Selfless Sixers are rising to sky-high expectations

Selfless Sixers are rising to sky-high expectations

We’re now two games into the Tobias Harris era and the returns have been impressive.

The Sixers are now 2-0 with Harris after a 143-120 win over the Lakers Sunday (see observations), with the starting unit playing at a flat-out dominant level when on the floor together. In two games and 30 minutes together, that five-man lineup is a plus-17.

With all of that comes heightened expectations. When Brand made the deal for Harris, many thought it could catapult the Sixers into the top spot in the East. 

It also comes with added pressure, something the Sixers are embracing.

“I’ll just be straight up, honest, the expectations are really high,” Harris said. “I was telling Mike Scott at halftime, I was like, ‘We’re up seven points and we kind of look like we’re down 17.’ But we were just kind of talking about the expectations of the team when you’re going into the game, you’re expecting to impose your will and that’s a good feeling."

What some may view as a daunting challenge to live up to the hype, the Sixers are looking at as an opportunity.

How many players in the NBA are in the position that the Sixers’ five starters currently find themselves in? Other than the Warriors’ starters, how many players find themselves surrounded by this overwhelming amount of talent?

There are certainly still kinks that need to be worked out, but the unselfish brand of basketball these guys are playing is a huge first step.

If any of the players in the starting unit are upset about touches or shots, they sure have a funny way of showing it. The Sixers are third in the NBA averaging 27.4 assists per game. They had 33 on Sunday to just eight turnovers.

At times, their ball movement is mesmerizing. 

“Our culture was built on sharing the ball,” Joel Embiid said. “Making sure the ball goes through everybody’s hands and at the end of it, if they need me or if they need a bucket or if the play is broken down, that’s when I come in … It’s all about sharing the ball.”

While the defense is a little bit behind, you certainly see the potential with all of the length and athleticism the players possess. Much like the selfless play on offense, the effort they're bringing defensively is encouraging.

It’s only two games, but the mind does wander when thinking about how good this unit can be. It’s not like they’re playing the weakest competition. They took down the Nuggets, the second-best team in the West, on Friday. They beat the best player on the planet Sunday.

They face even more stiff competition Tuesday when they host the rival Celtics, who they’ve already dropped two games to this season.

But that was then. This is now.

“It’s only been two games but I think we’ve got a chance,” Embiid said. “We got a lot to work on obviously. Our whole offensive package hasn’t been used. We’ve got a long way to go, but I think the potential we have, especially come playoff time, matching up with other teams, I think we got a chance.”

The Sixers embarked on a brutal 12-game stretch back on Jan. 17. After 11 games, they’re 7-4. With a win over Boston, that number would improve to a remarkable 8-4. 

But it's not just about the here and now. It's about what this team could be come late April and beyond.

“I think as we continue to build our chemistry and grow, it’s only going to be something that, every single night, we’re out here playing for something bigger,” Harris said. “Even being in the huddle with the team, we’re not really playing these games just to win. We’re playing them to win, but also be the best team that we can be all around. We’re just trying to get better each and every nigh, any way possible.”

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Markelle Fultz — and his mom — need to move on from Sixers, focus on Magic

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Markelle Fultz — and his mom — need to move on from Sixers, focus on Magic

Just when we all thought the Markelle Fultz-Sixers saga was over, another weird quote comes out.

Fultz was traded to the Magic ahead of last week’s trade deadline, but that hasn’t stopped Fultz and others from throwing veiled criticism at the Sixers.

This time it was Fultz’s mother, Ebony, who had an interesting comment about where her son came from and how much better his new situation is, per The Athletic’s Josh Robbins.

“I get a great vibe,” Ebony Fultz said. “It’s very refreshing to hear the positivity, the support that they have for (the players) and the fact that they’re constantly saying, ‘We want to do this the right way.’”

Wait … what?

Did Ebony meet Brett Brown? He may be the most positive and patient person in the world. This is a guy that won 10 games just a few years ago and was still effusive in his praise of his players. He managed to get a roster that was assembled to lose to play hard every night.

Brown also gave Fultz a starting spot at the beginning of the season — a spot that was unearned, with all due respect. Brown took JJ Redick out of the NBA’s No. 1 starting unit, one that helped the team win 52 games last season, to attempt to boost the confidence of the second-year guard.

The Sixers organization gave Fultz every opportunity to succeed. There was never a negative word that came out of their camp throughout Fultz’s injury issues and struggles. In fact, quite the opposite. 

Brown said this in November after the team was blindsided by news that Fultz would be seeking outside medical opinions per his agent’s advice:

“This news about his shoulder, it did catch me off guard,” Brown said. “But if it’s that real that he needs to go seek further consultation, then we support him. In my eyes, it’s not complicated. That’s what it is, and we’ll support him.”

Does Fultz’s mom think the organization wanted her son to fail? The player they drafted No. 1 overall after giving rival Boston a first-round pick to move up two spots from No. 3? How are you going to rip the patience of an organization that has developed a reputation for holding out first-round picks for entire seasons because of injury?

Even the Philadelphia fan base — which in case you didn’t know has a reputation of its own — was shockingly supportive of Fultz. He got a standing ovation from the fan base when he made his first NBA three. There were oohs and aahs from the crowd any time he’d shoot the ball outside of 10 feet.

GM Elton Brand may have ran out of patience once he made a pair of blockbuster deals for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. The Sixers’ window to win is open, but who knows for how long. Considering there was no real timetable for Fultz’s return — and still isn’t, by the way — Brand did what he had to do.

Fultz and his mother got what they wanted with a fresh start in Orlando, where Fultz will face minimal pressure.

Now it’s time for them to move on and stop taking weak parting shots at the Sixers.

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Five things we've learned about Sixers' new starting five

Five things we've learned about Sixers' new starting five

We don’t need to strain for creative nicknames, like “the Phantastic 5.” 

The Sixers’ new starting lineup is, to put it simply, a very good group of five basketball players, albeit one figuring out how to play with each other.

Here are five things we’ve learned about the new starting unit:

Harris fits well into the offense 

In his first four games with the Sixers, Tobias Harris has averaged 17.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game — not a bad start.

He’s fit naturally into the Sixers’ offense. Brett Brown has mostly plugged Harris into actions the Sixers already have installed, and Harris has generally thrived in those settings. The play below is a familiar “screen the screener” action. 

Out of a Horns set — two big men at the elbows, two wings in the corners — Harris sets a ball screen for Ben Simmons, then flares off a screen from Joel Embiid. He gets a mismatch on Nikola Jokic and dips in for a soft floater.

Though Harris is still learning his teammates’ tendencies, he hasn’t seemed too uncomfortable in unstructured situations, either when plays break down or in transition. He ran a nice pick-and-pop with Embiid early in the shot clock vs. the Lakers. 

There is one action the Sixers have recently introduced, a modified “Spain pick-and-roll.”

Jimmy Butler loops up to the top of the key. Off the ball, Joel Embiid sets a back screen for JJ Redick at the foul line, and Redick curls to the rim. Embiid then comes up to give Butler a ball screen, with Redick right behind him. Redick will typically give Embiid a back screen before shooting up to the top of the key — this is the traditional Spain pick-and-roll, that ball screen immediately followed by a back screen.

In the example above, Redick doesn’t make any contact with Embiid’s man, Al Horford, who decides to give a hard hedge on the pick-and-roll between Butler and Embiid. Still, the Celtics’ defense is slightly overbalanced toward Butler and Embiid. Harris, stationed in the weak side corner, takes advantage by driving baseline on Marcus Morris and drawing a foul.

The defense is a work in progress 

The Sixers’ new starting five is a long, versatile, switchable defensive unit. It is, however, still a work in progress.

In their first game together, the Sixers had some miscommunication on a couple of pick-and-rolls, including the one below. Harris and Simmons both take Will Barton, leaving Mason Plumlee open on the roll.

A poor defensive first quarter for the Sixers against the Lakers ended fittingly, with nobody picking up Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Simmons is shifting his approach 

While the first legitimate three-point attempt of his career Sunday understandably got the most attention (see story), Simmons appears more willing overall to take the open jumpers presented to him.

With LeBron James deep in the paint, he stepped into a jumper from the elbow early against the Lakers.

Simmons is now 14 for 70 (20 percent) this season on shots from 10 feet and out. It’ll be interesting to track whether, even as the playoffs approach, he continues to take shots that have been highly inefficient for him. 

The staples still work 

Brown has had a few shootarounds and just a single practice to incorporate new actions, so he’s mainly had to rely on old favorites.

“12,” the multi-layered action that starts with Redick sprinting up from the baseline, often to give Simmons a ball screen, is still very difficult to guard because of Redick’s threat as a shooter. Plumlee and Malik Beasley botch their coverage on this play and, after a clever hesitation, Simmons attacks the open lane.

“Elbow,” the Embiid-Redick two-man game, is never leaving the Sixers’ offense as long as those two are still around.

The Celtics did a good job denying Embiid the ball at the end of the first quarter, but the Sixers adjusted well. With Mike Scott double-teamed, Embiid flashed to the block and found T.J. McConnell on the opposite side for a lay-up.

Late-game execution will take time 

Boston, as has so often been the case, executed better than the Sixers when it mattered Tuesday night.

The Sixers weren’t quite sharp enough on their late, game-tying attempt off a sideline out of bounds play. 

Butler screens at the top of the key for Redick, who sprints toward Harris, the inbounder. The idea is to make an entry pass to Embiid and play a Redick-Embiid two-man game. But Embiid fumbles the pass, which Brown throws off the timing of the play. Instead of hand it off to Redick, Embiid kicks the ball out to Harris and runs out to set a ball screen, trying to create a sliver of space.

Embiid rebounds Harris' miss and puts it back in, despite the Sixers being out of timeouts and needing a three to tie. Afterwards, he admitted he wasn’t aware the Sixers had no timeouts left and called himself “an idiot” for not kicking the ball out.

These five pieces have only been together for four games — not everything is going to click automatically late in games. Things just need to be more precise come the playoffs. 

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