The Sixers have a real chance to go undefeated at Wells Fargo Center in 2020.
They dropped two December games in the arena last season, winning 29 others. If that magic carries over to the first few games of this campaign, they’ll finish perfect in Philadelphia during perhaps the oddest calendar year in NBA history.
Of course, the most mystifying aspect of last year’s Sixers team might have been the extreme disparity between its home and road performances. The 2019-20 Sixers went 10-24 in true road games and 4-4 in the NBA’s Disney World bubble before being swept by the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs.
What does head coach Doc Rivers make of it?
“The home-road disparity, I don’t know what contributed to it,” he said earlier this week. “I have my thoughts that I will not share, but I do have my thoughts. But that can’t happen, obviously — especially when you look at their overall record and you do a deep dive on their wins and losses. They were phenomenal at home, almost unbeatable at home. They were very beatable on the road. And then they lost to a lot of sub-.500 teams, as well, so that’s something we’re going to try to improve — we have to improve if we want to be a better team.
“You just can’t live on your offense. And that’s not just our team, but teams that don’t do well. Your offense will let you down. Sometimes in the moment you need it you will, meaning guys may have great shots the entire night and the ball just doesn’t go in. That’s being human; that happens. But you can still win the game. If we can get that type of confidence that we’re going to win whether we make shots or not, it would make us a heck of a force.”
The Sixers’ offense did indeed falter regularly on the road. Some of that can likely be chalked up to especially poor luck over the course of a season. For instance, the Sixers made 42.0 percent of their “open” field goals at Wells Fargo Center (closest defender four to six feet away) and 37.0 percent of their open road field goals, per NBA.com/Stats.
Another factor, one Tobias Harris identified last season, was a tendency to allow halting offense to turn into lax defense.
“Sometimes when the offense isn’t good or the offense isn’t flowing, it does affect the defense,” Harris told reporters. “It shouldn’t, but it’s kind of been how we’ve played. … It’s something that we’ve got to get out of, because we’ve had our success from the defensive end and letting that create our offense, and I think we’ve got to get back to that.”
As Rivers said, offense isn’t always reliable. The Sixers’ certainly wasn’t when Al Horford, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid were simultaneously inclined to post up, or when Harris was forced to find shots at the end of possessions that featured minimal ball or player movement. Rivers hopes an emphasis on quickening the Sixers’ pace and the addition of three-point marksmen Danny Green and Seth Curry leads to fewer frustrating nights, but he’s correct that jumpers don’t always fall and great players sometimes miss easy shots.
At home, the team had an external form of accountability. On the rare occasions when the Sixers’ energy or defensive effort faded, they heard boos. The message was loud and impossible to misinterpret.
“… I think we’ve got to be comfortable in uncomfortable times — in times of conflict, in times where if I’m not doing my job, I want somebody to cuss me out,” Josh Richardson said after the Sixers' series loss to Boston. “That’s just what I grew up in, that’s what I came from. I’ve seen good teams and conflict and accountability is a big part of that.
Whatever internal accountability deficiencies the Sixers had, they apparently didn’t matter much when thousands of fans had no qualms about making the team uncomfortable. (Obviously, the Wells Fargo Center crowd mostly liked what it saw last season and usually spurred the Sixers to keep playing exactly like they were.)
With fans absent in most arenas to begin this season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the usual reasoning about what impact fans might have goes out of the window, as Rivers knows.
“It’s a great question,” he said. “I would say this: I know the Philly fans help. There are certain fan bases that literally bring energy to a building. We all know Madison Square Garden, Boston and Philly — off the top of my head, that’s three right away. When you walk in the building, there’s a different electricity, there’s energy. The home teams feed off of that. When I was in Boston, we were almost unbeatable at home. We were the same team when we went on the road, we just didn’t have the fans come with us.
“And on the road, the fans are against you, and we’ve got to use that as energy. You should feel good that you’re selling out road arenas. They’re cheering against you because they look at you as somebody that they all want to be. You’ve got to embrace that. That should be part of your energy, and we have to turn that into that.”
At some point in the future, Rivers will hope his Sixers savor the challenge of the road. But for now, they’ll mainly be playing in front of empty seats and need to supply their own energy and accountability.
For better and for worse, that means a replication of last year’s gaping home-road disparity looks exceedingly improbable.