76ers

Sixers weekly observations: Ben Simmons striking the right balance, Joel Embiid's wide-ranging influence, more

Sixers weekly observations: Ben Simmons striking the right balance, Joel Embiid's wide-ranging influence, more

This week, all the speculation stopped. Well, most of it did anyway, at least the valid questions about what the Sixers would look like when Joel Embiid returned.

The Sixers (44-25) were far from perfect, but they still pulled off a 3-0 homestand with wins Sunday over the Pacers in Embiid's first game back, Tuesday vs. the Cavs in an uncomfortably close matchup, and Friday against the Kings.

Here are a few observations on the week:

• We all know and understand, on an intuitive level, how large an impact Embiid has. This week helped put the abstract truism that Embiid matters into perspective.

There were issues with double teams, instances when his wires crossed with JJ Redick’s, sluggish stretches. But for the most part, Embiid was excellent for the Sixers this week. Not many players can return from an eight-game absence and average 23.7 points, 16.0 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game.

His versatility and low-post dominance expanded the possibilities for an offense that looked, at times, lethargic and limited without him. His late-game defense gave his teammates plenty of margin for error. His presence re-introduced a familiar spark to the Wells Fargo Center.

When Embiid is off the court this season, the Sixers have a minus-3.2 net rating, which would put them 26th in the NBA. When Embiid is on the floor, the team has a plus-8.3 rating. That would be second in the NBA, behind only the Bucks. 

Embiid is a massively influential player, a special talent, an original personality, and a very compelling reason to watch Sixers basketball. Everyone associated with the team is grateful to have him back.

• Ben Simmons turned the ball over just three times this week. While there are bigger challenges in front of him Sunday against the Bucks and Wednesday vs. Boston, you have to be encouraged by the way Simmons conducted the offense. Brett Brown has mentioned Simmons’ open-court speed sometimes leads him to outrun the offense. These past three games, he initiated half-court sets when appropriate but also blew by the defense on the fast break when the opportunity presented itself.

He’ll need to keep doing a good job hitting that middle ground between full speed ahead and walking it up if he continues to play as much with Embiid as he did Friday. The duo played almost 36 minutes together vs. Sacramento, which is a significant bump up from the norm. Since Jimmy Butler’s first game as a Sixer on Nov. 14, Embiid and Simmons have shared the court for 22.9 minutes per game, which is just seventh highest of the team’s two-man pairings. With two potential playoffs opponents on deck over the next four days, it’ll be worth tracking how often Embiid and Simmons play together.

• It’s a relatively small thing, but I liked the call to rest Butler vs. the Cavs. 

There’s this difficult, tenuous line Brown and the Sixers are trying to walk between pushing to win every game left and trying to put the team in the best shape possible for the playoffs. Do you experiment with new rotations? How much should you introduce new plays or concepts, and how much should you focus on fine-tuning what you already have?

The Butler decision was a situation in which the Sixers could focus on both priorities at once. Resting Butler didn’t seriously jeopardize the Sixers' chances against the 17-win Cavs, and Butler looked rejuvenated Friday night vs. the Kings in a stellar two-way performance

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Sixers will begin phased reopening of practice facility Wednesday

Sixers will begin phased reopening of practice facility Wednesday

The Sixers will begin a phased reopening of their practice facility in Camden, New Jersey, on Wednesday for voluntary, individual workouts, the team announced.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced Tuesday that professional sports teams in New Jersey are now permitted to resume training and competition, which opened the door for the Sixers.

NBA teams had been allowed to hold individual workouts for players beginning on May 8 with strict restrictions in place. Because of coronavirus-related restrictions imposed in New Jersey, the Sixers hadn’t been among the teams holding workouts. However, general manager Elton Brand did say that Ben Simmons had been allowed to use the team’s practice facility to do rehab work for a nerve impingement in his lower back.

“Ben and others have been given permission to use our facility,” Brand said on May 5. “It’s essential that they have the proper equipment to workout and rehab, so he’s been doing that ever since the first week. We were able to get him access there. Joel Embiid’s been working out. He’s conditioning, he’s focused, he’s asking about when his trainer can come in, when he can get on the court.

"So I wouldn’t bet against him. He’s going to be ready and ramped up. Tobias [Harris] is a similar situation. He’s been getting treatment on and off. Most of our players are in market, by the way. Tobias is in market and he’s been getting treatment also.”

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe reported last week that teams expect the league to issue guidelines around June 1 on recalling players who have left their markets, and for workouts to expand around the same time.

The NBA announced Saturday that it is engaged in “exploratory conversations” about resuming the 2019-20 season at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, in late July. The season has been suspended since March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

On May 15, head coach Brett Brown said he thought a three-week ramp-up period would likely be sufficient before returning to play. 

“The notion of how the players come in influences kind of everything,” Brown said. “The three-week thing I think can be achieved as long as the fitness base of the players coming in is at the standard that I’m saying,” he said. “With that … I feel comfortable that we could go play basketball again.”

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2020 NBA free agency: 6 bigs the Sixers could target this offseason

2020 NBA free agency: 6 bigs the Sixers could target this offseason

Another big man may not be high on the priority list for the Sixers this offseason, but a lot can change between when/if the season resumes and when next season starts.

Will the Sixers try to move Al Horford’s contract? Does the team trust Norvel Pelle to take on a bigger role next season? Would Kyle O’Quinn consider returning after he reportedly asked to be waived?

Here are six bigs that could fit the Sixers in free agency depending on how everything shakes out.

Marc Gasol

Gasol is most known around these parts for being a thorn in Joel Embiid’s side. A former Defensive Player of the Year, Gasol is big, smart and physical — a combination that has caused Embiid serious difficulty. He’s not the offensive player he was in his prime, but he can still shoot it (40.2 percent from three), pass it (3.4 assists) and is an excellent screen setter.

At 35, it will be interesting see what kind of offers Gasol will get. The only scenario in which the Sixers would likely be able to make it work is if they successfully trade Horford and his massive contract. Is it worth taking a shot on Gasol with the team’s mid-level exception? With the Sixers having other pressing needs, it’s a tough call. Gasol would make an excellent Embiid backup and mentor.

Aron Baynes

Baynes had a solid run in Boston and was having a strong season in Monty Williams’ system in Phoenix. The Sixers were the first team to experience Baynes’ evolution as a three-point shooter in the 2018 playoffs. He was hitting 35 percent on over four attempts a game before the 2019-20 season was suspended. He also has proven to be a solid post defender and screen setter.

This is going to be all about what Baynes’ preferences are. If he wants to get paid like a starting center, the Sixers aren’t the team for him. If he’s willing to accept a backup role to Embiid on a lesser deal, there’s a possibility. It seems more likely Baynes could find a better situation, but he’d be a solid option for the Sixers if he can’t.

Alex Len

Len hasn’t lived up to the status of being the fifth overall pick, but he’s become a solid rotational NBA big. His career numbers per 36 minutes are solid: 14.6 points, 11.5 rebounds, 1.8 blocks. Though he struggled to hit threes this season, he’s had some success for a big (33 percent for his career).

Still just 26, there could be a team that views Len as having a higher ceiling. Being so young, he also could value playing time and money over being a reserve on a contender. Like Baynes, if he can’t find a better situation, the Sixers could do worse in a backup center.

Noah Vonleh

Vonleh is another top-10 pick that hasn’t quite panned out but has shown he can be a serviceable NBA player. After a strong campaign for the Knicks in 2018-19, Vonleh had a tough year for the Timberwolves. He was eventually shipped to the Nuggets in that crazy four-team deal ahead of the trade deadline.

Signing Vonleh would be similar to when the Sixers signed O’Quinn this past offseason. He won’t have a definitive role but could be a nice insurance policy if there are injuries and Pelle struggles. Though he’s only 24, the price shouldn’t be high given his struggles in Minnesota this season.

Dario Saric

If you’re reading this, you should know all about this guy. Saric hasn’t been the same player since he was dealt to the Timberwolves in the Jimmy Butler trade. Still, he’s played a solid role for Williams in Phoenix. Saric has flashed the combination of skill and grit he did here, but his lack of athleticism has limited him.

Saric is a true four. Though you could get away with using Saric as a small-ball five in certain lineups, you wouldn’t want him back there for an extended period of time with a true NBA center. Saric did love his time here and played the best basketball of his NBA career. He's a restricted free agent so the Suns would likely have to rescind his rights for the Sixers to have a chance. If the price is right, you can’t rule out a reunion.

Markieff Morris

The Philly native was having a good year in Detroit before being bought out and signing with the Lakers. He’s struggled with his shot during his eight-game stint in L.A. but was hitting just below 40 percent of his threes with the Pistons. Morris plays with an edge and could bring that physical style and attitude back home.

Morris could be repetitive with Mike Scott already signed for next season. Though Scott struggled this year, he’d come on a bit before the season was suspended and looked more like the player we saw during last year's playoff run.

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