76ers

Sixers' new additions shore up old problems with perimeter defense, turnovers

Sixers' new additions shore up old problems with perimeter defense, turnovers

On paper, the Sixers’ flurry of moves before the trade deadline vaulted the team into championship conversations.

In person, the new version of the Sixers won its first game, beating the Nuggets on Friday night, 117-110 (see observations). And though the team’s abundance of offensive weapons will likely get the most attention, that’s not what impressed head coach Brett Brown the most. 

“The last six minutes defensively stood out,” Brown said. “You could feel it, you could see it, that our guys went to a different place, particularly Ben [Simmons] and Joel [Embiid] in pick-and-roll defense in terms of intensity and execution with some of the schemes we were trying to do. I thought as a whole our starting five during the run in the last five to six minutes, they were excellent defensively.”

General manager Elton Brand added five players to the Sixers’ roster Wednesday and Thursday — Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, Mike Scott, James Ennis and Jonathon Simmons. It wouldn’t be fair to classify any one of them as a below-average defender.

Instead of having to try to avoid mismatches with subpar defenders like Landry Shamet and Mike Muscala, Brown can now have faith in a solid, veteran wing like Ennis and a strong, switchable defender in Harris who also happens to average over 20 points per game.

“Just all over the place, you can see why people think he’s an All-Star,” Brown said of Harris. “And I think that his personality and his basketball intellect stands out. I thought he had some tough defensive plays down the stretch. He might not look like Jimmy [Butler] looks but gosh, he had some tough plays down the stretch.”

Harris, who had 14 points, eight rebounds and three assists in his Sixers debut, should fit in well on a defensive unit that now has the personnel to adapt to a variety of lineups. For instance, 7-foot-3 Boban Marjanovic is a good option against less agile centers like Denver’s Nikola Jokic, while Jonah Bolden could fill in as Embiid’s backup against a less favorable matchup for Marjanovic. 

“A lot of potential,” Harris said. “I think we're a team that's very versatile on the defensive end — different size, different strengths. We have one of the best at-the-rim players in the league — two of the best with Joel and Boban. It's going to be a really good defensive team. I think tonight we were really locked in and solid. We were really good. Just us getting that going for us is going to be really big. Using that going forward is going to have to be our key.”

Outside of their defensive impact, the way Harris, Marjanovic, Scott and Ennis took care of the ball Friday night was remarkable. In 76 combined minutes, those four turned it over once. And that collective performance isn’t a complete fluke. Harris, Scott and Ennis all have turnover percentages under 9.0 this season. 

On a team 27th in the NBA with 15.7 turnovers per game, it’s a welcome quality that addresses one of the Sixers’ weaknesses, just like their pre-deadline lack of players who could play decent defense against multiple positions. 

The offense could very well take some time for the Sixers to figure out. And easy baskets might not present themselves often in a postseason series against the Celtics, Bucks or Raptors. But the Sixers’ defense should now be good enough that they have a chance against any team. 

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Criticism by analyst of Joel Embiid's opinion on NBA plan is well off the mark

Criticism by analyst of Joel Embiid's opinion on NBA plan is well off the mark

Joel Embiid on Tuesday gave a thoughtful and detailed explanation for why he initially “hated” the NBA’s plan to resume the season in Orlando and still does not believe it is safe enough.

Wednesday, Kendrick Perkins reacted to Embiid’s comments on ESPN’s “First Take,” and his stance was not as well-reasoned. 

In part, Perkins said, “To me, this is just an excuse. If they get knocked out, this is going to be an excuse because their superstar was halfway in. … Man, go down there and hoop. I ain’t trying to hear that, man. It’s a billion-dollar bubble.”

Perkins’ response evades the substance of Embiid’s remarks. Among Embiid’s primary points were that he is concerned about consequences the coronavirus might have for himself and his family, that basketball isn’t the only thing which should define him, and that he is skeptical other players will adhere to the NBA’s health and safety protocols intended to minimize risk of COVID-19 exposure. (Embiid noted he doesn’t do much outside of basketball besides playing video games and will personally do everything necessary to mitigate risk.) What Perkins said addresses none of those issues.

Instead, he focused on the notion of Embiid somehow being weaker than other superstars who committed to resume play without publicly voicing any concerns. To express worry about doing one’s job in these circumstances — playing basketball, in Embiid’s case — does not suggest a lack of character or toughness. It is a logical sentiment, and there is nothing wrong with Embiid being candid on the subject. 

… If you told me that the current trend is that people are getting sick and a lot of people are dying,” Embiid said, “obviously you don’t know what's going to happen and you don’t want to be in a situation where you put your life at risk ... and all that stuff, just for what? The money and all that stuff. At the end of the day, basketball is not all that matters. I've got family, I've got myself to look out for. That's all I care about.

Coronavirus cases have risen sharply in Florida, to the extent that many hospitals in the state have maxed out their ICU capacity. Embiid, who’s donated $500,000 to coronavirus relief efforts, has every right to say he is “not a big fan” of playing in Orlando. 

Familiar cliches in sports about sacrifice for the sake of the team and adversity over obstacles do not apply to a pandemic. This is a different category from Embiid shifting how he plays to accommodate teammates, and a topic that should be approached seriously. 

Perkins is allowed to criticize Embiid, of course, but his viewpoint is lacking in empathy and perspective.

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What to make of Joel Embiid's answers to big on-court questions

What to make of Joel Embiid's answers to big on-court questions

Since March, Joel Embiid has played a little under 27 minutes of competitive basketball.

He was impressive in that time on the floor, recording 30 points and 11 rebounds vs. the Pistons on March 11 after a five-game absence with a left shoulder sprain.

However, the most notable part of Embiid’s conversation with reporters Tuesday did not have to do with on-court matters. He said that he “hated” the NBA’s plan to resume the season in Orlando and does not believe it is safe enough. As Embiid said, he is more than just a basketball player. It is certainly valid to be critical of the idea of playing in Orange County, where ICU beds are at full capacity in several hospitals because of a spike in coronavirus cases. 

Still, we’re obligated to discuss Embiid the player, a three-time All-Star starter. 

Embiid didn’t volunteer many specifics about his fitness but said on multiple occasions he “feels good.” Over the last week, Brett Brown and Josh Richardson have praised his conditioning.

“I don’t think my weight is an issue,” he said. “The only thing to always watch is my body fat, and I feel good. Like I said, I’ve been chilling. Just doing what I have to do.”

He acknowledged Tuesday he did not always play at full intensity this season. 

“During this year, there were a lot of times when I was not into the offense and I was just basically going through the same motions and all that,” he said. “But with the playoffs coming, I’ve just gotta be more assertive and just be that guy — just demand the ball and do what I do.”  

Though no major statistic that might signify aggression — usage rate, free throw rate, post-ups, three-point attempts per 36 minutes — dropped significantly this year for Embiid, he feels he’s capable of more. In 44 games, he’s averaged 23.4 points, 11.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists, playing 30.2 minutes per game. Brown said last Wednesday he’d ideally like to have Embiid play 38 minutes a game in the postseason. 

I know what I’m capable of, and I know what my teammates think of me. I know I’m capable of carrying the team,” Embiid said. “It’s all about me being assertive. If I feel like I'm not getting the ball, I've just got to talk to them and do what I have to do, but at the end of the day, I should never be in a position to complain about not getting the ball, just because of who I am. 

“I believe I can carry the team. I believe that by being able to do that, I’ve just got to take matters into my own hands. … Obviously I need to be in positions where I feel comfortable, and I'm sure my teammates are going to help me.

Embiid’s partnership with Al Horford was a prominent storyline for the Sixers before the hiatus, mostly because it hasn’t worked as the Sixers hoped offensively. Among regular Sixers duos, the team has the worst offensive rating when that pair is on the floor together, and by a three-point margin

In Embiid’s mind, the pairing isn’t doomed to fail, though he thinks the players surrounding himself and Horford are an important factor. 

I don’t believe there is a problem,” he said. “It’s just a matter of everybody buying in and being able to play their role. The pairing with Al, I feel like it has been fine. At times it could be better but then again, everyone on the court has a job and with that type of pairing you need to have shooters around or you need to have people or guys ... wanting to take that shot, especially, when you’ve got two inside presences like me and Al. 

“He can post up, I can post up and then around, you’ve got to be able to have guys that are willing to shoot and that are going to shoot the ball. I think that's what needs to happen, but I don’t think there’s a problem. I think we're fine. I like him, great guy. We've got to keep on working together. … We are better suited for the playoffs. We’ve got about eight games to get back into it ... so I’m excited.

Horford and Embiid have not played together with a cast of willing and able shooters very often this season. The Sixers as a team are 22nd in three-pointers attempted (31.6) and 14th in three-point percentage (36.2 percent). The duo has shared the floor most often with Tobias Harris, who’s taken the most threes on the team, but the Sixers only have a 101.0 offensive rating when those three play together.  

Embiid seems to think an intuitive understanding of how to play the game — when to take open shots, how to accommodate each other, when to feed the dominant big man in the post — can override what we saw in the first 65 games.

More than anything, he trusts his own abilities when he’s determined to attack. 

“We didn’t get the chance to see it as much this year,” he said, “but you can go back and look at last year’s regular season and what I did, and that’s the mindset I need to have — and even better — if I really want to achieve that goal, which is to win the championship.”

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