76ers

Sixers 105, Hornets 103: Joel Embiid comes up big again

Sixers 105, Hornets 103: Joel Embiid comes up big again

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Saturday night wasn’t a game the Sixers needed to win — those sort of games don’t really exist in October. But a third straight loss would’ve added to the worries about the new defensive concepts, Markelle Fultz, Brett Brown’s rotation and much more.

Those questions don’t just disappear after a 105-103 win over the Hornets that moves the Sixers to 3-3, but they certainly would’ve been more unpleasant to answer after another loss. 

• Joel Embiid’s status was in question after he rolled an ankle at practice Friday, but he was his usual dominant self in the low post.

The statistics he's putting up on a nightly basis are incredible. With 27 points and 14 rebounds, Embiid became the first player in franchise history with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in each game over the first six games of a season. Embiid was three points shy of posting at least 30 points and 10 points in five straight games.

Embiid did settle for a couple long-range jumpers late in the fourth quarter, an early-season trend, but it's hard to be too critical of another stellar performance. 

• Ben Simmons couldn’t get anything to fall around the rim. Simmons shot 5 for 20, and many of those attempts were shots he usually makes inside. His shooting struggles are a big reason why this game was so close.

• Robert Covington’s defense hasn’t been consistent at the start of the season, but Saturday night was a return to form. Deflections; steals (2); blocks (4); solid on-ball defense on the opposition’s best player (Kemba Walker scored 37 points, but on 11 for 31 shooting, and most of his success come against defenders besides Covington) — a typical Covington performance.

His 18 points (4 for 7 from three-point range) were also second-most for the Sixers on the night, and his three-pointer with just under two minutes remaining was a huge shot.

• It’s nice to see the Sixers continue to set ball screens for Markelle Fultz, but Fultz hasn’t been making the most of those opportunities. His default Saturday night on 1-5 ball screens with Embiid was to look to dish it back to Embiid around the three-point line. That occasionally leads to an open long range shot for Embiid, but Fultz attacking the rim is a better option. 

 Embiid also poses a much greater threat when he rolls instead of pops. Fultz made a nice play early in the second quarter when Embiid did roll to the basket, probing the defense and finding Embiid inside for a layup. 

• Fultz continues to look much more comfortable in transition than in the half court. He showed off the spin move he loves on the fast break in the second quarter.

And he went coast-to-coast with authority early in the fourth quarter.

Fultz posted 10 points (4 for 9 from the floor) and four assists in 25 minutes.

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'Potential' is a dangerous word, but Sixers have players to realize it

'Potential' is a dangerous word, but Sixers have players to realize it

On paper, a lot of teams in the NBA look awfully good.

Both L.A. teams look like juggernauts. The Warriors lost Kevin Durant, but they’re still the Warriors. The Bucks have the reigning MVP and perhaps the deepest roster in the NBA.

Then there are the Sixers, who have as much potential as any team. Their starting five could be the best in the league. One prominent statistical model even gives them the best chance to win the Finals.

But the word “potential” can be dangerous. Al Horford may be the steadiest player there is. Joel Embiid is still ascending and has work to do, but is already arguably the best big man in the league. 

The other three members of the starting unit all have to tap into their full potential for the Sixers to accomplish their goals.

Does anyone in the league have more to prove than Ben Simmons? It seems weird typing that sentence for a 22-year-old who’s won Rookie of the Year and already made an All-Star team, but here we are. Simmons was given his rookie max extension Monday — which was 100 percent the right move — but questions still linger over his jump shot. He’s been working with famed trainer and shooting coach Chris Johnson in Los Angeles this summer. He also has decided not to play for the Australian national team in the FIBA World Cup so that he can focus on getting prepared for the NBA season.

Recently, Tobias Harris joined Simmons for a workout in L.A. and he came away impressed with Simmons’ progress.

“We played a lot of 1-on-1. He’s in the gym religiously every day – grinding, getting better. He’s in great shape,” Harris said at a press conference last Friday. “Everyone was trying to figure out why I was guarding him at the three-point line. It was really because he hit two of them. I dared him to hit two of them and he hit two in a row that’s why I was there. He’s made big improvements on his game. His jump shot is looking really good. He has confidence to shoot it. I just kept telling him there, even in these workouts when you’re playing, have the confidence to shoot them and don’t’ get discourage when you miss.”

Harris is another player with something to prove after being given the richest contract in franchise history. GM Elton Brand gave up a haul to acquire the 27-year-old from the Clippers and the results were mixed.

Harris came out on fire with the Sixers, averaging over 20 points a game and shooting 40 percent from three in his first 13 games. He then really struggled down the stretch, averaging 16.1 points a game and hitting only 23 percent of his threes. He was also inconsistent during the team’s postseason run.

Still, there’s plenty of optimism surrounding Harris’ fit with the team — especially with Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick gone. He admitted that uncertainty surrounding his role affected his play, but these new pieces could unlock more of his potential. Harris had a borderline All-Star season and was one of the most prolific shooters in the league in a more featured role with the Clippers. He’s improved every season he’s been in the NBA and there’s hope that ascension will continue.

Harris hopes that ascension continues in Philadelphia — and only Philadelphia.

“Everybody knows over the course of my career I've been in a lot of situations,” Harris said. “Hearing in my meeting the possibility of getting these guys that are sitting up here with me was also one of the most appealing things in the pitch. For me, it was just a win-win, to come here in a situation where I can continue to develop and to be somewhere for many years to come. I'm excited for that and, obviously I signed a five-year deal, so I'll hopefully finish my career here, God willing."

It makes sense that Harris would be excited for the arrival of Josh Richardson. Other than Richardson proving to be a strong two-way player, the two have an existing relationship. While they missed playing with each other by a season at Tennessee, the two still crossed paths. Harris was stuck in Tennessee during the NBA lockout in his draft year so he took the incoming freshman Richardson out to dinner. 

Harris remembers an assistant coach saying around that time that Richardson “was going to be a pro” because of how hard he worked. It was a rather bold statement when you consider Richardson was a two-star recruit coming out of high school, but he made that unnamed coach look awfully prophetic.

Richardson, a second-round pick in 2015, had to earn his way onto the floor in the NBA with his tenacious defense and high energy. Much like Harris, Richardson’s offensive game has grown every season in the league. At times, he ran the Heat’s offense last season as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll and took the most threes of his career by a healthy margin — though he was only right around league average percentage wise.

While the team looks like a defensive monster, spacing is still a question mark. The Sixers are relying on all three players — and really even Embiid and Horford — to have the best shooting seasons of their careers.

"I look forward to training camp, figure all that out,” Brand said. “Defensively, of course that's where we're going to hang our hat. We should be one of the top defensive teams in the league, in my opinion. But we'll figure out the spacing. We have a lot of versatility. Al Horford can space, Joel Embiid can space, Ben's working on his game, Josh is a high-level scorer and Tobias is a high-level shooter and scorer also, so we're looking forward to making that work in training camp. But it's going to take some time. It should take some time."

With how much work Simmons, Harris and Richardson have put in, all that potential could be realized.

That could make the Sixers a very dangerous team.

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This statistical model gives Sixers best chance of any team to win NBA Finals

This statistical model gives Sixers best chance of any team to win NBA Finals

The Sixers, according to the statistics-centric website FiveThirtyEight, have a 55 percent chance to make the NBA Finals and a 27 percent chance to win it all — both the highest of any NBA team.

FiveThirtyEight's "Way-Too-Early Projections" for the 2019-20 season give the Sixers a greater than 99 percent chance to make the playoffs. The Houston Rockets have the next-best odds to win the title at 24 percent.

It's important to note, of course, that teams' rosters will change between now and the start of the regular season, and we still don't have a schedule.

Its model incorporates heaps of data and does "50,000 simulations of the schedule." A new element this year is the DRAYMOND defensive metric, which gives greater weight to how a defender impacts opponents' shooting percentage.

The fact that Joel Embiid has the second-best DRAYMOND rating since the 2013-14 season might, in part, explain why this year's model is so high on the Sixers. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Milwaukee Bucks (26 percent chance to win the East, 10 percent chance to win the championship) and star-studded Los Angeles Lakers (13 percent odds to win it all) and Clippers (5 percent chance to win it all) have a better shot than FiveThirtyEight gives them.

In case you somehow missed it, a lot has changed for the Sixers this offseason. The team's new starting unit of Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Embiid is locked in for the long term, while Mike Scott and James Ennis are again expected to feature off the bench. It's a big, defensively imposing team.

Ennis has said he thinks the Sixers can "walk to the Finals in the East." If you trust FiveThirtyEight's model, his view might not be so outlandish.

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