76ers

Sixers stock watch: Ben Simmons' aggressiveness lifting team

Sixers stock watch: Ben Simmons' aggressiveness lifting team

To start the season, we’d been doing a stock watch for Markelle Fultz to see how the second-year guard was progressing. 

With his situation … well … we decided to switch it up and do a general Sixers stock watch after was likely their best week of the young season.

Stock up

Ben Simmons

After the first two games of the Jimmy Butler era, there was some concern with Simmons. He averaged just 9.5 points in those contests. More worrisome, he took just 14 field goal attempts combined in those games and didn’t look comfortable offensively.

In the eight outings since, Simmons is averaging 18.1 points and shooting 62 percent from the field. More important than the stats, Simmons has looked so much better. He’s been more assertive offensively. Too often this season, Simmons has gone to the basket without a plan, which has led to turnovers. Recently he’s been looking for his own shot. This was most evident in the win over the Grizzlies (see story).

His defense with his “headband brother” Butler is also reaching an elite level.

Sixers’ team defense

The Sixers’ poor defense, especially against the pick-and-roll, was a huge storyline early on this season. Part of it had to do with Lloyd Pierce — who oversaw the team’s defense — becoming the head coach in Atlanta and assistant Billy Lange implementing a new system.

The Sixers have held their last three opponents under 100 points. They’d held only three opponents below 100 in the previous 22 games. The last time it happened before blowing out the Knicks last Wednesday, was Nov. 7 against the Pacers.

Butler’s presence is a factor to be sure, but there’s more to it. The Sixers seem to be getting more comfortable in their new, switch-heavy scheme. Their help defense has gotten significantly better over the last week. If they can keep playing D at this level, the sky is the limit.

Stock down

Amir Johnson

It appears Johnson’s playing time will only be the result of an emergency or cleanup duty. Johnson looks a step slower this season. He’s never been the greatest rebounder or rim protector but last season he gave the Sixers good on-the-ball defense. The Sixers have been using Mike Muscala as their backup five and may be in the market for a bench center in a trade or a buyout candidate.

With all that said, give Johnson credit for being a pro’s pro. The Sixers needed him to come off the bench and give them good minutes against Marc Gasol with Wilson Chandler out. Johnson did just that. Gasol had pretty much no impact on the game, even when Joel Embiid was on the bench. Against teams like Memphis that have multiple true centers, Johnson can still play a role, but he’ll struggle against teams that play small.

Markelle Fultz

Fultz winds up here because he’s missing out on valuable playing time he could be getting. T.J. McConnell played 31 minutes Sunday night. There would’ve been plenty of minutes for Fultz in blowouts against the Knicks and Wizards.

If he’s hurt, then the timing is just a shame. If it’s someone giving him bad advice, then shame on them.

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Bucks' Twitter account trolls Sixers after blowout win

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@Bucks

Bucks' Twitter account trolls Sixers after blowout win

The Milwaukee Bucks were feeling better than the rest of the NBA and most definitely better than the Sixers after a 119-98 win Saturday night in Milwaukee. 

The team’s Twitter account captured that feeling of superiority with a shot at the Sixers.

Is there anything the Sixers can say in response? Reminding the Bucks that they’ve won over 50 games in each of the last two seasons or have two young All-Stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons probably wouldn’t seem very persuasive after losing by 21 points to a team on pace for more than 70 wins.

This is a case where the Sixers would likely do well to stay silent and accept the L.

They can praise Sam Hinkie's vision or craft arguments against Process skeptics on another night. 

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Ben Simmons leaves with injury in Sixers' nightmarish loss to Bucks

Ben Simmons leaves with injury in Sixers' nightmarish loss to Bucks

The Sixers’ second game after the All-Star break could have gone worse, but not by much.

They were blown out Saturday night in Milwaukee by the NBA-best Bucks, 119-98, and Ben Simmons left the game in the first quarter because of injury.

The loss drops the Sixers to 35-22, 9-20 on the road. Up next are the Hawks on Monday night (7 p.m./NBCSP).

Simmons irritates injury 

Simmons, who’d missed the Sixers’ game Thursday vs. the Nets with lower back soreness, exited after playing 4:44 and irritating the injury. 

He paused and bent down after drawing a foul on Brook Lopez, then made 1 of 2 free throws. Matisse Thybulle then took a foul on Khris Middleton to ensure Simmons could check out and go back to the locker room.

Heading into Saturday’s contest, Simmons had played 213 of a possible 230 regular-season games over the past three seasons. The 23-year-old All-Star leads the NBA in steals and is quite obviously an integral piece for the Sixers.

Other injury scares 

Tobias Harris grabbed at his right knee and limped back up the floor following a missed layup attempt in the second quarter.

Though Harris stayed in the game, it was an alarming sight, especially in the context of Simmons’ injury and Harris’ immediate reaction without any contact. He didn’t seem to be moving as well as usual after the incident.

At the end of the half, Embiid missed a tip-in off an Alec Burks layup, then appeared to grimace and hold his lower back. He didn’t miss any action. 

The Sixers entered the game with no players on the injury report, but, by the end of the first half, their overall team health was a matter of concern. 

The backup plan 

Shake Milton (17 points on 5 of 9 shooting) slid into the point guard spot when Simmons exited, sharing a backcourt with Josh Richardson early in the second quarter. The Sixers then inserted Burks in place of starter Glenn Robinson III. That lineup — with Harris and Embiid in the frontcourt — was the same one that had won the Sixers Thursday’s game in overtime. 

Again, Simmons’ injury had an impact on the team’s rotations, so it wouldn’t make sense to come to any grand conclusions. That said, the exclusion of Raul Neto until the game was out of hand is notable. Neto had started in Simmons' place Thursday. 

The inclination to try the Sixers’ three most capable pick-and-roll guards in the same lineup also suggests a desire to maximize that skill set, which is not at all surprising.

Throughout the entire season, the Sixers have been looking for players who can handle the ball, create their own shots and run a pick-and-roll. They’re hoping that Burks, who impressed with 19 points Thursday, can help in an area where they’ve been consistently lacking. Burks did not play well Saturday, shooting 3 of 13. On one third-quarter sequence, he quickly undid the good fortune of a banked-in three by missing a free throw and fouling Middleton on the ensuing possession. 

Mike Scott, a DNP vs. Brooklyn, appeared in the second half with the Sixers down double digits. 

Shooting woes 

Neither Embiid nor the Sixers started the game well. Embiid was scoreless in the first quarter and the Sixers shot 8 of 25 as a team from the field (1 of 9 from three-point range).

He was aggressive in the second quarter, scoring 12 points, getting to the foul line seven times and temporarily giving the Sixers a form of reliable half-court offense. The Sixers also did well to defend the Bucks without fouling in the first half, holding a big free throw attempt disparity (14-2) and staying close despite their continued outside shooting struggles.

That quarter was the only real positive of the night for Embiid or the Sixers. Embiid picked up his third and fourth fouls early in the third quarter, and the Sixers’ deficit grew with him on the bench. As a comeback win without Simmons looked more and more unlikely, the defensive effort deteriorated. 

Embiid hit 5 of 18 field goals and had 11 rebounds, four assists and four turnovers. He’s now made 11 of his last 44 shots in Milwaukee. 

The Sixers shot a season-worst 35 percent from the field. Al Horford was just 1 for 7. 

The reigning MVP dominates 

Embiid and Horford split defensive duties on Giannis Antetokounmpo. The reigning MVP again made it very clear that his 8-of-27 Christmas shooting effort against the Sixers was an anomaly with 31 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists in 29 minutes. 

Thursday night, Embiid had said, “The All-Star Game is just proving that I’m here, I belong, and being the best player in the world.”

Antetokounmpo played like the best player in the world Saturday. 

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