76ers

Sixers say they have answers, but can they fix road woes?

Sixers say they have answers, but can they fix road woes?

CAMDEN, N.J. — The Sixers are on pace to be the most confounding team in NBA history. At home, they’re the best team in the NBA. On the road, they’re worse than the 21-win Charlotte Hornets.

So for what feels like the billionth time, Brett Brown and his players on Saturday were asked about the Jekyll and Hyde performances of this team. For the first time, we may have gotten some concrete answers.

Brown has tried everything from moving shootarounds to having the team come out earlier after halftime and not much has helped. He thinks the answers are as simple as not making shots and not paying attention to detail on defense.

Unfortunately, Brown admitted one of those issues bleeds into the other.

“Most coaches, I don't know if they'd have the — what's the word? — to admit it, but there is a human side,” Brown said. “When you're not scoring, I know it's harder to get people, teams to play — even the best teams that I've been a part of. It's a human nature thing. And that is the challenge. That is what all coaches talk about. You can't let your offense influence your defense. Your defense needs to be a mainstay. The defense needs to be not negotiable.”

While coaches need to put players in the right positions to succeed, it does seem to boil down to those two simple things. At home, the Sixers are second in the NBA in defensive rating and 17th in three-point percentage. On the road, those rankings drop to 23rd and 26th, respectively. 

At 9-21 away from the Wells Fargo Center, the Sixers start a four-game West Coast swing which kicks off in L.A. Sunday. They’ll do so without Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

Simmons will not make the trip as he continues to receive treatment for impingement in his lower back. On Tuesday, a team spokesperson told NBC Sports Philadelphia that Simmons would be re-evaluated in approximately two weeks. 

As for Embiid, he will not travel to Los Angeles but could possibly re-join the team later on during the trip, a team spokesperson said. It was revealed on Thursday that Embiid had no structural damage to his left shoulder and that he’d be re-evaluated in a week. Next Thursday, the team will be in Sacramento for a game against the Kings that night.

So a team that’s been bad on the road has to head to the other side of the country to take on two of the Western Conference’s best teams without their two All-Stars. 

Yikes.

What’s the message to the team in such difficult circumstances?

“Just the fact that we have an opportunity,” Brown said. “You don't have Ben, you don't have Joel. It's true, we've been so poor on the road, that it's important to maintain a vision of what's coming up, like what's the playoffs look like? What do you got to do to get better? And how do you keep the group together and making sure that we have spirit and motivated and all that? That's my overarching message, even if we weren't going on the road. If we had a home game, that's what I would be saying.”

Everyone who spoke Saturday mentioned how the offense will have to be different. Without Embiid and Simmons creating space for themselves and others, there will be a greater emphasis on ball and player movement. Even with Simmons out, Brown still wants his team to run.

It won't just be on one guy to replace the All-Stars.

"I think it's just gotta be more motion now," Richardson said. "It's gonna be more about committee. We're going to play off screens, we're gonna have to help each other more." 

This will be an interesting test for the trio of Richardson, Tobias Harris and Al Horford. It’s fair to say the Sixers haven’t gotten quite what they’d hope from all three players. Whether it’s been fit or dealing with injuries, they've had their struggles and the team needs more from them.

Especially with Embiid and Simmons out.

“When your two top dogs aren't out there, it's next man up,” Richardson said. “Us three will work by committee to be a solid voice for our team, and just trying to keep all the young guys confident, because that's what we're going to need on this road trip.”

That and make shots and play defense. Sounds simple enough, but can the Sixers actually do it?

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2020 NBA playoffs: Looking at where Sixers sit in Eastern Conference picture

2020 NBA playoffs: Looking at where Sixers sit in Eastern Conference picture

Though they’re calling “seeding games,” the Sixers’ primary concern in the contests leading up to the playoffs is not seeding.

“How do you go into the playoffs … how can you go into that date feeling like we’re the best we can be?” Brett Brown said on July 12. “Worrying too much about moving up because you could play this team or avoid that team, I stay away from that.” 

Through three games at Disney World, Brown wishes the Sixers were playing at a higher level. The team has gone 2-1, but that record includes a fourth quarter in which the Sixers allowed the Pacers to score 46 points, a game-saving shot from Shake Milton vs. the Spurs and a win over the 24-44 Wizards that was tight until the end. Ben Simmons exited Wednesday’s game against Washington early with a left knee injury

It’s been slower coming than I would’ve thought,” Brown said Wednesday. “I liked our practices, I thought … the preseason games you saw at times a dominant defense. We’ve started these three games, I think, very inconsistently. I think we do some good things offensively, defensively, and then you see head-scratching stuff. It hasn’t gone as quickly as I had hoped. But I see where I think it can end. 

“We’re still figuring out some things with how we’re playing the team and Shake (Milton) coming in and so on. But I think, for the most part, we’re trending in the right direction, just not as quickly as I wished.

Here's where the Sixers sit in the Eastern Conference: 

3. Boston Celtics 45-23 GB: 9 
4. Miami Heat 43-25 GB: 11
5. Indiana Pacers 42-26 GB: 12
6. Sixers 41-27 GB: 13 

Boston technically still has a chance to surpass the Raptors for the No. 2 seed and the Sixers aren’t eliminated from contention for the No. 3 seed, but both outcomes are very improbable. Kemba Walker sat out the latter half of a back-to-back Wednesday, a 149-115 Celtics win over the Nets, as the All-Star guard works through a left knee issue. After playing Toronto on Friday night, the Celtics will face Orlando, Memphis and Washington.

The current No. 4 and No. 5 seeds play each other twice in the remaining seeding games, which should be interesting. The Heat’s other opponents are the Bucks, Suns and Thunder, while the Pacers’ are the Suns, Lakers and Rockets. Before the NBA’s hiatus, Miami was 2-0 against Indiana. In case you were curious, T.J. Warren hasn’t dropped off much after his 53-point performance vs. the Sixers. He leads all scorers at Disney World with 39.7 points per game. 

Despite having the sixth-easiest strength of schedule, the Sixers don’t have great odds of rising. Basketball Reference’s Playoff Probabilities Report gives them a 72.8 percent chance at the No. 6 seed, 23.0 percent at No. 5 and just 4.1 percent at No. 4. Those probabilities are intuitive when you consider the Sixers have lost their season series vs. the Heat and Pacers. 

The Celtics are the Sixers’ most likely first-round opponent at the moment by a good margin, which would potentially leave the Sixers a path of Boston-Toronto-Milwaukee. One could make the argument that such a road is best for the Sixers, since the team won its season series over Boston, 3-1, and wouldn’t have to face the top-seeded Bucks until the Eastern Conference Finals, but nothing’s going to be easy for a No. 6 seed. 

We analyzed the Celtics, Heat and Pacers as possible first-round opponents for the Sixers here

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Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons reportedly had clean MRI on left knee

Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons reportedly had clean MRI on left knee

When Ben Simmons flexed his left leg after lobbing a pass for Al Horford and immediately headed off the floor Wednesday during the Sixers’ win over the Wizards, it was logical to be concerned. But, according to a report, Simmons’ knee injury is not as severe as one might have feared watching him walk toward the locker room. 

An MRI on Simmons’ knee was clean and he’s expected to be day-to-day, per Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium. It's worth noting this is not an official update from the Sixers, who Brett Brown said postgame he expected to issue an announcement soon about Simmons' status. 

The 24-year-old recovered from a nerve impingement in his lower back over the NBA’s hiatus, and he felt strong and explosive heading into the league’s restart. He’s now serving as the Sixers’ starting point forward, an adjustment Brown thinks he’s approached well.

“I do feel like Ben has been amazing,” Brown said before Wednesday’s game, “in regards to just being mature on ‘Put me wherever you think I can best help the team.’ At times maybe he hasn’t gotten a touch the way he needs to get a touch, sometimes — which was easier when he was always the primary ball carrier. And so I applaud him tremendously on being a great teammate, trying to accept a new type of ecosystem that we’re trying to use him in.”

Simmons looked for his shot often in Wednesday’s game, though with little success. He missed an open corner three-pointer in the first quarter, his first legitimate regular-season try from long distance since Dec. 7, and made 2 of 10 field goals overall in 23 minutes. 

If Simmons misses any games, Brown will have a few options for reshuffling his starting lineup. There’s a case to be made for just about every member of the current rotation, which Brown cut down to nine players on Wednesday. Al Horford could slide into the frontcourt if Brown wants to work on the Horford-Joel Embiid pairing, which has a plus-15.6 net rating in 40 minutes together at Disney World after being the Sixers’ worst regular duo pre-hiatus.

Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz and Glenn Robinson III have all started games this year, though Robinson is dealing with an injury himself, having missed the team's first three seeding games with a left hip pointer. Perhaps Brown could go with Alec Burks if he’s looking for an extra ball handler and more time to evaluate his potential backup point guard in the playoffs.

The main takeaway here, however, is not the potential ripple effects on the Sixers' seeding game rotation. Rather, it's that a player the team will surely need to have available in order to make a deep playoff run reportedly has avoided a serious injury.

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