a little more space inside. They also rarely go out in transition in this game, something that should’ve been a priority with a Simmons-centric lineup. This can be chalked up as the team’s first truly worrisome road performance.
The Sixers then lost a very tight game on the road in overtime to the Oklahoma City Thunder. This was also the first game they lost on the season with the full starting lineup available. They followed that tight loss up by taking care of business against the Cavaliers in Cleveland.
The next road game came up north against the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors, who have had a lot of success defending the Sixers dating back to last season, shut them down again and most notably held Embiid scoreless.
Not only did the Raptors stifle Embiid, but they also kept the Sixers out of the paint and out of transition as a team. The Sixers were able to keep it close by going 15-for-38 on threes and outrebounding the Raptors by 11. The Sixers received a lot of criticism for this loss and rightfully so, but the Raptors’ defense also deserves credit here. This one should go in the outplayed by a good team column, rather than lack of effort.
The Sixers would close out their November road schedule by eking out a six-point over the New York Knicks. While the margin is concerning, a win is a win. The team imposed their will in that one, getting to the charity stripe for 40 attempts.
That brought the team to 5-6 on the road. A mediocre record for a team with title aspirations, but given the context of only two of those losses coming at full strength and only being truly blown out once at the hands of Orlando, it wasn’t so bad.
Onward to Christmas
Record: 2-2, 7-8 overall
The Sixers entered December looking like a pretty formidable team. Undefeated at home with some impressive beatdowns, they seemed like a tough out in the playoffs.
After a few more home wins, the Sixers took to the team bus once again, this time heading south down I-95 to Washington D.C. to play the Wizards, who were near the bottom of the East standings. The Sixers laid what was probably their second true egg of the season in this one, falling 119-113. They were without the services of Josh Richardson in this one, who had recently pulled his hamstring.
A sign of weak effort, the Sixers transition defense was horrid in this game. They allowed the Wizards to score 1.5 points per play after live rebounds. The Wizards shot eight more free throw attempts than the Sixers, nabbed five more offensive rebounds and won the turnover battle 21-11. All of that combined led to the Sixers dropping one to a weaker team while shooting 48 percent from three.
After this, the Sixers returned home for three more wins before heading up north to face the Celtics. Before this game, Embiid had a quiet night against the Nuggets, which prompted the ire of Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal. The criticism seemed to light a fire, as Embiid dominated the Celtics in Boston, leading the Sixers to their best road win.
It wasn’t just Embiid who came to play. The Sixers, who were without Al Horford in this game, outrebounded the Celtics by 12, took four more free throws and only turned the ball over 11 times. They also shot 50 percent from three.
The three-point shooting is an outlier, but the rest of those statistics are replicable based on the personnel if the effort is there.
Two games later, the Sixers did not replicate that effort. They fell by 20 points in Brooklyn to the Nets, who were without Kyrie Irving. The Sixers were without Joel Embiid themselves and unable to get anything going offensively.
They only attempted 15 shots at the rim and 17 free throws, compared to the Nets’ 44 attempts and 18 free throws. They shot 5-for-26 from three as well, en route to an offensive rating of 87.8.
The Nets, starting a lineup featuring Taurean Prince as the nominal 4-man, outrebounded them by 13, which included 12 offensive rebounds. The effort culminated in the Sixers’ third true egg-lay of the season.
The Sixers went back out on the road right before Christmas to play the Pistons in Detroit and actually took care of business in this one. They dominated the glass, won the turnover battle and played solid transition defense.
Heading into the Christmas showdown with the Bucks, the Sixers were 7-8 on the road, with only one of those losses coming while at full strength. Three of the losses could be largely attributed to effort issues.
The Disney on Ice Trip From Hell
Record: 0-4, 7-12 overall
When Disney on Ice rolled into the Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia was feeling good about its basketball team. The Sixers had just dominated the best team in basketball on Christmas Day, putting the league on notice in regards to how good they could be.
Rather than feed off of the momentum from that win, the Sixers sputtered. At full strength, they could barely muster any offense against the Magic in Orlando. The effort statistics seemed to be there. The rebounding battle was tight, transition defense was not an issue and the Sixers attempted more free throws than the Magic. In this game, some bad shooting and a good Magic defense held them to 97 points in a one-point loss. The game ended with Horford missing an open three to win at the buzzer.
The very next night, the Sixers stayed in Florida to play the HEAT. The team lost another tight one, falling by one point in overtime. Similar to the Magic game, the Sixers rebounded well and attacked the paint, but were unable to seal the deal late. In fact, Tobias Harris missed a dunk late that would’ve put the Sixers up five. Embiid followed that miscue up by allowing himself to get stripped with the Sixers up three with less than 20 seconds left. The ensuing fastbreak led to a Tyler Herro three-pointer to tie the game.
With two winnable games lost, the Sixers marched on to Indiana for a New Year’s Eve Matinee and got roasted by the Pacers. Embiid missed this one, so the Sixers were once again not at full strength, but it was unlikely his presence would have made any difference. The Pacers shot 55 percent deep while the Sixers shot 15 percent. Perhaps the holiday had something to do with it, but this was another laid egg on the road.
After that beatdown, the Sixers headed to Houston where they were handled by the Rockets. They once again shot very poorly from three and had difficulty keeping the rockets out of the paint defensively. It wasn’t a debacle like the Pacers game, but it was the culmination of a four-game road losing streak that dropped the team to 7-12 on the road.
Embiid Injury to Present Day
Record: 2-7, 9-19 overall
After the four-game losing streak, the Sixers regrouped with a win at home over the Oklahoma City Thunder, but lost their star center to a dislocated finger. The Sixers would go 2-3 in their five road games without Embiid.
The first two of these came against the Mavericks and Pacers. The Mavericks made short work of the Sixers, just as they did in Philadelphia before Christmas. It’s safe to say the effort wasn’t there in this one. The Mavericks outrebounded the Sixers handily and got to the free-throw line at a much higher rate. The Sixers also shot 23 percent from deep compared to the Mavericks 40 percent.
Two days later in Indiana, the Sixers put forth a much better effort, but fell in a tight one to the Pacers. They actually had a lead in the fourth quarter but were unable to generate any offense down the stretch. They did do a solid job of defending and controlling the glass.
Almost a week later, the Sixers went back on the road for three straight games against the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors. The Sixers eked one out against the Knicks and then put together one of their best road efforts of the season against the Nets. The Sixers defense’ took over the game in that one, racking up steals down the stretch to seal a victory.
The last road game without Embiid came up in Toronto, where the Sixers ran into a tough Raptors team that controlled the paint. The Sixers took a ton of threes in this game and hit 40 percent of them, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the lack of scoring around the basket.
The Sixers kept that game close for most of the contest and did a good job of getting out in transition. The Raptors just outplayed them in this one.
After this, the Sixers came home for a big win over the Lakers before heading back out on the road for their most recent four-game trip. The Sixers would be without Richardson for this trip, as he pulled his other hamstring a week earlier. Embiid would also be playing with a heavily taped left hand.
It started in Atlanta, where the Sixers were outrebounded by a very small Hawks team. They were also unable to guard Trae Young all night. This one could be attributed to lack of effort on the defensive end as the Hawks had their way with the Sixers interior.
After letting that one slip, the Sixers embarked on a brutal three-game stretch which just recently concluded against the Celtics, HEAT and Bucks. They lost all three.
In terms of effort, the games against Celtics and HEAT were sorely lacking. Both games were not close. The defense was especially bad in Miami, where the Sixers gave up 138 points per 100 possessions. In both the Celtics and HEAT games, the Sixers allowed those teams to control the paint and get to the free-throw line.
The game against the Bucks saw a much better defensive effort, but one that wasn’t good enough to overthrow the team with the league’s best record. The offense floundered in this one as the Sixers could not get into the paint yet again.
Now that we’re all caught up, here are the key takeaways from the road struggles.
The Sixers have played eight games on the road with their full starting lineup available, in those games, they are 4-4. Three of those losses came on the Disney on Ice road trip, and all of them were within one score late in the game except for the loss to the Rockets.
The road struggles truly became an issue post-Christmas, as the Sixers are 2-11 on the road since then. Before Christmas, the Sixers were 7-8 on the road and 4-1 when the full starting lineup played.
A lack of effort played a large role in at least seven of the losses. The first Magic game, the Wizards game, the first Nets game, the first Pacers game, the Mavericks game and the most recent Celtics and HEAT games. The rest of the games, the effort level was at least high enough to not show up on the stat sheet.
The Sixers as a team are shooting much better at home on the road, as most teams do. The issue is that when the shots are not falling, the defense seems to slip. The Sixers go from a league-best 101.9 defensive rating at home to a middling 110.8 on the road. The key for the Sixers going forward will be bringing their defensive mindset with them to other arenas.
Basketball Insiders asked head coach Brett Brown about this after a recent game at home against the Grizzlies.
“I think it’s human nature, sadly,” Brown said. “It’s the great challenge coaches go through, if teams always let their offense dictate their defense, it means they’re really not that good of a team and they’re not going to be playing that long. The connection is real and it’s a human nature thing. It’s easier to play defense when you’re happy and scoring, and it’s tougher when you’re grinding it out. But grinding things out equals May and June. That’s the miss that I am on as it relates to stuff going on on the road with us.”
Brown is right, the offense will only become more of a grind as the playoffs begin. If this team has any chance of advancing into June, they will need to commit to the defensive end even when the offense isn’t working.
Basketball Insiders asked Horford the same question.
“Coach has talked about that. He’s told us that, regardless of how it’s going, we need to have that defensive mindset and that toughness to stay together,” Horford noted. “At times we haven’t been as consistent as we need to, but earlier in the year, I thought we were really, really good at that. It’s something that we need to continue to do regardless of whether shots are going in or not, we have to defend and rebound.”
Horford’s comment about the Sixers being better at that earlier in the year lines up with the numbers. As mentioned, the road struggles really became jarring after Christmas.
Given the record with the full roster, it may be too early to sound the panic button just yet. If the team continues to lack a defensive edge on the road, though, Philadelphia could be staring down the barrel of a first-round exit.
If this group is able to make the mental changes required to become as good defensively on the road as they are at home, then all the talk of the Sixers being built for the playoffs may come to fruition.