76ers

Fit doesn't matter if Sixers can't fix 'soft' defense

Fit doesn't matter if Sixers can't fix 'soft' defense

There’s been a lot of talk about offensive roles and how the Sixers’ three stars fit.

None of that means a damn thing if the Sixers don’t start playing better defense.

On Friday night, they were beaten on their home floor by the Hawks — a team ranked 20th in the league in scoring — 123-121 (see observations). Atlanta shot 55 percent from the field and 48 percent from three. The loss comes two nights after they allowed the Wizards to shoot 54 percent from the field and 48 percent from three.

A big part of that issue is their lack of perimeter defenders off the bench. Furkan Korkmaz, who at times has provided a nice spark, has struggled mightily on that end of the floor. On Friday, Brett Brown played the 21-year-old only four minutes after a couple defensive miscues.

“When I go back and watch the game in Washington, it was disturbing watching our bench guard,” Brown said. “We have to get better. Opportunities for Jonah [Bolden] or Shake [Milton] or Landry [Shamet] or Furkan — we’re counting on them. We play them. They’re in the rotation …

“In general, those young guys that I just mentioned, we’re going to try to grow them and do it with patience, but do it with a level of a sting where it’s just the NBA and it’s not good enough right now. We need more and I believe it’s in them.”

Personnel is certainly a factor, especially considering that Defensive Player of the Year candidate Joel Embiid missed the game with a right ankle injury. 

Still, you have a lineup featuring players like Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons. With all due respect to rookie Kevin Huerter, who was impressive, there’s no way he should’ve dropped a career-high 29 Friday. 

There was clearly something more than Embiid missing.

I think we were just too soft,” Simmons said. “I think defensively, we are not taking it personal enough when guys score on us. It should be a pride thing. When someone scores on you, you should be frustrated every time. I think that comes with age. We have a lot of young guys, but at the same time, we have to expect more from each other to get that and to get to the next level so then once playoff time comes, it’s another level.

This is a team and head coach that's always prided itself on defense. Last season, the Sixers finished third in the entire NBA in defensive rating. They’re currently 12th. 

Adding a player like Butler, one of the best two-way wings in the game, should be helping that. While it’s no fault of Butler’s, the team’s struggles remain despite his presence.

While Butler didn’t want to use the word “soft” to describe his team’s play, he did think that the Sixers as a team are too reliant on Embiid. 

Luckily it still has time to find answers on the defensive end.

“Ain’t nobody pointing fingers at anybody,” Butler said. “We got plenty of games left, we just got to fix it. I think we’re going to be fine. All I know is, everybody’s in there. We’re in it together, we’re not going separate ways. Stay as a whole, win and lose as a team.”

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Joel Embiid wants to be 'the best to ever do it,' and he knows what it will take to be part of the conversation

Joel Embiid wants to be 'the best to ever do it,' and he knows what it will take to be part of the conversation

CAMDEN, N.J. — Many of us are shy about sharing our ambitions, worried we’ll look foolish if we don’t reach them. Joel Embiid is most definitely not one of those people. 

When asked about his free throw shooting after Friday’s practice — he made 20 of 21 in the Sixers’ win over the Celtics on Wednesday — Embiid said he wasn’t satisfied.

“I think I should be a 90 percent free throw shooter,” he said. “Obviously I gotta work on that, spend more time and get better at it. [81.6 percent] is not good enough.”

That’s a lofty goal; Dirk Nowitzki is the only 7-footer to make at least 90 percent of his free throws in a season, per Basketball Reference. But Embiid has much, much bigger things in mind.

Obviously I want to be the best Sixer to ever play here. To do that, I gotta win championships. Obviously, I’m sure the stats are going to come with it because of the opportunity these guys give me every single night. But it’s all about winning. When you win, of course your name is going to be mentioned with the best, and I want to be the best. Not just [best] Sixers player ever, but I want to be the best to ever do it. And it’s going to take a lot. It’s going to take my teammates’ help, the coaches, the whole organization and the fans.

Embiid isn’t just casually throwing the idea out there that he wants to be the greatest of all time. He’s studied the history of the game and understands how difficult it will be to even break into that discussion. In a piece by Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck in January, Embiid said, “To me, the GOAT has always been Wilt Chamberlain.” Embiid knows it won’t be easy to overtake a man who once averaged over 50 points and over 25 rebounds in a season.

He told Beck in January, "I don't like shooting threes. I just do it because, you know, spacing. I gotta space the floor and make sure that my man never helps off of me.”

His perspective on the subject sounds like it may have shifted. A 29 percent three-point shooter this season, Embiid thinks he’s capable of being a much more efficient player from behind the arc.

“Obviously my three-point shot is still a work in progress," he said. "I’m sure I’m going to get to a point in my career where I’m shooting 40 percent. Whenever I get to that point, that’s really the last thing. Last summer was really the first time I got to work on my game. My handle got better, but there’s still so much work I still have to do … I've got a long way to go.”

Watching Embiid night after night, it’s easy to become numb to how dominant he already is. In his last two games, against two of the Eastern Conference’s elites in the Bucks and Celtics, he’s posted a combined 77 points and 39 rebounds. He’s not near Chamberlain’s status yet, but he very well may be — if he can stay healthy — on a trajectory that one day makes him a valid part of the GOAT conversation.

After being around Embiid for just six weeks, Tobias Harris is already amazed by his ability, and maybe even a little jealous.

“Joel, he’s really, really good at basketball,” Harris said. “Against Boston, he was doing some moves where I had to ask myself, ‘Can you do that move?’ And I said, ‘Probably not.’ His skill level is through the roof for somebody with his size. He’s just going to continue to get better, too. He still has a lot of things that he can grow with his game and I think that’s the scary thing about him.”

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NBA Eastern Conference power rankings: As Bucks limp to finish line, Sixers starting to look dangerous

NBA Eastern Conference power rankings: As Bucks limp to finish line, Sixers starting to look dangerous

In this edition of our Eastern Conference power rankings, things are getting interesting at the top as we inch closer to the playoffs.

1. Bucks (53-19) Last ranking: 1
Milwaukee had one of its toughest weeks of the season. After the Bucks lost to the Sixers at home, they beat the Lakers before losing to the lowly Cavs. The biggest culprit is the injury bug which has ravaged their deep roster. Giannis Antetokounmpo missed two games with an ankle injury. Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic are both out for an extended period. George Hill and Sterling Brown are also out. Milwaukee is limping to the finish line.

2. Raptors (51-21) Last ranking: 2 
There’s a chance Toronto could catch Milwaukee, though the Raptors are dealing with injury issues of their own. Kyle Lowry missed their win over the Thunder and will miss the rematch Friday night. Kawhi Leonard is still on his back-to-back restriction. The other thing I’m still curious about is Marc Gasol. He’s been OK. Meanwhile, Jonas Valanciunas has been really good for Memphis. He had a monster 33-point performance against the Rockets and has averaged 19.4 points over his last 11 games.

3. Sixers (47-25) Last ranking: 3 
Don’t look now, but the Sixers are the hottest team in the NBA. They’ve won six straight — including wins over Milwaukee and boogeyman Boston — and are now 7-1 when all five members of their new starting five are in the lineup. The Sixers have one of the easiest remaining schedules, but it seems unlikely that they’ll catch the Bucks. They appear to be a near-lock for the three seed.

I’m keeping them at three here only because of the body of work this season. With that said, the Sixers have to be looked at as a team nobody wants to face in the postseason. We’re just eight games into “Sixers 3.0.” This new starting unit may just be scratching the surface. Scary.

4. Celtics (43-29) Last ranking: 4
Boston continues to be one of the most confounding teams in the NBA. On some nights, they look unbeatable. On other nights … not so much. There still appears to be a struggle to mesh Kyrie Irving’s abilities as an iso player with Brad Stevens’ offensive system. It’s also evident that the Sixers picked on Irving defensively with great success Wednesday night. We won’t truly learn about the Celtics until the playoffs begin.

5. Pacers (44-29) Last ranking: 5
Indiana has dropped four in a row and that’s to be expected while missing All-Star Victor Oladipo and having one of the toughest schedules in the league to close out the season. The Pacers are clinging to the four seed but will likely drop and face off against Boston in the first round.

6. Pistons (37-34) Last ranking: 8
Detroit came back down to earth after its ridiculous run, but this is a team that’s figured some things out. The Pistons will go as far as Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond will take them, but it’s the recent resurgence of their perimeter players like Reggie Jackson, Wayne Ellington and Langston Galloway that’s fueled their recent success.

7. Nets (37-36) Last ranking: 6
I did struggle to drop Brooklyn because they did have a brutal road trip that took them to Oklahoma City, Utah, Los Angeles (to play the good L.A. team), and Sacramento. As their monster comeback against the Kings — in which D’Angelo Russell dropped 44 — shows, they can be wildly entertaining when playing well.

8. Heat (35-36) Last ranking: 7 
Miami is doing its best to hang on to that eighth seed with three impressive wins this week over the Hornets, Thunder and Spurs. Goran Dragic is rounding into form since returning to the lineup and has given Miami a huge boost off the bench. He averaged 22.3 points in the three wins and shot a sizzling 64 percent from three.

9. Magic (34-38) Last ranking: 9 
Orlando kept pace with Miami, winning three in a row as well. All three wins occurred after the arrival of Michael Carter-Williams. Coincidence? Yes, definitely.

10. Hornets (32-39) Last ranking: 10 
Charlotte gave the Sixers quite the scare, but it’s looking like the Hornets will come up short in their quest for the playoffs. It’s not surprising. All season in this space we referenced the need to get Kemba Walker help. That help never came.

11. Wizards (30-43) Last ranking: 11
Thomas Bryant looks like he might be a legitimate prospect. Other than that … #FreeBradleyBeal

12. Hawks (25-48) Last ranking: 12 
You have to respect what Lloyd Pierce is doing in Atlanta. The Hawks are coming off a nice win against Utah and Trae Young is making a late push to overtake Luka Doncic as Rookie of the Year. They won’t be a pushover for the Sixers Saturday.

13. Bulls (21-52) Last ranking: 13 
Same deal with the Bulls, who look like they might have something with the quartet of Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr. and Wendell Carter Jr. Though they’re playing to win, it would be something if they got the No. 2 pick and wound up with Murray State’s Ja Morant.

14. Cavs (19-53) Last ranking: 14 
Speaking of Morant, he’s looking like one hell of a consolation prize if Cleveland can’t get the No. 1 pick (again). A backcourt duo of Collin Sexton and Morant could run a few teams out of the building.

15. Knicks (14-58) Last ranking: 15 
They’re watching the NCAA Tournament with bated breath, hoping Zion Williamson gets delivered to them healthy.

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