Matt Haughton

Give and Go: How dangerous is Sixers' 3-game road trip?

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Give and Go: How dangerous is Sixers' 3-game road trip?

Each week, our resident basketball analysts will discuss some of the hottest topics involving the Sixers.

Running the Give and Go are NBC Sports Philadelphia anchor/reporter Marshall Harris and NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com producer/reporter Matt Haughton.

In this edition, we examine the Sixers’ upcoming three-game road trip to Cleveland, New Orleans and Minnesota.

Harris
With a 13-11 record, including back-to-back home losses to the Suns and Lakers, all of a sudden the three-game road trip through Cleveland, New Orleans and Minnesota looks much more daunting. I have the Sixers going 2-1 on the trip. However, things could easily go badly and the Sixers could have a five-game skid on their hands.

Cleveland is a loss. Sometimes you just have to accept the reality that regardless of how a team performs, it's not taking down LeBron James and the Cavs without its best player. With Joel Embiid sitting out Saturday (see story), pulling off the upset goes from unlikely to nearly impossible. James is coming off a loss to Victor Oladipo and the Pacers. They're not trying to lose two in a row.

That brings us to Sunday and a meeting with DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and the Pelicans. Look, A.D. is just returning from a groin injury, which caused him to miss three games before Friday's loss to the Kings. This should be a fun game with Embiid back and picking up where he left off with last season's butt-slapping love fest with Boogie. I've got the Sixers winning a close one, thanks in no small part to superior guard play.

That brings us to Tuesday's matchup with Minnesota. It may very well be the most difficult because of the addition of Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague to an already formidable duo of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. This is where I think Embiid will make his mark on the defensive end of the court. Want to be Defensive Player of the Year? Then show it with strong back-to-back interior displays against the Pelicans and Wolves.

If the Sixers can shoot closer to their averages from the perimeter on this trip than they did in the last two games of their homestand, winning two of three shouldn't be a problem. But things could go the wrong way in a hurry if the threes, in particular, don't get back to falling regularly.

Haughton
Things change fast in the NBA. To start this week, the Sixers were sitting in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference and looked poised to climb even higher with some winnable games on the slate.

A pair of ugly losses later, and now they are down in the eighth seed and could possibly fall out of extremely early playoff positioning with a rough road trip.

Speaking of the trip, I agree with Marshall that it opens with a loss. Even with Embiid, it was always going to be a difficult task to come out of Cleveland on the winning end. Throw in the center’s absence, the fact that the Cavs are upset about the end of their recent streak and James’ desire to remind the NBA world that Ben Simmons isn’t anywhere near his level yet, and you can pencil in a defeat.

Things should get good Sunday. Embiid will return to find himself locked in a battle of the bigs against Cousins and Davis. The Sixers can only hope Richaun Holmes can duplicate his recent effort against the Lakers in New Orleans. Either way, the Sixers’ advantage in perimeter play should be enough to escape with a victory.

That leaves Tuesday’s clash with the Timberwolves. It should be another good one with Embiid and Towns locking horns down low while Robert Covington and Wiggins face off on the wing. However, Butler will make the difference for the T-Wolves. He has finally stopped trying to fit in with his new team and has taken over. Look no further than his averages of 26.0 points (50.7 percent shooting), 6.0 assists, 5.2 rebounds and 2.0 steals nightly averages so far in December.

A loss to the Timberwolves would put the Sixers at 1-2 on the trip and losers of four out of their last five games. That’s a stretch the young team would hope to avoid in the jumbled Eastern Conference standings.

First press conference foreshadowed Jahlil Okafor's time with Sixers

First press conference foreshadowed Jahlil Okafor's time with Sixers

It was a seemingly innocuous move. At least that’s what he thought.

Way back on June 28, 2015, Jahlil Okafor was introduced in Philadelphia after being drafted with the No. 3 overall pick. When the press conference was over, Okafor quickly dropped his jersey onto the stage and turned to walk away.

The reaction to the optics was way worse than the scene in reality. But in the end, the moment served as a precursor to Okafor’s time in the city: from the excitement of oozing potential to simply being discarded.

Okafor came to the Sixers with great fanfare. While he was the latest center to be selected in the lottery by the team, he brought certain elements that Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel did not.

First, Okafor had the polish. Noel, and especially Embiid, offered their own offensive gifts entering the league, but the 6-foot-11, 275-pounder was different. He was the old-school big man with the huge hands, swift feet and soft touch in the paint.

“Someone that can draw a double-team, and we don’t see those a lot in our league right now. We don’t see a lot … someone that can draw a double-team is enormously useful. Enormously useful,” former Sixers exec Sam Hinkie said of Okafor in June 2015. “That’s one of the things he can do. Someone that has hands that are as good as his, that can catch every ball thrown his way, that can do all sorts of things in the post, that can be a pick-and-roll player like that. That’s hard to find. That’s really hard to find, which is why you’ll hear people that have coached him and you’ll hear people that have been around him rave about him. We feel very excited to be able to take him.”

Then there was the pedigree. Okafor was an absolute winner. From city and state titles as a star at Whitney Young High School in his native Chicago to the 2015 national championship at Duke, Okafor reached the mountaintop at every level of basketball.

“Winning has always been my main focus,” Okafor said prior to his rookie season. “I have always hated losing. I am a sore loser. I do not take losing well. I have always been about winning because I have been winning my entire life.”

Perhaps the best thing Okafor had going for him was health. With Embiid and Noel missing seasons because of injuries, Okafor was ready to suit up from Day 1. 

And things were good for the big man at the start — well, besides that whole wanting to win thing. Okafor recorded 17.5 points on 50.8 percent shooting, 7.0 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.2 blocks per game during his first professional season en route to being named first-team All-Rookie.

While those numbers are all well and good, this is Philadelphia. Even low-post players that aren't centers learn to play with a certain oomph. The big man is simply held to a higher standard in the home of Center City.

After all, this is where Dolph Schayes pounded the glass. It’s where Wilt Chamberlain took steps toward becoming the GOAT. It’s where Bobby Jones hustled his way into fans’ hearts and Billy Cunningham leaped to one rebound after another.

This is the city where Caldwell Jones terrorized opponents, Moses Malone intimidated foes in the paint and Darryl Dawkins hammered rims into oblivion. 

It’s where an undersized power forward named Charles Barkley made people realize why he was called “The Round Mound of Rebound.” This is the town where Rick Mahorn and Derrick Coleman played with that beloved nastiness. This is the town where Theo Ratliff swatted shots out of the sky and Dikembe Mutombo followed suit with that signature finger wag.

So while Okafor caught the locals’ attention with all of the pretty spin moves and drop steps for buckets, it was always going to be the grit, or lack thereof, that let Philadelphia know who he really was on the floor.

A deeper look revealed everything you needed to see. Okafor capped that rookie season with an average of 7.0 boards a night, but 17 times in 53 games that year he ended with five rebounds or less. 

Then there’s the defense. Forget not being good enough on the defensive end of the floor, Okafor couldn’t even be bothered. I mean, remember this:

He has a defensive rating of 110.0 per 100 possessions for his career. In other words, teams score 110 points for every 100 possessions Okafor is on the court.

“I have to make him holistic and point out defensive flaws,” Brown said in January 2016. “That’s my job, especially when you beat your chest and carry a flag about playing defense in this city. You can’t hide from anything.”

Okafor couldn’t hide anymore. Not from attacking opponents, fans’ criticism or even his own doubt about his skill set.

Throw in the off-court issues from that rookie season, including a Boston street fight and speeding across the Ben Franklin Bridge, and the writing was on the wall for Okafor. 

Then came the long-awaited and sensational play of fellow center Embiid last season and the writing was all over every single wall Okafor was forced to look at inside the Wells Fargo Center and the Sixers’ training complex.

Sure, the Sixers bungled the ending. They sent him home last season when they thought a trade was imminent only to be forced to bring him back into the fold when the deal fell apart. Then the organization had Okafor go through yet another offseason with the squad only to decline to pick up the fourth-year option on his contract.

“Honestly, I didn't want them to pick up my option,” Okafor said last month. “I’ve been going through a lot since I've been here. So the fact that I know that at the end of the season I would at least have an opportunity to play elsewhere, that's great. Now I'm just in a position to where, how can I get on the court? That's not happening here. I want to play.”

It’s all water under the bridge now — more specifically the Brooklyn Bridge — after the Sixers dealt Okafor, Nik Stauskas and a second-round pick to the Nets for Trevor Booker.

Now Okafor gets a second chance to prove he was worth all of the buzz entering the NBA. Hopefully, for him, he doesn’t get quickly discarded yet again like that jersey from his introductory press conference.

Give and Go: Examining Sixers at quarter pole of season

Give and Go: Examining Sixers at quarter pole of season

Each week, our resident basketball analysts will discuss some of the hottest topics involving the Sixers.

Running the Give and Go are NBC Sports Philadelphia anchor/reporter Marshall Harris, NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com producer/reporter Paul Hudrick and NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com producer/reporter Matt Haughton.

In this edition, we analyze the Sixers’ biggest strength and weakness at the quarter mark of the 2017-18 season.

Harris
The Sixers’ biggest strength at the quarter pole is their ability to bang down low, specifically when it comes to rebounding. As a team, they lead the league in rebounds per game (49.6) and rebound percentage (53.5 percent). Joel Embiid leads the way, but it goes well beyond the man in the middle. Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, Robert Covington and Amir Johnson also all have the ability to register double-digit rebounds any given night. The end of most successful defensive possessions is a rebound and the Sixers are able to rebound better than anyone else to this point.
 
All that rebounding comes in handy when you examine what the Sixers’ biggest weakness has been so far. It’s a problem that’s plagued the Sixers throughout Brett Brown’s tenure, but it’s to be expected with a young, fast-paced team. No one turns it over more times a game than the Sixers (17.5 per game) as 16.8 percent of their possessions end in turnovers. While that’s bad, the Sixers only allow an average of 17.7 points per game off turnovers. It’s not ideal, but there are nine teams that allow more.
 
This could go either way the rest of the season. Think of how good the Sixers can be if they continue to dominate on the glass. On the other hand, think of games that can be lost if they don’t tighten up the ball security. Let’s reassess at the halfway point.

Hudrick
Although it’s still not exactly where it should be, the Sixers’ depth is the best it’s been in what feels like forever. Their starting lineup alone features five players that can all score the basketball in a variety of ways. 

The bench has been more up than down. T.J. McConnell has been tremendous and his absence was felt as Kyrie Irving ran amuck against the Sixers Thursday night. After a slow start, Amir Johnson has provided solid minutes from the backup center position. Richaun Holmes, a strong backup in his own right, hasn’t been able to get off the bench when Joel Embiid plays. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Jerryd Bayless can both have a role. But as we’ve seen, if they’re asked to do too much, they can be exposed.

It’s hard to be disappointed in much from a team that’s on a 48-win pace that I thought would struggle to go .500. It was already mentioned by Marshall, but the turnovers have been a big issue. Embiid has been one of the bigger culprits in this category (4.1 turnover per game), but this is all new to him. He still needs to a do a better job of what Brett Brown calls “quarterbacking the gym.”

I can live with the turnovers that come as a result of the Sixers’ breakneck pace. If they can clean up the turnovers in the half court, they should be just fine.

Haughton
I’m going off the board a bit for the biggest strength and say the team’s togetherness. One thing Brett Brown has never been lacking for is an ability to motivate. Even when his teams were devoid of talent and healthy bodies during previous seasons, Brown was always able to put a group on the floor that competed to the final whistle. More importantly, the Sixers never came unraveled amid the mounting losses.

Now that he has a vastly improved roster, Brown’s handling of things has remained the same. With emerging superstars (Embiid, Simmons), high-priced free agents (JJ Redick), undrafted gems (Covington, T.J. McConnell) and even disgruntled players (Jahlil Okafor), the coach has managed to maintain the pulse of the evolving locker room. That’s not easy in today’s NBA.

One thing Brown hasn’t been able to get a handle on during his time in Philadelphia, as Marshall mentioned above, is turnovers. In his four full years at the helm, the Sixers finished 30th, 30th, 29th and 30th in turnovers per game. So far this season, the squad is dead last again.

The Sixers should certainly make the postseason barring any major injuries, but their stay will be short lived if they don’t learn to value the basketball at some point.