Sixers still struggling with turnovers, fouls as regular season nears

Sixers still struggling with turnovers, fouls as regular season nears

Not even the swarm of fans surrounding the Sixers at every stop in China is enough to cover the team’s flaws. 

They’ve been there for quite a while and the first of two matchups in the NBA China Games — albeit a 120-114 win over the Dallas Mavericks — was just the latest example that those issues aren’t going away anytime soon.

Sure the Sixers were able to overcome a double-digit deficit for the victory. However, they still committed far too many turnovers and fouls.

Turnovers have been the franchise’s Achilles heel since Brett Brown took over as head coach. The Sixers have finished 30th, 30th, 29th, 30th and 30th in the category during Brown’s five seasons as head coach.

That trend was evident yet again against the Mavs as the Sixers gave the ball away an alarming 22 times. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were the main culprits with 11 combined turnovers.

“The turnovers are a result of young players trying to, at times, do too much,” Brown told reporters in Shanghai. “Joel and Ben are our two best players and they get a lot of attention defensively.”

That heightened attention from defenses isn’t going to disappear when the regular season starts, especially when opponents know both budding stars are loose with the ball. 

The problem is particularly concerning for Embiid, who now has 12 giveaways in three preseason games, since the All-Star highlighted ball security as an area he worked on in the offseason.

“It is maybe the most important area for Joel’s growth — how does he pass out  of the post — because he’s that good he will be double-teamed a lot,” Brown said. “The turnovers with both Ben and Joel are areas we need to get better in.”

But those aren’t the only concerns for the Sixers, who have watched their habit of fouling drag into another season so far.

The Sixers ranked 29th in both personal fouls (22.1) and opponents’ free throw attempts (25.6) per game a season ago. And after committing just 19 fouls in their preseason opener, the Sixers have recorded 30 and 35 in the two contests that followed.

You can’t pin that high volume of fouls on simply learning some new defensive schemes. All of the Sixers’ length and activity on the defensive end of the floor doesn’t do any good if they’re just sending opposing players to the charity stripe.

“I thought our defense was really being challenged by Dallas. I give Dallas credit,” Brown said. “They forced us into some uncomfortable situations. I think the main thing that I take away from tonight’s game defensively is that we fouled too much. They shot 40 free throws and we have to do a better job of basically just moving our feet and showing our hands.”

The Sixers still have plenty of homework to do before the test of the regular season gets underway.

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Sixers Talk podcast: Bring on the Bucks!

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Sixers Talk podcast: Bring on the Bucks!

On this edition of Sixers Talk, Paul Hudrick and Amy Fadool discuss Joel Embiid dominating, Alec Burks being a spark off the bench, and Saturday's huge matchup against the Bucks.

• Sixers win a weird one in their first game after the All-Star break (1:07)

• Alec Burks gives the Sixers exactly what they need (9:18)

• Al Horford's new role (12:55)

• Joel Embiid vs Giannis Antetokounmpo (25:08)

• Ben Simmons' defense has allowed the Sixers to really compete against the Bucks (29:42)

• Sixers' three-point shooting percentage against Milwaukee (32:32).

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With Joel Embiid-Al Horford pairing, Brett Brown has more important decisions ahead

With Joel Embiid-Al Horford pairing, Brett Brown has more important decisions ahead

CAMDEN, N.J. — The Sixers have 24 two-man lineups that have played at least 400 minutes together this season. The Al Horford-Joel Embiid pairing has the worst net rating of them all, by a margin of 2.9 points.

It’s an important statistic and an obvious reason why it made sense for the Sixers to remove Horford from their starting lineup. Horford played only nine minutes with Embiid on Feb. 11 against the Clippers, seven minutes Thursday night vs. the Nets. Before that, the pair had averaged 14.3 minutes per game together. 

Is Brett Brown’s goal simply to minimize the time those two share the floor? 

At times when you see that number to be low, it will be driven because the matchups just, in my opinion, didn't allow it," he said Friday. "It's just a stone cold small-ball game. Some of it will be driven out of performance and my gut feel, but I feel like a large portion of it will be driven out of just the matchups that we have on the floor. 

“It is my hope that you see that number in a healthy way. It's still the desire to have those two guys play quality basketball and coexist whenever that is required. But I feel like the number that I was saying should be judged based on matchups. You're going to see if it's a tiny number, I'll be shocked if it's not driven completely because the game is really small.”

The Nets did indeed use ultra-small lineups against the Sixers, with 6-foot-8 Wilson Chandler seeing time at center. Horford also played poorly. He was a minus-26 in 18:33 which, though an extreme number, did not seem to be an outrageously inaccurate reflection of his performance. 

Putting Horford on the floor with Embiid at the end of the game would have been illogical — doing so would have removed a ball handler like Alec Burks or Shake Milton or forced Brown to take out Tobias Harris (22 points, 12 rebounds). Essentially, Brown would have been trying to insert an ill-fitting piece and using a lineup that made little sense in the circumstances. 

Still, one can understand the instinct to involve Horford as much as possible. The Sixers gave him a lucrative four-year contract this season with the idea that he could both back up Embiid and play next to him. To abandon one half of that equation could be viewed as admitting a costly mistake, even in the context of Horford still having value as an improvement over the team’s backup centers last year and as Embiid insurance.

Brown doesn’t see Horford as a lost cause and was insistent Friday that the five-time All-Star is still an important player for the Sixers. 

“There's a human side of this that I take a lot of pride in, figuring that side out as as best I can,” he said. “Relationships and communication rule our sort of worlds. … He's a prideful man, he's got a history that he has, he has been rewarded with the contract that he has, and just keeping it very straight, very clean, very quick, and this is how I see it, this is why I see it this way, and not being apologetic about it. … He knows that I am aware of it all. And I believe that things will settle. 

“We have seen the history of Al Horford, and all of us would be very naive to think that some of his signing wasn't driven to where we think we want to be in April, May and we hope June. Just progress out, look ahead to see the matchups. … I think the communication and how I speak to Al is for me driven with those sort of core tenants in mind that I try to stick to.”

Horford is shooting 32.4 percent from three-point range, his worst mark since 2014-15, and 33.1 percent on wide-open threes. A hopeful look at history would suggest those numbers will improve. 

He’s also accepted a bench role without any fuss, saying Wednesday, “It’s what the team needs right now, and that’s what we’re doing.”

There is certainly evidence to support the notion he can excel at a job that includes a few less minutes alongside Embiid but still has him featuring in late-game lineups, especially against teams like the Bucks. 

Brown will continue to track the success and regularity of the Embiid-Horford duo. Though he and the Sixers will be looking for signs of improvement, it’s feasible that he’ll eventually be best served by further decreasing the playing time of his original frontcourt. 

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