The Sixers are still searching.
They’re halfway through the regular season and have yet to arrive upon a dependable identity.
Early in the season, there were hints that they’d done so. The team embraced a physical, attacking defensive style and a post-heavy offense sparse on pick-and-rolls. We thought they’d found it, in fact, after that Halloween scrap against the Timberwolves that seemed to captured the toughness and “bully ball” mentality Brown had said he wanted to see.
Nothing stuck, though.
Before the team’s 101-95 loss Monday night to the Pacers, Brown was asked for his definition of the Sixers' identity. He didn’t pretend he had a firm answer.
I think we’re learning,” he told reporters. “I know what I want it to be. To say, ‘Yep, that’s what it is’ would not be true. It’s changed even more now without [Joel Embiid] for a while. … We’re still figuring some stuff out. We have an opportunity — and I’ll use that word — to sort of solidify what’s life like without Joel. We miss him terribly — we’re completely different on both sides of the ball. But when we inherit Jo, when we absorb Jo back into the list when he does become available to us, we’re hoping that there’s been a little bit of momentum with our guys to grow that. So, to sort of anoint ‘this is who we are after the halfway mark,’ it’s difficult for me that do that.
Brown’s response was honest, if not satisfying.
Against Indiana, he coached like he was grasping for solutions. He put Raul Neto in the game late in the third quarter ahead of Trey Burke, made Josh Richardson the primary ball handler in the fourth quarter and didn’t play an available James Ennis for the first time this season.
The results were mixed. Neto scored seven points in under four minutes, though he fell victim to T.J. McConnell’s relentless hustle as the former Sixer poked free a steal from behind the oblivious Neto that led to a Justin Holiday dunk on the other end. Richardson was tremendous in the final period, scoring 17 of his 23 points and nearly saving the game.
One imagines Ennis could have been valuable on a night in which the Sixers’ bench was outscored by the Pacers’, 31-18. The Sixers shot 6 for 33 as a team from three and Furkan Korkmaz was 1 for 5 in his 23 minutes.
There have been many unfortunate circumstances that help explain why the Sixers haven’t yet reached the level or clarity they’d like. Embiid’s injury — he's set to be re-evaluated in 1-2 weeks after undergoing surgery for a torn ligament in the ring finger on his left hand — and the general lack of health among the starting five is most obvious. The Sixers’ preferred starters have only played in 19 games together.
The team’s poor outside shooting the last two games has obviously not been beneficial. They shot a combined 15 for 70 from three-point range (21.4 percent) against the Mavs and Pacers. When open look after open look is missing, desperation isn’t an irrational response. In that context, the second-half lapses on defense haven’t been surprising either.
“We’ve gotta execute,” Tobias Harris said. “We’ve gotta execute better on both ends. We’ve gotta get stops and we’ve gotta make plays. I think the first half defensively, we were pretty locked in. Second half, we let too many easy ones go their way. So, it’s an overall thing. And it’s on us to figure it out. Look, we can sit here and we can discuss everything about it and what went wrong every possession, but at the end of the day it’s the five guys who are on the court that go out there and get the job done and figure it out.”
We’ve seen enough to know that offensive issues are most pressing. The Sixers sit 17th in offensive rating and sixth in defensive rating. We also know they’ve been tremendous at home (18-2) and woeful on the road (7-14).
The Sixers are now 4-6 this season without Embiid and quite clearly a better team when he’s on the floor. His presence patches up various holes and makes the team less reliant on consistent offensive output from others. Simmons has been brilliant in his last two first halves, totaling 31 points on 14 for 18 shooting. He posted a combined four points on 1 of 10 shooting in the second halves of those games.
The question of Embiid and Simmons’ fit together is on hold for now, but it will resurface at some stage. A change (or changes) in personnel before the Feb. 6 trade deadline could shift things, too.
“Philadelphia hard,” Brown said of what he hopes his team’s identity will be. “Defense. Philadelphia hard. It’s a blue-collar city. It’s how I see the world, and that needs to be the starting point. And then you get down to the obvious stuff you’d say. Ben Simmons isn’t slow, and so you want to jump on him — he’s got the ball, you want to play fast. It’s probably easier to achieve that when you don’t have the need to — and it’s a great need — Joel Embiid is an All-Star and still is our crown jewel, make no mistake about that.
“So, trying to find him in the post and play through him when he does come back, that split kind of personality offensively is a challenge at times, but that’s where it will end up. And for sure, that’s where it will end up in the playoffs. That’s what we’re trying to achieve.”
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