The Philadelphia 76ers have no business being 7-2.
Ben Simmons has yet to make his season debut for a myriad of reasons. Tobias Harris is in health-and-safety protocols after testing positive for COVID-19. Danny Green has missed the past two games after suffering a hamstring injury Monday. And Joel Embiid looks like a shell of the player who finished as the MVP runner-up last season.
The Sixers have played each of their last three games without at least three starters, yet they head into Saturday’s rematch against the Chicago Bulls on a five-game winning streak. Rather than going off the rails, they’ve raced out to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Seth Curry and Tyrese Maxey deserve plenty of credit for keeping the depleted Sixers afloat. But free-agent additions Andre Drummond and Georges Niang have likewise been critical to their early-season success.
With three players on max or near-max contracts, the Sixers didn’t have much financial flexibility with which to pursue roster upgrades this offseason. The still-unresolved Simmons trade saga only further complicated matters for team president Daryl Morey.
The Sixers had to decide whether to limit themselves to the $5.9 million taxpayer mid-level exception or dip into the $9.5 million non-taxpayer MLE. Had they done the latter, they would have been prohibited from exceeding the $143 million apron at any point this season.
Seeing as they currently have $142.9 million on their books this season, the non-taxpayer MLE route was a non-starter. That limited Morey to only $5.9 million in spending power this offseason outside of minimum contracts.
He wound up using $3.3 million of that taxpayer MLE to sign Niang to a two-year, $6.8 million contract. The Sixers also signed Drummond to a one-year, $2.4 million minimum deal, preserving the remaining $2.6 million of their MLE for a potential midseason addition.
Nine games into the season, both players have been massive upgrades over their predecessors, Dwight Howard and Mike Scott.
“It’s funny, this summer we had two pickups that no one talked about,” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers told reporters after Monday’s win over the Portland Trail Blazers. “Everyone who was around me, I said, ‘We have two really good pickups and nobody knows in Drum and Georges.'”
Niang came to the Sixers with the reputation of a sharpshooter, having knocked down at least 40 percent of his three-point attempts in each of the past three seasons. He’s living up to that in Philadelphia, as he’s shot 23-of-55 (41.8 percent) from deep so far this year. Scott, Niang’s predecessor, shot only 34.2 percent from three-point range on much lower volume last year.
All but one of Niang’s made threes so far this season were catch-and-shoot attempts, but he isn’t just a one-trick pony. Only two of his 14 made two-point field goals have come after zero dribbles.
While Niang’s primary value to the Sixers is from beyond the three-point arc, he hasn’t been afraid to mix it up by attacking off the dribble at times. He’s averaging a career-high 3.4 drives after mustering only 1.7 per game in 2019-20 and 2.0 per game last season with the Utah Jazz.
Prior to this season, Niang had never scored more than 6.9 points per game in any of his first five seasons in Indiana or Utah. This year, he’s averaging a career-high 11.9.
“Georges is just a heavy player,” Rivers said Monday. “He can play the 4, he can play the 5. He brings the ball up a lot, which I think helps our offense. He takes pressure off our guards. His constant movement. Picks. And then he’s just tough. He’s not scared to get in the fray, and I thought he did that tonight.”
Meanwhile, it’s difficult to imagine a better backup to Embiid than Drummond, who came to the Sixers with 595 career starts under his belt. Knowing that Embiid is likely to miss 15-20 regular-season games—he has missed at least 18 in each of the past five seasons—having a proven starting-caliber center is a necessity for the Sixers, not a luxury.
Drummond leads the team with 9.4 rebounds per game despite playing only 18.1 minutes off the bench. He isn’t as much of a scoring threat as Niang, but for a Sixers team that’s been struggling on the glass thus far—they’re tied for 23rd in offensive rebounding percentage and rank 25th in defensive rebounding percentage—the big fella has helped shore up a glaring weakness.
With Drummond on the floor, the Sixers are rebounding 30.4 percent of their own misses. With him off the floor, they’re snagging only 20.8 percent.
Much like Howard, Drummond is also a potent rim-runner and shot-blocker. But unlike Howard, he isn’t as prone to as many boneheaded offensive fouls or goaltending violations.
Drummond is a significantly better passer than Howard, too. He’s averaging 2.6 assists, which is only slightly below his career-high mark of 3.0 set back in 2017-18 with the Detroit Pistons.
Drummond’s flair for flashy passes leads to some horrific turnovers—he’s already had two games with four giveaways—but he’s far more adept at creating offense for his teammates than Howard was.
“He’s an excellent passer,” Rivers said Monday. “He likes to gamble with his passes quite a little bit. So that’s something that we’re talking about, but he had zero turnovers tonight, so that was good.”
The Sixers are outscoring opponents by 16.4 points per 100 possessions with Drummond on the floor and 16.2 per 100 with Niang, well ahead of anyone else on the team. Drummond (plus-13.7) and Niang (plus-12.1) also have the highest efficiency differentials on the team by far, per Cleaning the Glass. Green is the next-closest at plus-2.4.
When Harris and Green return, Niang and Drummond figure to slide back into smaller roles. However, they’ve cooked in the second unit alongside Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle and Furkan Korkmaz. That five-man lineup has a net rating of plus-19.6, albeit in a minuscule 51-possession sample size.
Considering the bargain-basement price that the Sixers paid for both Drummond and Niang in free agency, it’s fair to say the early returns have far outweighed the cost. And they might wind up being low-key factors in whether the Sixers can make good on their +1800 odds to win this year’s title, per FanDuel Sportsbook.