76ers

Sixers need good answers for these 3 questions if they want to make deep run in NBA playoffs

Sixers need good answers for these 3 questions if they want to make deep run in NBA playoffs

Forgetting about basketball and worrying about other issues in the world would be a very rational response over the past three months.

Perhaps you hadn’t been thinking much about the Sixers but found the team crossing your mind again with the news that the NBA’s owners and NBPA have approved a 22-team plan to resume the season on July 31 at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.  

Let’s look at three key questions to consider for the team: 

How large of a load can Embiid carry? 

At 26 years old, Joel Embiid has yet to experience anything resembling a normal NBA season. After a suspension, injuries, a proclamation that load management was “BS” and a public dialogue with Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal about maturity and dominance, Embiid started a third straight All-Star Game. However, he wasn’t pleased with his play for much of this season. 

“First part of the season, it wasn’t up to my standards — not even close,” he said last month in an interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Marc Zumoff. “I was on the path to just changing all that and making it happen.”

Embiid on Feb. 5 said he’d “sacrificed a lot, trying to make everybody feel comfortable, and that's normal.”

That assertion seems like an exaggeration. Embiid has played 3.5 fewer minutes per game than in the 2018-19 season, but his usage rate, post-ups per game and three-pointers attempted per 36 minutes are all very similar to last year. 

Brett Brown said on May 15 he’d want to play Embiid about 38 minutes a game in the playoffs. The question of whether Embiid will be physically able to handle that playing time is central. And, though his self-assessment is perhaps a bit harsh, the Sixers will likely need Embiid to increase his production during those minutes to make a deep playoff run. 

Who’s going to provide the complementary offense? 

There are a lot of layers to this topic. One angle is simply whether individual players like Al Horford, Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson can score enough to help out Embiid.

Another question is whether Ben Simmons, returning from a lower back injury, can be effective screening, rolling and facilitating from the elbow in lineups with Shake Milton (including, one would think, the starting lineup). While that pairing makes intuitive sense, it has a lowly 102.9 offensive rating in 223 minutes.

Even if Simmons is still reluctant to shoot jumpers, can he knock down free throws late in playoff games? He’d made 73.9 percent of his foul shots in the 11 contests before his early exit against Milwaukee on Feb. 22.

The composition of the team’s playoff rotation is still to be determined. With Furkan Korkmaz in particular, the Sixers would love his shooting and scoring bursts but might be wary of the defensive drop-off. 

Looking deeper, the Sixers must quickly determine reliable offensive roles, pairings and actions. In what situations is it worth abandoning the Horford-Embiid pairing? Should Brown focus on giving duos that have been successful like Embiid-Richardson and Horford-Harris even more minutes together? 

Brown and his coaching staff have had ample time to dissect these sort of granular issues. 

How good is this defense? 

Since beating the Bucks on Christmas, the Sixers have a 110.7 defensive rating, 13th in the NBA. That’s a disappointing statistic for a team with so much apparent defensive talent. 

Through 65 games, a glaring problem was how frequently players were forced to assume uncomfortable roles. Horford looked too slow to hang with anyone possessing a modicum of agility. Harris, while appearing to be a sharper defender than last season, often drew difficult perimeter assignments.

In theory, Simmons’ capacity to guard stars of all sizes and Embiid’s rim protection nullify those concerns. In reality, the Sixers’ defense had been good but not great. 

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Sixers' Ime Udoka is ‘biggest name to watch’ in Bulls’ head coaching search

Sixers' Ime Udoka is ‘biggest name to watch’ in Bulls’ head coaching search

Sixers assistant coach Ime Udoka is, according to NBC Sports NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh, “the biggest name to watch” in the Bulls’ search for a new head coach.

Chicago fired Jim Boylen on Friday. NBC Sports Chicago’s K.C. Johnson reports former Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson, Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Mavs assistant Stephen Silas and Bucks assistant Darvin Ham are also expected to be included in Chicago's search. Bulls GM Marc Eversley used to be the Sixers’ vice president of player personnel. 

Udoka joined the Sixers this season after spending seven years as an assistant with the Spurs. In September, he said that he was responsible for game planning and strategizing against “eight or nine” opponents under Gregg Popovich. Brett Brown assigned him to be in charge of the Sixers’ defense, which is rated eighth in the NBA, and he's looked to install more aggressive defensive concepts. He’s a well-respected former player who, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania is also a candidate for the Nets job.

From the Sixers’ perspective, part of what may complicate this situation is Brown’s status. Here’s what Haberstroh wrote on that subject:  

Over the next few weeks, league insiders are keeping an eye on the situation in Philadelphia as the Sixers have underwhelmed for the second straight season. If the short-handed Sixers lose in the first round, Udoka could be in line for a promotion with the Sixers.

“The Sixers may not want another coach to leave their organization. Brown’s top assistant job has been a springboard to head-coaching positions throughout the NBA. Houston’s Mike D’Antoni, Phoenix’s Monty Williams and Atlanta’s Lloyd Pierce’s last stops before their current gigs was the bench in Philly. 

In response to rumors last May that the Sixers’ second-round loss to the Raptors may have put Brown’s job in jeopardy, his players defended him vehemently. The team’s supersized roster has disappointed in this highly unusual, pandemic-affected season, as the presence of Al Horford has boosted the Sixers’ backup center play but generally not helped the team otherwise. Brown’s new-look starting lineup with Shake Milton at point guard and Ben Simmons at power forward only had three games together before Simmons injured his left knee. 

The Sixers’ first-round series against the Celtics begins on Monday night (see series schedule).

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How to watch Sixers at Rockets: Storylines, live stream, game time and more

How to watch Sixers at Rockets: Storylines, live stream, game time and more

For the first time since the 2011-12 lockout year, the Sixers will play fewer than 82 games in a “regular” season. Their 73rd and final game before the postseason is Friday night against the Rockets.

Joel Embiid (left ankle soreness) and Glenn Robinson III (left hip pointer) are questionable, and Russell Westbrook is out for Houston with a right quad strain. 

Here are the essentials:

When: 9 p.m. with Sixers Pregame Live at 8
Where: AdventHealth Arena
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia Plus
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch: 

All about Monday 

Health and “spirit” are the two things Brett Brown has consistently said he hoped the Sixers would have intact for the postseason. The team’s health is significantly compromised with Ben Simmons out after undergoing surgery on his left knee, which is probably more important than an intangible quality like spirit. That said, the Sixers’ morale doesn’t seem too bad given the circumstances. There’s been a little time for everyone to wrap their head around Simmons’ injury and what it means, and the starting lineup enjoyed cheering on the reserves in the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s loss to the Raptors.

The Sixers’ first-round series vs. the Celtics begins Monday night (see series schedule). It sounds simple enough … but just get to tip-off of Game 1 with the healthiest version of the current team. 

Is hot outside shooting sustainable? 

Before the NBA’s hiatus, the Sixers were shooting 36.2 percent from three-point range. They’re at 40.6 percent in Disney World, and Joel Embiid and Shake Milton are the only rotation players below their season averages from long range. 

That large of an increase is likely attributable to a small sample size, at least in part, but it does seem that players like Al Horford, Furkan Korkmaz and Alec Burks are comfortable and shooting with confidence. Perhaps it will carry over to the playoffs. 

Small-ball prep 

The Rockets will finish either No. 4 or No. 5 in the Western Conference, a distinction that means very little when there are no true home games. It would therefore be unsurprising if minutes were limited for Houston’s key players. 

One thing that will be interesting to watch regardless is how the Sixers will handle a team without a conventional center. Houston is an extreme practitioner of small ball, but the Sixers’ top lineups will generally be larger than the Celtics’. Horford’s perimeter defense will be tested by Boston.

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