Sixers weekly observations: Brett Brown's crunch-time decisions, JJ Redick's slump, Jonah Bolden's resurgence

Sixers weekly observations: Brett Brown's crunch-time decisions, JJ Redick's slump, Jonah Bolden's resurgence

Joel Embiid wants us all to stop worrying about injuries, Zhaire Smith is back on the court and the Sixers beat the Pelicans and Thunder and lost to the Warriors this week. They sit at 40-23, a half-game behind the Pacers for the third seed in the Eastern Conference (see standings)

Here are our weekly observations: 

• Some of Brett Brown’s late-game decisions this week are open to scrutiny, but the unnecessarily complicated ending against the Pelicans and the loss to the Warriors fall mainly on his players.

Against the Pelicans, the Sixers’ late lead dwindling to one was more a product of his players missing open shots and failing to convert free throws that could have iced the game than anything Brown did as a coach. The decision to blitz Jrue Holiday on the pick-and-roll up three points struck me as a little odd — it felt like a defensive risk the Sixers didn’t need to take in that situation — but you can at least understand the strategy of wanting to get the ball out of Holiday’s hands with a chance to tie the game.

Saturday night, Brown's choice to have Ben Simmons intentionally miss from the foul line with 10.3 seconds left and the Sixers down two drew plenty of questions after the game. Brown’s explanation was reasonable — facing Golden State, and with no timeouts left, it was close to an automatic decision (see story).

You usually don’t see intentional misses with that much time remaining in a game, but Brown’s logic is sound. One other factor to consider is that there was, quite literally, a 50-50 chance that Simmons would even make the free throw to cut the deficit to one — he’s made exactly half his foul shots in the fourth quarter this season.

• JJ Redick’s slump is encroaching on concerning territory for the Sixers. Redick has made just 25 percent of his field goals and three-point attempts since the All-Star break. He’d gone 64 straight games scoring in double figures until the Sixers’ loss to the Blazers last Saturday. Then he turned in another single-digit scoring effort vs. Golden State, with six points on 2 for 9 shooting.

Redick is too good a shooter to miss this many open jumpers for eternity. That said, Redick’s struggles should force the Sixers to consider how much they’d be able to tolerate a similar slump from him in the postseason. Given his deficiencies as a defender, Redick is going to be a net negative for the Sixers unless he’s hitting shots. 

To be fair to Redick, his screening and off-ball movement are vital to the Sixers’ offense. But that might not be enough to justify keeping him on the floor nearly as much as the team’s other starters in the playoffs if he’s in a rough shooting patch. 

• From a human standpoint, it was very encouraging to hear that Boban Marjanovic suffered a bone bruise and mild sprain of his right knee in New Orleans, not something much worse — watching him have to be helped off the court, grimacing in pain, the injury seemed dire. 

From a basketball standpoint, his absence — along with Embiid’s stint on the sidelines in the name of “long-term preservation” — have created an opening for Jonah Bolden. It’s difficult to imagine Marjanovic being able to hold his own vs. the Warriors’ smaller lineups the way Bolden did.

Brown acknowledged Saturday that Bolden — a confident rookie with his own distinct style — has impressed him recently.

He earned a greater level of consideration from me. It always stands out a lot more when you can make some shots, make some threes, it always stands out more. We've seen the other stuff. I think the discipline of playing pick-and-roll defense, he's getting better at. There's also a physicality that's greater than you would think by looking at his build. I think he helped himself tonight. 

The choice to relegate Bolden from the rotation after the Sixers’ pre-deadline trades was harsh. If there’s a silver lining to Embiid and Marjanovic’s injuries, it’s that Bolden has again been able to show he can be a valuable piece.

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Will Sixers be in an advantageous position if season resumes?

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Will Sixers be in an advantageous position if season resumes?

On so many levels, the Sixers’ season hasn’t gone as planned. Even before the coronavirus pandemic forced the NBA to suspend play, the team was in an unenviable spot.

If the regular season is over, which seems like a distinct possibility, the Sixers would finish as the East’s sixth seed. A combination of fit, underperformance — especially away from the Wells Fargo Center — and injury put them there.

But if the NBA does resume at some point, where does that leave the 2019-20 Sixers?

There’s a train of thought that this break could benefit the Sixers. It’s a fair line of thinking. In fact, there may not be a team that would benefit more. 

Ben Simmons, who has been sidelined since Feb. 22 with nerve impingement in his lower back, will have more time to recover. Back on March 11, before we learned later that night that Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for coronavirus, Simmons spoke before the Sixers’ game against the Pistons. 

The All-Star point guard said he had “no pain” and was “confident” — though he did not give a timeline for his return. Earlier that day, the team released a statement which said Simmons would be re-evaluated in three weeks. That would put the re-evaluation at around April 1, with no indication the NBA season will resume any time soon.

Other than Simmons, the other four members of the regular starting lineup have dealt with injuries this season. 

Joel Embiid tore a ligament in his left ring finger and had a left shoulder sprain. Josh Richardson has dealt with injuries to both hamstrings, among other things. While Tobias Harris (right knee contusion) and Al Horford (left knee soreness, left hamstring tightness) haven’t missed much time, they’ve also been banged up this season.

All of this to say, maybe this break — as unfortunate as it is for the sport and for the world, really — winds up benefiting the Sixers. Everyone will be back to Point A when/if play resumes. If you’ll recall, the Sixers started this season 5-0. It seems like a distant memory, but it happened. Perhaps returning to full health will ignite a similar run.

Now, for the glass half-empty version.

Though being healthy will help, it won’t solve the myriad issues the Sixers had with their roster construction this season. If both Embiid and Horford are healthy, Brett Brown seems hellbent on trying to make the combo work. So far this season, the evidence has been against that being fruitful.

Richardson and Harris have had their moments this season, but neither has been exactly what the Sixers expected. Richardson’s skillset is one the Sixers need, but he’s on pace to have the worst three-point shooting season of his career. While Harris has been solid, he hasn’t been the near-max player the team thought they were getting.

As for Simmons, he was playing easily the best basketball of his career before his injury and seemed to be a legitimate candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Will he be able to round into form and get ready for the playoffs in a hurry after such a long layoff?

Then the seven-foot, 280-plus pound elephant in the room — will Embiid be in good enough shape to play in an NBA game when the time comes?

The Sixers may be the most mystifying team in the NBA. It’s entirely possible they come out guns blazing, get their act together and go on a run. It seems just as feasible that their fit issues fester, and they’ll get bounced in the first round.

So while the basketball hiatus may benefit the Sixers, they’d still have to take advantage.

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Can Elton Brand and the Sixers fix what went wrong with roster construction?

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Can Elton Brand and the Sixers fix what went wrong with roster construction?

The Sixers had so many options heading into free agency last July.

We don’t know yet exactly when free agency will begin this year because of the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and the suspended NBA season. Whenever it does happen, though, the Sixers won’t have as many possibilities. 

The decisions to give Tobias Harris a five-year, $180 million contract and guarantee Al Horford $97 million over four years are the two clear, primary reasons the Sixers won’t be in an especially flexible position. In Year 1, those moves haven’t panned out as GM Elton Brand and the front office would have hoped.

In one major way, Horford has actually provided what the Sixers expected. As a backup center, he’s been quite good — the Sixers have a plus-5.2 net rating when Horford is on the floor and Joel Embiid is off it. He’s been much better than a hodgepodge of Amir Johnson, Boban Marjanovic, Greg Monroe and Jonah Bolden. 

However, many of the reasonable concerns that came with signing Horford have come to fruition. The Horford-Embiid pairing has the worst net rating of any two-man Sixers lineup that’s played at least 500 minutes together. If you want an idea of just how poor the offense has been when the two have shared the floor, consider this: Their 100.6 offensive rating together is almost six points worse than any of the Sixers’ two-man pairings last season (minimum 500 minutes). 

Though Brett Brown was talking about aiming to further develop Horford and Embiid together as recently as the day before the season was suspended, that combination is a problem. It’s not what the Sixers would have planned when they signed Horford, but the decision to move him out of the starting lineup in February was very sensible.

Horford has shot more three-pointers than ever in his career, but not at an efficient rate (33.7 percent, his worst mark since the 2014-15 season). We thought he’d likely decline in the later years of his contract and be costing the Sixers money at 35 or 36 years old. To put it bluntly, he’s cost the Sixers money in his first season, and has not fit well. 

Harris, in his ninth NBA season, has improved defensively, is second on the Sixers in scoring (19.4 points per game) and, after an 0-for-23 nightmare of a stretch, has shot 39.1 percent from three-point range. He’s the only Sixer to have played in every game, and younger players like Matisse Thybulle and Marial Shayok have praised his mentorship. All of that matters and is positive, but Harris has not been worth $32.7 million this season.

The main question now — outside of when basketball will return, of course — is whether the Sixers can repair their mistakes.

Is there a team out there that would be willing to take on Horford’s contract and give up any value in return? The Kings, who reportedly were expected to make a “massive offer” to Horford in free agency, are one team it would make sense to engage. Sharpshooter Buddy Hield would presumably be the name of interest.

Trading away Harris looks much less likely, although we’ve learned not to rule anything out during Brand’s brief tenure. It’s difficult to imagine the Sixers receiving a worthwhile return, and Brown and Brand have often portrayed Harris as being an emerging player. They believe he’s going to get more and more comfortable and effective as a primary scoring option.

Josh Richardson, who’s suffered a variety of injuries in his first year a Sixer, is on a team-friendly deal. He shouldn’t be untouchable, but his perimeter defense and shot creation are important for this team, and they come at a good value.

Ben Simmons and Embiid are not what’s wrong with the Sixers and should not be traded at this stage. The pieces around them are the issues. Of course, judgement of whether those are issues the Sixers can overcome is incomplete. We don’t know yet how this roster would fare in the playoffs, and Brand has insisted his team was built with the postseason in mind. 

The Sixers would currently have a first-round pick in the draft — the top-20 protected Oklahoma City Thunder pick they acquired in the Markelle Fultz trade would convey — and that’s one of the ways they should be able to improve their roster. They’ve hit on Landry Shamet, Shake Milton and Thybulle in the draft over the last couple of years. With how Brand has constructed the team, targeting a perimeter player who can shoot, capably create his own shot or do both would appear an obvious priority.

Fundamentally, nobody envisioned this NBA season unfolding the way it has. Whatever is next and whenever the offseason eventually begins, the Sixers will have to discern the best methods to address the unpleasant surprises of this season. 

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