For the first time since October, the Sixers had a losing week, with a win over the Pistons on Monday followed by defeats vs. the Nets on Wednesday and Pacers on Friday with Jimmy Butler sidelined by a strained groin.
At 19-11, the Sixers sit at No. 4 in the Eastern Conference, though the standings are constantly shifting. The Sixers are a game behind the Bucks, a half game behind Indiana and a half game ahead of the Celtics.
In this week’s observations, we look at Joel Embiid’s resurgence, the Sixers’ weakness on the bench, a telling stat and more.
• Joel Embiid’s “slump” is officially over. Embiid averaged 32.3 points on 55.3 percent shooting, 15.3 rebounds, and four assists over the past week. He’s drawing fouls at a high rate again too, with 38 free throw attempts in his last three contests.
It wasn’t too difficult to sense the exasperation of Domantas Sabonis and Kyle O’Quinn on Friday night when, on back-to-back possessions, Embiid drew fouls on them with his sweep-through move during his dominant, 28-point first half.
• As we’ve harped on several times, the Sixers have a paucity of strong defenders outside of their stars. That weakness is most apparent against a team like the Nets, whose guards target players like Furkan Korkmaz and Landry Shamet and post career highs.
When they’re not hitting shots, players like Korkmaz, Shamet and Mike Muscala go from having a neutral or slightly positive value to being major negatives.
If you exclude Embiid, Ben Simmons and JJ Redick, the Sixers shot 8 for 32 vs. the Pacers. You can label such a performance an outlier. But subpar defense has been the norm, and as a result, poor shooting from the Sixers’ role players just about guarantees a loss.
The Pacers, Bucks and Celtics are each within the top-six in the NBA in bench plus-minus, while the Sixers are No. 16, at minus-0.6.
• Here’s an interesting stat: The Sixers have three of the top five guards in the NBA in terms of field goal percentage. Two-way player Demetrius Jackson is technically No. 1 — he made his only shot this season in garbage time of the Sixers’ win over the Knicks on Sep. 28. While Jackson's place isn’t worth any deep analysis, Simmons coming in at No. 4 (57.3 percent) and T.J. McConnell at No. 5 (57.1 percent) is telling.
The positive spin is that Simmons and McConnell know their spots on the floor, and they’re good at converting in their comfort zones.
The less positive spin is that neither player has strayed from their comfort zones very often. To be fair to McConnell, his shot distribution is very similar to what it was last season. He had 49.2 percent of his attempts from 10 feet or fewer last season and is at 49.1 percent through the Sixers’ first 30 games.
Simmons’ range has actually shrunk, which, along with his improved post-up play, helps explain why his shooting is up a couple percentage points. Only 11.2 percent of his field goal attempts have been from 10 feet and out, down from last season’s 20.4 percent.
The Sixers’ point guards shoot a higher percentage than any other team’s. They also space the floor worse than any other team’s point guards. Embiid is forced to float out to the perimeter when Simmons occupies the post. And it's much easier to effectively double-team the Sixers' big man when opponents can aggressively send help off Simmons or McConnell, who usually station themselves in the short corner on Embiid post-ups.
• After the loss to the Pacers, Embiid didn’t pretend the Sixers have nothing to worry about. He acknowledged the team’s fundamental defensive issues and said the Sixers are “still learning how to play with each other.”
But he also said this:
We’ll be fine. We’re not on red alert. It’s two games; the season is long. We’re going to go to Cleveland. Last time they beat us, so we’re going to go there for revenge. We’re going to want to punch them in the mouth because we lost against them, which shouldn’t have happened. That’s going to be a good game. But the season is long. Hopefully we get Jimmy back against Cleveland and it’ll be a better game.
That perspective from Embiid is fair enough. The Sixers’ defense is a serious concern, and you have to strain your imagination to picture their current bench playing in the NBA Finals. But, even after two straight losses, the Sixers have five more wins than at this point last season.
A loss in Cleveland, though, would edge the Sixers a little closer to red alert.
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