76ers

Sixers could — and should — be dangerous down the stretch

Sixers could — and should — be dangerous down the stretch

During his time as the Sixers head coach, Brett Brown has always broken the season into thirds. The first two thirds have not gone as the team would’ve hoped. The Sixers sit at 34-21 and are currently the East’s fifth seed.

The good news is they look poised to go on a run in the final 27 games of the season.

Let’s start where everything starts with the Sixers: Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. We can debate fit and clashing skill sets all we want. The bottom line is the Sixers need the All-Star duo to be peaking down the stretch and into the playoffs. 

Their win over the Clippers before the All-Star break represents exactly the type of performances needed. What was most impressive is that neither player sacrificed their aggressiveness to accommodate the other. Embiid took 17 shots — but also got 13 free throws — while Simmons took a season-high 22 attempts.

While he's played at an elite level the last 20 games, Simmons' last 11 may represent the best stretch of his career. The 23-year-old has averaged 12.5 field goal attempts in that span. When he takes at least 13 attempts from the field this season, the Sixers are 17-5. While the jumper may not be there, his improved shot is visible from the line, where he’s hit 73.9 percent on 8.4 attempts during that stretch.

There’s no denying Embiid and Simmons’ importance, but having all of your top-five players is also pretty darn important. The Sixers have only had Embiid, Simmons, Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson and Al Horford together for 21 of 55 games. That’s just 38.1 percent.

The Sixers are a respectable 9-7 when Embiid hasn’t played this season, but it’s clear they need all five of these players. 

While the Sixers are 9-5 in the games Richardson has missed, you could see the impact he had against the Clippers, pouring in 17 fourth-quarter points. You can’t expect that kind of output every night, but his ability as a two-way player is crucial to the Sixers.

Embiid should be splint free — he wasn't wearing one during the All-Star Game Sunday — for the first time since returning from the torn ligament in the ring finger on his left hand. Richardson looked explosive after missing time with multiple hamstring injuries. Simmons and Harris are two of the most durable players in the NBA.

As for Horford, it appears his run as a starter is over. That doesn’t mean he can’t make an impact. The decision could prove to be a “win-win” as Horford will fit better offensively with lineups that don’t feature Embiid. Brown will likely still use Horford to close games, which makes sense. The Sixers’ original starting lineup is tied for second in the NBA in terms of defensive rating among five-man lineups that have played at least 200 minutes.

One of their newcomers would be a nice fit in place of Horford. Glenn Robinson III could make the team more switchable defensively. Robinson was used in a stopper role in Golden State. That likely won’t be the case here, but his ability to switch one through four makes him a dynamic piece defensively. Robinson is also having a career year as a shooter, hitting 39.5 percent of his threes. 

With Robinson and Alec Burks coming over from the Warriors, Brown suddenly has options. Bringing Horford off your bench as the sixth man while using Burks and Furkan Korkmaz as instant offense and Matisse Thybulle as an impactful defender makes the bench much more dangerous.

While there are plenty of reasons for optimism for the Sixers after the break, the reality is they’ve underperformed. A large part of that has to do with their abysmal 9-19 record on the road. The 18-36 Hornets have more road wins.

If you’re looking for a reason that could change, the Sixers’ strength of schedule could be one. Up to now, they’ve played the third-toughest schedule in the NBA. After the All-Star break, they have the second easiest. In contrast, the Raptors (sixth) and Celtics (seventh) have had lighter schedules that will get more difficult — Toronto has the 11th-toughest, Boston the 12th.

That’s not an excuse. If the Sixers are the team they’ve claimed to be, they need to beat good teams. They also can’t follow up big wins with brutal losses like their lifeless defeat in Orlando two days after a Christmas Day win over the Bucks.

The Sixers have work to do and ground to make up. All of these factors don’t matter if they don’t show consistent focus and stay healthy.

Brown refers to the stretch after the All-Star break as a “sprint.” The Sixers could — and probably should — be ready to go on a run.

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Will Sixers be in an advantageous position if season resumes?

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Will Sixers be in an advantageous position if season resumes?

On so many levels, the Sixers’ season hasn’t gone as planned. Even before the coronavirus pandemic forced the NBA to suspend play, the team was in an unenviable spot.

If the regular season is over, which seems like a distinct possibility, the Sixers would finish as the East’s sixth seed. A combination of fit, underperformance — especially away from the Wells Fargo Center — and injury put them there.

But if the NBA does resume at some point, where does that leave the 2019-20 Sixers?

There’s a train of thought that this break could benefit the Sixers. It’s a fair line of thinking. In fact, there may not be a team that would benefit more. 

Ben Simmons, who has been sidelined since Feb. 22 with nerve impingement in his lower back, will have more time to recover. Back on March 11, before we learned later that night that Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for coronavirus, Simmons spoke before the Sixers’ game against the Pistons. 

The All-Star point guard said he had “no pain” and was “confident” — though he did not give a timeline for his return. Earlier that day, the team released a statement which said Simmons would be re-evaluated in three weeks. That would put the re-evaluation at around April 1, with no indication the NBA season will resume any time soon.

Other than Simmons, the other four members of the regular starting lineup have dealt with injuries this season. 

Joel Embiid tore a ligament in his left ring finger and had a left shoulder sprain. Josh Richardson has dealt with injuries to both hamstrings, among other things. While Tobias Harris (right knee contusion) and Al Horford (left knee soreness, left hamstring tightness) haven’t missed much time, they’ve also been banged up this season.

All of this to say, maybe this break — as unfortunate as it is for the sport and for the world, really — winds up benefiting the Sixers. Everyone will be back to Point A when/if play resumes. If you’ll recall, the Sixers started this season 5-0. It seems like a distant memory, but it happened. Perhaps returning to full health will ignite a similar run.

Now, for the glass half-empty version.

Though being healthy will help, it won’t solve the myriad issues the Sixers had with their roster construction this season. If both Embiid and Horford are healthy, Brett Brown seems hellbent on trying to make the combo work. So far this season, the evidence has been against that being fruitful.

Richardson and Harris have had their moments this season, but neither has been exactly what the Sixers expected. Richardson’s skillset is one the Sixers need, but he’s on pace to have the worst three-point shooting season of his career. While Harris has been solid, he hasn’t been the near-max player the team thought they were getting.

As for Simmons, he was playing easily the best basketball of his career before his injury and seemed to be a legitimate candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Will he be able to round into form and get ready for the playoffs in a hurry after such a long layoff?

Then the seven-foot, 280-plus pound elephant in the room — will Embiid be in good enough shape to play in an NBA game when the time comes?

The Sixers may be the most mystifying team in the NBA. It’s entirely possible they come out guns blazing, get their act together and go on a run. It seems just as feasible that their fit issues fester, and they’ll get bounced in the first round.

So while the basketball hiatus may benefit the Sixers, they’d still have to take advantage.

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Can Elton Brand and the Sixers fix what went wrong with roster construction?

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Can Elton Brand and the Sixers fix what went wrong with roster construction?

The Sixers had so many options heading into free agency last July.

We don’t know yet exactly when free agency will begin this year because of the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and the suspended NBA season. Whenever it does happen, though, the Sixers won’t have as many possibilities. 

The decisions to give Tobias Harris a five-year, $180 million contract and guarantee Al Horford $97 million over four years are the two clear, primary reasons the Sixers won’t be in an especially flexible position. In Year 1, those moves haven’t panned out as GM Elton Brand and the front office would have hoped.

In one major way, Horford has actually provided what the Sixers expected. As a backup center, he’s been quite good — the Sixers have a plus-5.2 net rating when Horford is on the floor and Joel Embiid is off it. He’s been much better than a hodgepodge of Amir Johnson, Boban Marjanovic, Greg Monroe and Jonah Bolden. 

However, many of the reasonable concerns that came with signing Horford have come to fruition. The Horford-Embiid pairing has the worst net rating of any two-man Sixers lineup that’s played at least 500 minutes together. If you want an idea of just how poor the offense has been when the two have shared the floor, consider this: Their 100.6 offensive rating together is almost six points worse than any of the Sixers’ two-man pairings last season (minimum 500 minutes). 

Though Brett Brown was talking about aiming to further develop Horford and Embiid together as recently as the day before the season was suspended, that combination is a problem. It’s not what the Sixers would have planned when they signed Horford, but the decision to move him out of the starting lineup in February was very sensible.

Horford has shot more three-pointers than ever in his career, but not at an efficient rate (33.7 percent, his worst mark since the 2014-15 season). We thought he’d likely decline in the later years of his contract and be costing the Sixers money at 35 or 36 years old. To put it bluntly, he’s cost the Sixers money in his first season, and has not fit well. 

Harris, in his ninth NBA season, has improved defensively, is second on the Sixers in scoring (19.4 points per game) and, after an 0-for-23 nightmare of a stretch, has shot 39.1 percent from three-point range. He’s the only Sixer to have played in every game, and younger players like Matisse Thybulle and Marial Shayok have praised his mentorship. All of that matters and is positive, but Harris has not been worth $32.7 million this season.

The main question now — outside of when basketball will return, of course — is whether the Sixers can repair their mistakes.

Is there a team out there that would be willing to take on Horford’s contract and give up any value in return? The Kings, who reportedly were expected to make a “massive offer” to Horford in free agency, are one team it would make sense to engage. Sharpshooter Buddy Hield would presumably be the name of interest.

Trading away Harris looks much less likely, although we’ve learned not to rule anything out during Brand’s brief tenure. It’s difficult to imagine the Sixers receiving a worthwhile return, and Brown and Brand have often portrayed Harris as being an emerging player. They believe he’s going to get more and more comfortable and effective as a primary scoring option.

Josh Richardson, who’s suffered a variety of injuries in his first year a Sixer, is on a team-friendly deal. He shouldn’t be untouchable, but his perimeter defense and shot creation are important for this team, and they come at a good value.

Ben Simmons and Embiid are not what’s wrong with the Sixers and should not be traded at this stage. The pieces around them are the issues. Of course, judgement of whether those are issues the Sixers can overcome is incomplete. We don’t know yet how this roster would fare in the playoffs, and Brand has insisted his team was built with the postseason in mind. 

The Sixers would currently have a first-round pick in the draft — the top-20 protected Oklahoma City Thunder pick they acquired in the Markelle Fultz trade would convey — and that’s one of the ways they should be able to improve their roster. They’ve hit on Landry Shamet, Shake Milton and Thybulle in the draft over the last couple of years. With how Brand has constructed the team, targeting a perimeter player who can shoot, capably create his own shot or do both would appear an obvious priority.

Fundamentally, nobody envisioned this NBA season unfolding the way it has. Whatever is next and whenever the offseason eventually begins, the Sixers will have to discern the best methods to address the unpleasant surprises of this season. 



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