Why are the Sixers struggling? How can they turn it around?

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Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers watches from the bench in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Laurence Kesterson)

Through the first four games of the NBA season, the Philadelphia 76ers are 1-4. It’s a small sample at the start of a long season, but the Sixers have to get rolling.

After opening 0-3 with losses to the Bucks, Celtics, and, surprisingly, the Spurs, the Sixers were able to get in the win column against the Pacers but then fell to the Raptors. While the team hasn’t looked good, there are some good and a lot of bad that they’ve shown.

The Sixers’ stars

James Harden seems to be in better shape and free of the hamstring issues that hindered him for parts of two seasons. To start the season, Harden is playing nearly 38 minutes per game and putting up very good numbers. Currently, he’s averaging 25 points per game to go along with 8.2 rebounds and 9.6 assists. While those are what we typically see from Harden, its’ him shooting 47.7%% from the field and 39.5% from three, which is encouraging for the team. But Harden can’t be the only one.

Joel Embiid is averaging averaging 27.6 points to go along with 10 rebounds and 1.4 blocks, which are all pretty good numbers. Embiid is shooting 52.1% from the field but just 27.8% from three. His work, to start the season, hasn’t been up to his usual standards of the past two seasons.

In their first two games, Embiid was turning the ball over at a record pace, which has calmed a bit over the last two games, yet, at just under 4 per game, still not a good number. Embiid should be used in the low post, where he’s able to abuse other teams who don’t have the physical players to match up with him. He’ll be able to pass out of the post for open shooters instead of trying to do it all himself.

Speaking of openness, shooters. Tobias Harris was shooting 42.5% from three while attempting almost seven per game coming into last night’s game against the Raptors. While putting up 12 points and 6 rebounds a game wouldn’t seem like a lot, as the fourth option in the offense, Harris is making do with his touches and making teams pay for leaving him open.

He’s adjusted his game to be ready and willing on more catch-and-shoot threes than in past years, and as teams have seen, when they close out on him, he’s able to move inside and take his defenders off the dribble.

Tyrese Maxey hasn’t started off as he left off last season. He’s averaging 20 points per game but shooting an “okay” 37.9% from three. Compared to last year’s 42.5% when he was not only the best shooter for the Sixers, but the third-best from deep in the league, this can’t hold up. Maxey, once the team gets in sync, will fix this, he’s already begun to do so, but it’s not ideal at the start.

While their “big four” have been doing well, the rest of the Sixers’ team isn’t pulling its weight. The bench has been poor to the eye and statistically. What was supposed to be a strength going into the season hasn’t looked much better and, a lot of the time, worse than last year’s reserves. So, what happened?

What’s going wrong for the Sixers?

In short, coaching. Doc Rivers has recently, as well as throughout his coaching career, failed to understand how to use younger players or athletic players to match up defensively with opposing teams. Can’t be true? Well, look at 37-year-old PJ Tucker, who’s shooting 41.7% from three, but he’s playing over 30 minutes a game, including 33 and 39 in the first two games of the season.

At his age, and this is not slight to Tucker, he won’t hold up for the entire season and playoffs if Rivers continues this trend. Along with Tucker, who’s a starter, De’Anthony Melton was brought in to provide defense as well as bench scoring. He’s averaging 7.4 points per game but only getting 18.8 minutes per game. That is unacceptable for an active and talented 24-year-old who, in his limited minutes, is already averaging 1.6 steals per game.

With Melton and Thybulle on the floor, teams shouldn’t have a lot of open passing lanes in the backcourt. We’ll never know that since Matisse is playing just a minute and a half per game. While Melton, as well as Daniel House Jr., are both getting in around 18 minutes per game, players like Georges Niang, who’s shooting 41.2% from three, Paul Reed, Thybulle, Shake Milton, and even Montrezl Harrell aren’t on the floor more than a couple of minutes per game. This is all on Rivers.

For years with the Sixers, there’s been an argument from some that he’s not been a good coach, and that he was carried by the title he won in Boston for almost 15 years, allegeding that makes him a great coach. (Although recently, comments were made by Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett that they would openly ignore what Rivers told them to do in Boston because it made no sense.)

Rivers, as he did last year while playing DeAndre Jordan over Paul Reed, has chosen to really abuse Tucker and is ignoring Harrell, who was brought in to give Embiid a rest, as well as using Reed in smaller lineups.

What makes it more disturbing is that Embiid is on the floor for 35 minutes per game, despite the fact that it’s come to light that he’s had a foot injury over the summer and isn’t in the shape that he anticipated starting the season. Rivers, in essence, is setting up what should have been a championship-contending team to really feature reserves later in the season as players break down. If the situation is addressed by upper management and addressed quickly, the Sixers will be falling apart in no time at all.

Rivers recently was quoted as saying that the Sixers “are not ready to win yet.” That wasn’t the tune he was singing after a 5-0 preseason, and it’s not what you’d expect a coach to say of a championship-caliber team.

The Sixers have some tough games coming up, including a second game against the Raptors, as well as the Suns, Bulls, and Hawks. If Rivers can’t suddenly become the coach the Philadelphia needs or Daryl Morey doesn’t realize it’s time for a change, the Sixers may find themselves in a hole they can’t get out of.

At some point, the Sixers may discuss taking a page out of the Phillies’ book from this season and replace the coach with his assistant hoping for lightning to strike twice in the city. This isn’t anything like the fans or team expected, but it’s the situation at hand, and it needs to be handled quickly.