More early aggression from Ben Simmons, clutch shotmaking from Tobias Harris lift Sixers to win over Nets

More early aggression from Ben Simmons, clutch shotmaking from Tobias Harris lift Sixers to win over Nets


On the road, the Sixers have lost six games in a row. At Wells Fargo Center, they’re still tough to beat.

They topped the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday night, 117-106, to move to 19-2 at home, 26-16 overall.

They’ll play the Chicago Bulls on Friday (7 p.m./NBCSP).

Here are observations on the win:

Simmons attacks early

Ben Simmons scored six of the Sixers’ first nine points in Dallas on Saturday and eight of their first 17 in Indiana on Monday.

“I thought in the first half [Monday] there was a dominant, tank mentality where he was going to dunk on anybody that was in front of him,” Brett Brown said pregame of Simmons.

That early aggression is encouraging and Simmons maintained it Wednesday, scoring 10 of his team’s opening 18. It helped that the Sixers forced five early Nets turnovers and played fast when possible. 

As they had in their first meeting, Brooklyn played off Simmons to an extreme degree, and the Sixers often countered by calling “12,” with a wing running up from the baseline to either give Simmons a ball screen or receive a handoff. The action had mixed results, but Simmons was generally very good at powering through contact and quickly eating up the open space the Nets gave him. 

In the fourth quarter, Furkan Korkmaz (15 points) made a three go-ahead three when, as the Nets prepared for a Simmons drive off “12,” the Australian point guarded handed it to his open teammate.

Simmons finished with 20 points, 15 of which came before halftime, and 11 assists. 

Harris comes through in the clutch

The Sixers received contrasting offensive contributions from their starters outside of Simmons. 

Tobias Harris was decisive and sharp, scoring a game-high 34 points on 20 shots. 

He was also massive late. Harris made a contested three from the left wing to put the Sixers up 109-104.

He then scored on the Sixers’ next two possessions, including a floater that gave the Sixers a nine-point lead and basically sealed the game. 

Al Horford struggled for most of the night, missing a heap of open looks on his way to a 4-for-14 shooting performance.

Josh Richardson had 15 points (5 for 12 shooting).

Holding down Irving 

The Sixers (and Richardson in particular) guarded Nets star Kyrie Irving very well, holding him to 14 points on 6 for 21 shooting.

However, Spencer Dinwiddie (26 points) and Jarrett Allen (17 points, 7 of 8 shooting) did have success in the pick-and-roll.

Doubling down 

Brown said pregame that Sixers would “double down” on wanting to increase their volume of three-point attempts, even after hitting only 15 of 70 threes (21.4) over their last two games.

The Sixers shot 11 for 30 from three vs. the Nets, a significant improvement in efficiency. 

‘I want to try to grow Matisse’ 

Matisse Thybulle started Wednesday, taking Mike Scott’s place. Scott had gone 3 of 14 from three-point range over his last three starts.

It was easy to see the logic in that decision, and Thybulle had several bright moments, including a rejection of a Joe Harris jumper in the first quarter followed by a layup on the resulting fast break. In the second quarter, he had one of his trademark “rearview” blocks on Irving, then sprinted down the floor, found his spot in the left corner and sunk a three. 

Other rotation decisions were more interesting. James Ennis was the fifth bench player to check in for the Sixers, but he played 15 minutes — in part because of Thybulle picking up his fourth foul early in the third —  and posted six points and five rebounds. He hadn’t played against Indiana, which Brown said before the game was primarily about a desire to develop the rookie Thybulle.

“I want to try to grow Matisse,” he said. “And at some point, you say, ‘Am I going to play 10 or nine?’ The lion’s share of some of James’ minutes were shifted over to Matisse. I don’t believe it’s something that you’re going to see a steady diet of. I wanted to try it, I did. Probably what you should hear most clearly is I want to try to grow Matisse more.”

Ennis doesn’t have a standout skill besides perhaps his offensive rebounding, but he’s been a dependable player for the Sixers, someone they can get decent playing time from in most situations. With the current roster, he should certainly be a stable part of the rotation.  

Raul Neto got the backup point guard minutes over Trey Burke, as he had in the second half vs. the Pacers, and recorded four points in seven minutes.

Norvel Pelle served as the team’s backup center until the Sixers briefly went with a Harris-Scott frontcourt late in the third quarter against an ultra-small Brooklyn lineup.

The NBA days left on Pelle’s two-way deal are nearly up and the Sixers have elected not to convert him to an NBA contract at the moment because they want to preserve flexibility ahead of the Feb. 6 trade deadline (see story).

Embiid starts working his way back 

Joel Embiid, after undergoing surgery Friday in New York for a torn ligament in his left hand, was back in Philadelphia and went through pregame conditioning drills, as well as doing form shooting with one hand.

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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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