Sixers weekly observations: Constant drama, double teaming Joel Embiid, and more

Sixers weekly observations: Constant drama, double teaming Joel Embiid, and more

There’s rarely a boring week with the Sixers.

My teammate Paul Hudrick will touch on all the drama with Markelle Fultz tomorrow in his weekly Fultz stock watch, but the Sixers kept things interesting on the court as well.

The team stands at 13-8 after beating the Suns Monday, the Pelicans Wednesday, and falling to the Cavs Friday night, their first loss at Wells Fargo Center this season. 

• The Sixers got off to slow starts against two of the NBA’s worst teams, the Suns and Cavs. While that hasn’t been a season-long trend (the Sixers have still outscored their opponents by 2.5 points per game in the first quarter), the team’s inability to piece together a complete game is notable. They almost did it against the Pelicans, then came an Anthony Davis missed free throw away from squandering a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter.

It’s great that the Sixers have been able to pull off a bunch of tight wins, in large part thanks to using their dangerous crunch-time weapons like JJ Redick and Embiid effectively (see film review). The team is 5-1 in games decided by three or fewer points.

Come playoff time, though, the Sixers can’t afford the sort of quarter-to-quarter inconsistency we’ve seen at the start of the season.

• Realistically, the Sixers are never going to be a low-turnover team in the near future. Unless the Sixers rebound at a high rate, the opposition is going to have more possessions.

After grabbing an NBA-best 52 percent of rebounds last season, the Sixers are 10th this season at 50.9 percent. That number is moving in the wrong direction after the past two games, in which the Sixers were outrebounded by a combined 18 boards. 

• The Cavs double teamed Joel Embiid more than any team since the Hawks on Oct. 29, and once again, it was an effective strategy.

Cleveland didn’t throw kamikaze doubles at Embiid whenever he touched the ball; they were smart about only sending help once he had established post position. Though Embiid managed 24 points and 12 rebounds, he only had three shots in the paint.

Brett Brown acknowledged the scheme threw Embiid off early. Embiid had two points on one field goal attempt in the first quarter.

“I think he struggled initially,” Brown said. “Then I think he sort of settled down. Initially, I think the double teams produced three turnovers. I think we can help Joel with maybe quicker, better spacing. I give Cleveland credit in causing some confusion with the double teams with Joel.”

It remains surprising that more teams haven’t at least tried doubling Embiid. Defending him conventionally doesn’t usually work very well — he’s averaging 27.9 points and an NBA-leading 10.6 free throw attempts. 

And given how little Embiid has been regularly doubled, you’d expect some of the confusion Brown noted vs. the Cavs to be present, at least for the time being. 

Embiid has improved his decision-making out of the post, increasing his assist to turnover ratio from 0.85 last season to 1.09, but he still looks susceptible to turnovers when double teamed. At the very least, double teaming in the post pushes Embiid out to the perimeter. You’d imagine every Sixers’ opponent would prefer Embiid shooting jumpers to him camping out on the low block and drawing foul after foul.

• Early returns are positive on the new starting lineup. Ben Simmons, Embiid, Jimmy Butler, Wilson Chandler and Redick have a plus-8.0 net rating in 68 minutes together. 

• We haven’t seen Butler fully unleashed quite yet. 

In the minuscule sample size of six games with the Sixers, Butler’s 12.8 field goal attempts per game and 20.4 percent usage rate would both be the lowest for him since the 2013-14 season.

Butler sprained his left ankle Friday night. X-rays were negative, and he didn’t rule out playing against the Nets. 

If Butler is able to play, look for Brown to call more isolation and pick-and-rolls sets for Butler this week to encourage him to take a more prominent role in the offense. 

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Sixers Talk podcast: Bring on the Bucks!

NBCSP/USA Today Images

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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