The most impressive number the Sixers have put up this season?
Twenty-four. As in 24 years old, an age that neither Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid nor Dario Saric had reached until Embiid got there on March 16. Saric will join him when he celebrates his 24th birthday on April 8. But for record-keeping purposes, this counts as their 23-year-old season, which makes the Sixers’ trio of rising stars a historic anomaly.
That they are on the court as often as they have been is a rare enough thing. Heading into this season, since the introduction of the three-point line in 1979-80, only four teams in the NBA had finished a year with three first- or second-year players under the age of 24 averaging 30-plus minutes per game. But the thing that crystallizes the Sixers’ achievement this season is the fact that none of those four teams won more than 38 games.
Coming off Saturday night’s impressive wire-to-wire win against the Timberwolves, the Sixers are 42-30, have clinched a playoff berth, and are 1 1/2 games behind the Cavaliers for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.
But even the Sixers’ win total does not tell the complete story of how abnormally productive Embiid, Simmons and Saric have been as a collective. A better benchmark might be the performance of the starting five that they anchor. Heading into Monday night’s game against the Nuggets at the Wells Fargo Center, no five-man lineup in the NBA had outscored opponents by a wider margin than the Sixers’ starting unit, whose 240-point differential is nearly 50 percent greater than the next closest teams.
Best five-man lineups in NBA by point differential (min.: 400 minutes played together)
1. PHI (Embiid-Simmons-Saric-Redick-Covington) +240 points
2. OKC (Westbrook-George-Anthony-Adams-Roberson) +162 points.
3. MIN (Towns-Butler-Wiggins-Teague-Gibson) +162 points
4. TOR (Lowry-DeRozan-Valanciunas-Ibaka-Anunoby) +153 points
5. WAS (Beal-Porter-Gortat-Morris-Satoransky) +135 points
6. GSW (Curry-Durant-Thompson-Green-Pachulia) +78 points
Last week, before the Sixers ran the Grizzlies out of the Wells Fargo Center in a 119-105 victory, Memphis coach J.B. Bickerstaff took a few moments to marvel at their ability to win in spite of their youth. Bickerstaff has plenty of experience with young teams, having served as an assistant in Charlotte in 2005-06 when the 26-win Bobcats featured rookie Raymond Felton, second-year player Emeka Okafor, and a 23-year-old Gerald Wallace, as well as in Minnesota when the Timberwolves’ rotation featured seven players age 24 or younger. The reason the Sixers have been able to have success is their young core’s rare willingness to share the ball
“They’re unselfish players, naturally,” Bickerstaff said. “What makes it difficult is young guys always feel like they are playing for or earning their next contract. But [the Sixers] have been fortunate to have a group of guys who are very unselfish basketball players by nature. And that always makes it easy. Talent is one thing, but you don’t win in this league without chemistry. And they seem to have found the right fit with one another.”
The closest comp to the Sixers current situation is probably the 2008-09 Thunder, which featured rookie Russell Westbrook and second-year players Kevin Durant and Jeff Green (that trio accounted for 42.5 percent of Oklahoma City’s minutes that year, compared with 37.4 percent for Simmons, Saric and Embiid). But the Thunder only won 23 games that season. The next season, they won 50.
Granted, the Sixers are a bit of a special case. While Simmons, Saric and Embiid have a combined five years of playing experience, their rights have belonged to the Sixers for a combined 10 years. At 23 years old as of Feb. 1, Embiid is three years older than Durant was as a second-year player. Still, what they are doing this season is without precedent.
The only other teams that have seen three first- or second-year players younger than 24 average 30-plus minutes a night in the three-point era are the 2002-03 Warriors (Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson, Troy Murphy), the 1994-95 Bullets (Juwan Howard, Calbert Cheaney, Chris Webber), and the 1982-83 Mavericks (Mark Aguirre, Jay Vincent, Rolando Blackman). This year’s Lakers also fit the bill, with Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball each averaging 30-plus minutes per night.
The Lakers, though, are 32-40.
Therein lies the real accomplishment of the Saric-Embiid-Simmons group. In Jahlil Okafor and Michael Carter-Williams, we’ve seen how misleading a young player’s counting stats can be when he plays on a team where he is far and away the top offensive threat. The difference with the Sixers’ current group is that the production of the whole has been equal to or greater than the sums posted by each of the individual parts. Not only are they scoring, and rebounding, and assisting, but they are doing so with an efficiency that is almost unheard of for players who are at this stage of their careers.
“Once we play together and focus on winning, not focus on individual players or anything like that, we are a great team,” Simmons said after Saturday night’s win over the Timberwolves. “We are only getting better.”
That’s a daunting reality for the rest of the league.