Sixers have a shot to redeem Elton Brand's flawed vision

Sixers have a shot to redeem Elton Brand's flawed vision

Flawed teams win championships.

Ultimately, this is why the Sixers’ renewed hope ahead of Saturday night's contest against the Indiana Pacers, their first meaningful game in over four months, isn't foolish or worthy of immediate dismissal. 

General manager Elton Brand built the Sixers in a way that did not align with the modern NBA. Instead of valuing shooting and speed, he prioritized size and defense. The face of his philosophy was former teammate Al Horford, who he signed over a year ago to a four-year deal with $97 million guaranteed. 

The Horford contract, though very exorbitant for a player who was 33 years old at the time, was not completely devoid of logic. He’d guarded Embiid effectively and played well against the Sixers as a Celtic. The Sixers’ poor depth behind Embiid was one of the main reasons they lost in seven games to the Raptors last season. Horford was a versatile veteran who’d shot 38.2 percent from three-point range in Boston.

Once the season started, though, the Horford-Embiid pairing cemented itself as the Sixers’ worst regular duo and most of the concerns about Horford’s fit were realized. Perhaps more than anything, we were left wondering how different a season characterized largely by disappointment, frustration and road woes would be going if the Sixers had spent the money they used on Horford elsewhere. 

Now, as the NBA resumes its season during a pandemic, the Sixers’ collective confidence hasn’t wavered. Brand, Brett Brown, Embiid and Horford have all said the team is “built for the playoffs.” Horford, now the team’s sixth man, said he “probably wasn’t where I wanted to be” this year in terms of health — his left knee had been an issue at points during the last two seasons — and that the time off was beneficial. Shake Milton, the feel-good story of the season, is the new starting point guard. Ben Simmons is opening games as the nominal power forward, and Brown has seen a “paradigm shift” in his willingness to attempt jumpers. Player after player has noted the team’s chemistry improved during the time away from basketball and praised Tobias Harris’ leadership

... Once everyone has that mindset, which everyone does now, it’s so much easier to have that chemistry and to build, and on the floor that translates," Simmons said Friday. "The guys have come in ready, mentally prepared and willing to sacrifice whatever someone needs to sacrifice in order for us to win. I think this is the best the team’s been; we’ve been together collectively. The chemistry is much better than ... early on in the season in a big way.

That all sounds positive, and yet many of the fundamental issues with the Sixers have not disappeared. Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III address deficiencies with shot creation and outside shooting, respectively, but it’s likely neither will have a massive impact in the playoffs. The plan to run more pick-and-rolls with Milton is promising but won’t solve all of the team’s offensive problems. Before the hiatus, the Sixers were 18th in offensive rating. Since Dec. 1, lineups with Horford and Embiid sport a 98.6 offensive rating, almost six points lower in that category than the Warriors this season. 

Of course, we saw the worst of the Sixers on the road, where they were 10-24. The team had theories for why its home-road disparity was so stark — Harris in February thought the Sixers’ defensive energy and effort dropped away from home when their shots weren’t falling — but it seemed to escape a definitive explanation. 

We have the pieces on this team and we will make it fit,” Brand said on Feb. 7. “It hasn't fit at times, but again, it's baffling to us all and we have a lot of work to do. To have the best record at home in the entire NBA and then to play how we've been playing on the road — we're not happy about that.

"I'm extremely disappointed. We're extremely disappointed. The players understand that they have to do better, (and the) coaching staff, myself, my staff, the whole organization knows we have to do better.

There’s opportunity to do better now, in highly unusual circumstances that won’t include any true home or road games. Embiid and Simmons have both had playoff games in their young careers where they’ve been the best player on the floor. When focused, the Sixers have proven they can be an excellent defensive team. Their 97.2 defensive rating in “clutch” situations is third in the NBA. And yes, flawed teams dependent on a star or stars, like the Kawhi Leonard-led 2019 Raptors, do win titles. 

It’s not likely, but it’s still within the realm of possibility that Brand’s large, somewhat odd team redeems his vision.

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Four main issues to consider for Sixers with Ben Simmons to undergo knee surgery

Four main issues to consider for Sixers with Ben Simmons to undergo knee surgery

A rational response to the news Saturday that Ben Simmons will have surgery to remove a loose body from his left knee is that it’s time to recalibrate expectations for the Sixers. 

The notion of a championship run naturally dims with the loss of an All-Star. With four seeding games to go before the playoffs, the Sixers will have to address the myriad of concerns raised by Simmons’ absence.

Let’s dissect four main issues: 

Guarding stars 

When games this season have been on the line, Simmons has often helped the Sixers seize control with excellent defense on the opponent’s best playmaker. His versatility has also enabled the Sixers to give other players favorable matchups.

Who takes on the job of defending top scoring threats late in games? It will presumably be dictated by matchups — for instance, you’d think Joel Embiid and Al Horford would guard Giannis Antetokounmpo, while Josh Richardson and Matisse Thybulle would split time on Jayson Tatum. There’s no default answer anymore, and it’ll be a bigger challenge to “hide” players like Furkan Korkmaz.

Horford in the spotlight 

The instinctive reaction when a team loses a player of Simmons’ caliber is that everyone else needs to "step up." That’s fair enough, and yet much of the attention will shift specifically to Horford.

He started in Simmons’ place on Friday and played well, scoring 21 points and grabbing nine rebounds. His much-scrutinized pairing with Embiid is the only Sixers duo with at least 300 minutes together this year to have a negative net rating. In 60 Horford-Embiid minutes at Disney World, though, the Sixers have a plus-9.2 net rating. 

Notably, the presence of Simmons has had a negative effect on the Horford-Embiid pairing, at least offensively. The team has a 98.7 offensive rating when Horford, Embiid and Simmons have played together, by far the worst of any three-man group. Perhaps removing Simmons from the equation and losing another player whose preferred territory is near the rim in the process will help Horford-Embiid lineups score efficiently. 

When Brett Brown was asked what he found out about his team Friday night with Simmons sidelined, Horford was the first name that came to his mind. 

“You can’t help but feel an emerging Al Horford,” he said. “It’s clear that he understands we need him more than we ever have needed him.” 

Post-ups and 3s 

During the eight-game stretch in late February and early March when Simmons was out with a nerve impingement in his back, the Sixers fired up 35.8 three-point attempts per game and converted 42.3 percent. They’ve posted up far more than any other team and have the league’s best high-volume post player in Embiid. Without Simmons, a blend of Embiid post touches and more three-point attempts from players such as Richardson and Tobias Harris would make sense. 

Brown has requested throughout the year that Harris and Richardson “hunt threes." The Sixers, however, are 20th in three-point attempts per game out of the 22 teams in Florida. There has to be a collective willingness to shoot from beyond the arc, and a reduction in the low-efficiency plays where an open three turns into a contested two. 

Embiid’s averages at Disney World are 30 points, 13.6 rebounds and 3.2 assists. He’s attempted 11.4 free throws per game and facilitated for teammates well when powering through a double team isn’t the smart play.

“(He has) the willingness and unselfishness, born with the confidence of ‘I know where my teammates are coming,’ under a backdrop of a poise and a patience — it’s ball to chin, tuck it in stuff you’d teach young players — and he’s figuring stuff out quite quickly — like real quickly,” Brown said before Friday’s game.

“All of those things, when you add them all up, equal a team offense. Arguably the best play that J-Rich can have or Tobias can have is throw the ball into Jo and they’re probably going to double, and then it’s coming back out.” 

Creativity required 

The Sixers’ unofficial mantra this year has been “built for the playoffs.” They maintained faith that talent, size and defense would prevail in the postseason. 

Being down a star should change that. Against the Celtics, Bucks or Raptors, Brown may need to adopt unorthodox strategies if feeding Embiid, relying on the big man to protect the rim and asking Thybulle and Richardson to shut down perimeter scorers is ineffective. 

That could look like blitzing the pick-and-roll if Kemba Walker is giving Richardson trouble. It could mean calling some double drag actions with Embiid and Horford if the defense is denying the Cameroonian and Horford is knocking down jumpers and distributing sharply as a pick-and-pop guy.

Perhaps Brown could ask for spurts of full-court pressure with Thybulle on the floor in an effort to force turnovers, spark transition offense and boost the rookie’s disruptive abilities. If Alec Burks is hot and Milton is making poised, intelligent decisions, Brown could play the two ball handlers together, as he did Friday at the start of the fourth quarter.

Philosophically, Brown likes letting his players figure things out for themselves and setting them up in “environments” over calling a ton of plays. He may now have to embrace greater proactivity and innovation. 

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Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons to undergo surgery for loose body in left knee

Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons to undergo surgery for loose body in left knee

Ben Simmons will undergo surgery to remove a loose body in his left knee, a source confirmed Saturday to NBC Sports Philadelphia. Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium first reported the news. 

He'd been diagnosed with a left patella subluxation, an injury he sustained in the Sixers' win over the Wizards on Wednesday. A source told NBC Sports Philadelphia the loose body resulted from the subluxation, and that surgery was decided as the best option after consultation with the Sixers' medical staff and several specialists. Simmons will leave the NBA's campus at Disney World and further updates will be provided after the procedure. 

This news clearly makes things much more difficult for the Sixers, who are sixth in the Eastern Conference with four seeding games remaining. Simmons made his second All-Star team this year and has immense value as an ultra-versatile defender, passer and transition playmaker. 

Without him Friday night, Al Horford started and had 21 points and nine rebounds in a win over the Magic. Guard Alec Burks also had a strong game with 22 points. They're two of the players who will be asked to elevate their games in Simmons' absence, while an even heavier burden will fall on Joel Embiid. 

We reviewed several of the big questions posed by the 24-year-old's injury here while he was evaluating his treatment options. 

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