Halfway through the regular season, Sixers look a bit desperate in their search for identity

Halfway through the regular season, Sixers look a bit desperate in their search for identity

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 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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Sixers pursued 'high-level, accomplished' executives before hiring Elton Brand as general manager

Sixers pursued 'high-level, accomplished' executives before hiring Elton Brand as general manager

In the wake of the absurd scandal involving Bryan Colangelo and burner Twitter accounts, the Sixers searched for their next general manager and handed Brett Brown the job on an interim basis. Eventually, they promoted Elton Brand.

He was certainly not their first choice, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

“When they opened that job up, when Colangelo was gone and before they promoted Elton Brand, they went after any number of high-level, accomplished executives around the league,” Wojnarowski said on The Woj Pod. “They were willing to offer Daryl Morey, Bob Meyers, Dennis Lindsey, Sam Presti. There may have been more.”

Brand’s only previous executive experience was as the GM of the Sixers’ G-League affiliate, the Delaware Blue Coats (formerly the 87ers). It makes sense that the Sixers would have preferred more established candidates.

The Sixers were “rebuffed” in their efforts to hire Morey, The New York Times’ Marc Stein reported in July of 2018. A mentor to former Sixers GM Sam Hinkie, Morey won the NBA’s Executive of the Year Award in 2018 and is still GM of the Rockets. 

Stein also reported the Sixers “commissioned a clandestine run at prying Myers away from the Warriors that was likewise rebuffed.” Myers has served as the Warriors’ general manger since 2012 and won three championships with the team.

Lindsey is the executive vice president of basketball operations for the Jazz, while Presti has been GM of the Thunder franchise since 2007. 

The Sixers had an interview with former Cavs and current Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin but, according to The Inquirer’s Keith Pompey, “felt he wasn’t a good fit for their front-office structure” and wanted to “make collaborative decisions instead of a GM who will have the final say.”

In July of 2018, Sixers managing partner Josh Harris told NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Amy Fadool, “It’s very consensus-oriented, there’s a lot of people in the dialogue, and we want to make sure we find the right fit for that.”

Wojnarowski noted on the podcast that Harris and the Sixers’ leadership above Brand remain influential.

“Ownership’s got a lot of say in Philly," he said. “You’ve got a group of owners that are involved, that are there. How many team have multiple owners courtside each corner of the arena, each night?

Brand has made several major moves since assuming the GM job in September of 2018, including trading for Jimmy Butler, shipping Markelle Fultz to Orlando, trading for Tobias Harris and then signing him to a five-year, $180 million deal this summer, and giving Al Horford a four-year contract with $97 million guaranteed. At 37-23 this season and 9-21 on the road, Brand’s roster has not performed the way he envisioned. 

Wojnarowski and Max Kellerman also talk about expectations for the rest of the Sixers' season, the history of Sam Hinkie’s Process and more on the podcast, which you can listen to here

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Tobias Harris is blocking out outside noise about big contract, trying to carry Sixers

Tobias Harris is blocking out outside noise about big contract, trying to carry Sixers

When you’re given the largest contract in the history of a storied franchise like the Sixers in the city of Philadelphia, you’re going to face scrutiny.

Tobias Harris has gotten his fair share since inking a five-year, $180 million near-max deal this past offseason. The 27-year-old hasn’t consistently provided the scoring needed to complement Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

Though at times, like Thursday night against the Knicks, Harris has looked like the player GM Elton Brand traded for and then chose to re-sign as a franchise cornerstone. 

With Embiid and Simmons both on the shelf, this is the version the Sixers need to see a lot more of.

“At the beginning of the game, had some good looks going,” Harris said. “We had good pop to our flow, to our offense, and was able to get some just in-the-flow plays. Once I'm able to get into the flow and the ball is able to move around, that's where I'm at my best. And I just carried that throughout the game.”

Harris, who was one off his Sixers high with 34 points, has said since he arrived before last season’s trade deadline that he flourishes in systems with good ball movement. That’s likely why he’s shot the ball better from three with Simmons on the floor (37.5) than off (29.5).

Simmons leads the NBA in assists on threes whereas with Embiid, his methodical approach in the post can make the offense stagnant at times. With both off the floor, Harris will have to do more to get his own shot.

Brett Brown admitted after Thursday’s game that he’s simplified the offense with his two All-Stars out. Against the Knicks, Harris just attacked mismatches all night, punishing smaller defenders in the post and driving on New York’s bigs.

“With those two out, we'll have to find our identity of how we're going to play,” Harris said. “You saw tonight, we had a lot of just wide-open looks out of the initial pin down action either between Al [Horford] and [Josh Richardson] or Al [Horford] and [Alec] Burks so we got a lot of easy ones going and just were able to go at different mismatches that we felt.”

The trio of Harris, Horford and Richardson struggled in Cleveland, going 12 of 35. They all had bounce-back games of some sort, but it was Harris who likely got the most heat and responded in the biggest way.

Does he feel like it’s his responsibility to carry the team right now because of the large investment the they made on him?

“I would be naive to think there’s not a hint of that,” Brown said. “I think he’s really competitive and if you paid him a nickel or $170 million, I think that you’re going to get a highly competitive player. ... He’s very prideful. That’s why he’s good. 

“He’s trying to do his part obviously to earn his keep, but I think it’s way deeper than that. I think he just wants to be on a winning team for a long time and try to help steer this program to trying to find, at some point, a championship.”

With the fans, there's a sentiment of Harris being overpaid, so not much is made when he hangs 34 on a bad Knicks team. It makes sense. Fans would rather root for an underdog like Shake Milton, who's come out of nowhere to earn important minutes.

Harris has become a leader and a respected player in the Sixers’ locker room. That’s his only concern.

“There's obviously outside noise that comes involved with [signing a big contract],” Harris said. “I always look at it like the only noise that really carries weight for me is noise in our locker room, and with the guys on our team and coaching staff. I truly believe that you can ask every single one of them in the locker room, the value that I bring to this team, on and off the floor, and they will vouch for that. That's the credibility that I go with. ... So I just try to do my job on a daily basis, be a professional every day and go to work.”

With 22 games left and the Sixers trying to claw their way up the East with their All-Stars banged up, Harris will have ample opportunity to show his value to everyone else.

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