76ers

Joel Embiid's fitness level already a concern for Sixers

Joel Embiid's fitness level already a concern for Sixers

Joel Embiid didn’t earn Defensive Player of the Year or All-NBA First Team center last season.

He had the chance to go head to head and outperform the big men that took those honors last season. Instead, he had a poor second half in Utah Wednesday and followed it up with a rough performance Friday night in Denver.

Though Rudy Gobert didn’t really get the better of Embiid, Nikola Jokic had a monster fourth quarter and made a difficult, clutch shot with 1.2 seconds left to cap the Nuggets’ 21-point comeback win (see observations).

In the two games since returning from his suspension, Embiid has shot a combined 11 of 33 and committed 11 turnovers and 11 personal fouls. He’s looked lethargic and lackadaisical. He’s struggled to get back defensively and is settling for too many outside shots. He’s essentially running three-point line to three-point line instead of rim to rim.

“We’re growing Joel’s fitness base and trying to continually move that forward where he can be Joel Embiid,” Brett Brown told reporters postgame. “You know, tonight you can see that we’ve got some work to do. I think that he fought his heart out. I think that when we needed him, most times he was there. And we’re going to continue to just get him as healthy as we can and help put him in a position where he can be Joel Embiid.”

The fact that Jokic woke up and put up a 16-point fourth while Embiid continued to struggle wasn’t the only reason the Sixers lost Friday.

They somehow only scored 13 points in the fourth quarter after putting up 84 through three. They looked out of sync and were missing the decent looks they were getting. Perhaps fatigue was an issue for the entire team. Al Horford airballing a wide-open three from the top of the key with 15.7 seconds left seemed to encapsulate the horrendous final quarter for the Sixers.

While you certainly can’t blame blowing a 21-point lead on officiating, the refs didn’t do the Sixers any favors down the stretch. They were on the wrong end of two coach’s challenges — one took away an Embiid and-one and the other was a foul call on Embiid that should have been overturned but was not. On the Sixers’ ensuing possession after Jokic’s big shot, they called Embiid for a push off. The call was questionable as both players appeared to be jockeying for position and Jokic was holding Embiid’s jersey.

In any case, if you preserve the huge lead you have, you don’t leave the game in the hands of the officials.

“When I watched the replay, I didn’t really see any push off,” Embiid said. “If you want to call that foul, especially at that time of the game, I think that’s kind of BS. Especially because he was hooking me before that foul actually happened.

“But those are things we can’t control. We shouldn’t have let it get to that situation. We had a lot of turnovers, missed free throws. Our fourth-quarter offense wasn’t the same as the third. I thought that the first three quarters was the best that we’ve played. The ball kept moving and we kept finding each other and everybody stepped up. It was just unfortunate that it had to come down to that.”

But the storyline in this one was Embiid's health and fitness level.

It was the storyline for the entire 2019 postseason. Just eight games into the 2019-20 season and this is already a troubling trend. Embiid was forced to sit out the second game of the season with an ankle sprain. After missing just two games because of a suspension, he's looked completely gassed since returning.

Yes, altitude is a factor and Embiid has said many times that it’s very easy for him to get out of shape if he misses a game or two, but things have to change. 

Embiid is an All-Star and considered by most to be a top-10 player in the NBA. The Sixers are all in and part of that mindset is the idea that they have arguably the best center in the league. It’s just two games, but he wasn’t even the best center on the floor in Utah or Denver.

The questions about his health and fitness aren’t going away until he gets to the point "where he can be Joel Embiid."

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Brett Brown previews competitions for spots in Sixers' rotation

Brett Brown previews competitions for spots in Sixers' rotation

Al Horford has played in 13 NBA seasons. He’s now embarking on something close to a 14th.

“It felt like a new season, absolutely,” Horford said Sunday in a video conference call before the Sixers’ second practice at Disney World. “This feels completely new. … Coach is teaching everything, he’s putting us through things and we’re learning everything all over again.”

Horford and Furkan Korkmaz both felt positively about the Sixers’ practice Saturday in Orlando, which Brett Brown described as a competitive, fast-paced affair with 5-on-5 action. 

“As a team, I think we were flying,” Korkmaz said of the team's first practice since March 10. “I was not expecting that practice was going to look like that. … Everybody was trying to do everything, everything had the same desire. After four, five months, I didn’t think we were going to have a good practice, but it was a really, really good practice, so I was impressed.’

Brown sounded confident that the Sixers have returned at a satisfactory fitness base, something he’d prioritized during the NBA’s hiatus. He said Joel Embiid “especially stood out.”

On a strategic front, Brown previewed the jostling for rotation spots he anticipates over the next few weeks, and perhaps during some of the Sixers’ seeding games as well. Health permitting, Embiid, Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris will clearly be in the starting lineup. Otherwise, the composition of the rotation appears to largely be up in the air.

My mindset is I want to look at a set of 10,” he said. “I hope, as we lead up to this, to play 10 people. I think it’s going to shrink to nine at some point — for sure in the playoffs. My bandwidth, my net is wider right now because I really do want to see. I haven’t seen these guys for four months. You get into people like Glenn Robinson and Alec Burks and Mike Scott … and Matisse (Thybulle) and Furkan, and what are we going to do with Al? 

“There needs to be some decisions, and something’s gotta give. You’re not going to play everybody. But initially I hope to play 10 people. It could be you give X player the 10th spot today and you sit somebody — I don’t want to piecemeal minutes — and really give somebody a true opportunity.

Given Brown reiterated that he’s not “worrying too much” about seeding and potential playoff matchups, it wouldn’t be surprising to see playoff rotation minutes be at stake in some form for many of the team’s eight seeding contests. 

‘You’ve got a passport to what you remember’ 

For good reason, questions about whether the NBA’s endeavor to resume the season is wise and can be accomplished safely remain prominent. In the background of all the discussion about fitness and rotations and upcoming scrimmages is the awareness that the objective of playing sports indoors over several months during a pandemic may very well be rather tenuous, regardless of what precautions are taken. 

“We all worry about the virus, in some capacity, sneaking in,” Brown said.

And yet, one can imagine, the ability to enjoy the sport you love, away from all the worries and problems in the world, must provide relief. Brown captured that element well. 

“The freedom of a gymnasium is priceless,” he said. “You take off your mask and you’ve got a basketball in your hands, you’ve got a passport to what you remember and what you feel like brings you to a level of normality that none of us had.” 

The jersey discussion 

His framing of the issue was more diplomatic, but Horford thinks Mike Scott has a valid opinion on the NBA deciding to give players a pre-approved list of social justice messages they can include on the back of their jerseys. 

Horford said he went “back and forth” but will not be using one of the messages. LeBron James told reporters on Saturday he’s made the same choice.

“I kind of understand and share Mike Scott’s sentiment a little bit,” Horford said. “Even though this is a great platform for us to promote things, I think having the ability to kind of say what you want to say and leave it like that ... at the end of the day, everybody makes their own decision — whatever they feel is right, whatever they want to do.”

Scott had criticized the league for not allowing players to have input on the jersey idea.

“I’m all about just doing,” he said Monday, “instead of just saying or posting or putting something on the back of your jersey. I don’t think that’s going to stop anything."

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2020 NBA restart: What Sixers experienced in quarantine at Disney World

2020 NBA restart: What Sixers experienced in quarantine at Disney World

After the Sixers boarded the plane on Thursday afternoon to head to Orlando, Florida, to enter "the bubble" for the NBA’s restart, Tobias Harris got on the speaker before takeoff.

“Welcome back, y’all. Welcome back!”

The laughs echoed through the rows of empty seats (as mandated by the NBA’s health and safety handbook) on the Sixers' chartered plane.

Upon arrival to the Walt Disney World Campus, the entire traveling party was immediately tested for the coronavirus, both with a saliva test and two nose swabs. (These nose swabs are a much less invasive testing option, in comparison to the deep nasal swabbing that was originally used to test for the virus.) All players and staffers were then given a green wristband to indicate that they were officially in quarantine, which was in effect until Saturday morning, until both coronavirus tests came back negative. A green wristband indicates that a resident cannot leave their room, and security is in place to ensure all residents abide by the league's protocols. 

After testing on Thursday night, the traveling party made its way through socially distanced stations, like the "Health supplies station," to pick up items like Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer, before making it to their rooms, where they would reside for at least the next 36 hours.

Meals were provided three times per day and dropped off at each resident's door in compostable containers.

Multiple sources described the meals as "suspect."

An Instagram story from Joel Embiid showed beef ribs, chicken breast, mashed potatoes, pasta, two salads, pretzels, berries, a cheese and nuts plate, and a sandwich as one of the meal options.

Every member of the traveling party was provided with a daily health checklist, which includes taking a “symptom questionnaire” in the MyHealth app, and taking temperature and blood oxygen levels with the provided thermometer and fingertip pulse oximeter.

For the next 36 hours, players found different ways to occupy their time.

For Josh Richardson, quarantine meant watching Netflix, listening to music, and rearranging his room.

For others, like Ben Simmons and Mike Scott, it was spent playing video games (Richardson said on an Instagram Live that he could hear Scott on his gaming headset across the hall).

For rookie Matisse Thybulle, he started perfecting his videography skills in a video he put together documenting Day 1 in the "bubble."  

For Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic provided him entertainment from his balcony.

And for most, they just couldn’t wait to get the “OK” to get out of their room on Saturday morning.

“I've been looking out my window just trying to peep and see the other teams that are here,” Glenn Robinson III told NBC Sports Philadelphia. “I’m just happy to get out of the room!

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