For Sixers, this part of process painfully familiar

For Sixers, this part of process painfully familiar


It's starting to feel a whole lot like the first few years of the process again.

The Sixers were beaten handily for the second straight game, losing 112-98 to the Bucks in a game they once trailed by 27 (see Instant Replay).

In three of their last four games, the Sixers have been taken completely out of it early by the Heat, Pistons and now the Bucks, a team they'd beaten in the season's prior two meetings.

Between the blowout losses, all the new faces and the use of a pair of 10-day contracts ... this Sixers team feels much more like the cellar-dweller of the last three years than the team that was able to hang with the Rockets, Spurs, Cavs, Celtics and other contenders.

The personnel is different and there's no way around that.

"How can we all not look at that and just admit it? Let's call it for what it is," Brett Brown said when asked if the rotating cast of characters reminds him of years past.

"My analytics people tell me I've played 64 five-man rotations since the All-Star break. That's not 40 games, that's six games. Think about that. It's born out of injury, it's born out of trades, that's just the way it is."

There were a few bright spots for the Sixers during another dismal defensive effort. Justin Anderson, acquired from Dallas in the Nerlens Noel trade, had 19 points for the second time in three games. He went 9 for 16 from the field but 9 for 10 from inside three-point range, giving the Sixers a few glimpses of life with dunks and put-backs.

Shawn Long, signed earlier Monday to a 10-day contract, had 13 points and seven rebounds in a 15-minute stint off the bench, making his only three.

But when Anderson and Long -- two guys who weren't even here two weeks ago -- are your bright spots, things obviously aren't going well.

"What can I say? We don't have enough guys," Dario Saric said, noting that the Sixers are fighting as hard as they can but are clearly undermanned.

Jahlil Okafor missed Monday's game with right knee soreness. Richaun Holmes started in his place, and when he came out the Sixers were forced to use a small lineup that had little shot against Milwaukee's length, its calling card.

Giannis Antetokounmpo -- who's 6-foot-11 but is practically 7-7 when you account for his wingspan and reach -- had his way with the Sixers down low, finishing with 24 points, eight rebounds, five assists, two steals and three blocks (more on him here).

Fellow big man Greg Monroe, also 6-11, pushed Saric and company around down low as well, scoring 12 off the bench.

With that size and a 9-for-13 start from three, the Bucks took a commanding early lead and never looked back.

Right now, the Sixers have zero rim protection and not enough perimeter defense.

"For us to add me, Shawn and Justin (Harper), we're out there trying to do the (defensive) coverages and pick things up quick," Anderson said.

"On one hand, it's not an excuse -- it's our job as professionals to be able to adjust -- but we're trying to get it to click."

The Sixers have 19 games left and there will be several more like Monday's. They have a grueling upcoming schedule, with 11 of the next 14 games on the road, eight vs. contending teams.

The Sixers' group that played those upper-echelon teams well earlier in the season is no longer here -- there's no go-to guy with Joel Embiid out, no Noel to save a defensive possession, no Ersan Ilyasova to give you 16 points and a couple threes.

Guys like Saric, Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell are still doing as much as they can, but at this point it would be surprising if this 23-40 team reached 30 wins.

"Amongst the reality of where we're at with our roster, there's also the stark reality that this is the schedule coming up," Brown said. 

"And so now more than ever we need to keep these guys together, we need to continue to develop and experiment with our guys. When you look out on the floor and you've got Sergio (Rodriguez), Justin, Justin, Timmy Luwawu and Shawn Long, well that's a different group than we've obviously been used to playing. 

"We'll find a way to keep this real, move this forward and continue to grow our guys.

"The good news is we've had a lot of practice at this. When I say we, I mean me and my coaching staff."

They're far from the only ones.

Sixers Injury Update: Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson out for Saturday's game vs. Cavs

Sixers Injury Update: Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson out for Saturday's game vs. Cavs

The Sixers will be down two starters Saturday night when they return to Wells Fargo Center to play the Cavs.

Josh Richardson will miss his fifth consecutive game with right hamstring tightness, while Joel Embiid is out with a left hip contusion.

A team source told NBC Sports Philadelphia that Embiid reported discomfort after the Sixers' 119-113 loss to the Wizards on Thursday night and is being treated for the injury.

Embiid had 26 points, 21 rebounds and eight turnovers Thursday.

Richardson and the Sixers have been cautious with his hamstring. He told reporters in Washington, D.C., that this is the first hamstring injury he's dealt with and admitted that it's been a frustrating process.

“A hamstring is one of those things where you can think that you’re fine and then you take a wrong step and it’s a week or two-week setback," he said. "I don’t really want to get into that whole cycle. ... It’s just one of those things where I just don’t really know where I’m at most of the time. It always feels like I’m tiptoeing, trying not to do too much.”

The Sixers' preferred starting five of Embiid, Richardson, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Al Horford have played just 102 minutes together this season, posting a plus-21.3 net rating. 

Furkan Korkmaz has started the past four games in place of Richardson. Without Embiid, the Sixers will need to plug in another spot starter and perhaps search for further big man depth. Kyle O'Quinn hasn't played since Nov. 23, but he might be called upon vs. Cleveland.

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How Joel Embiid can improve with the subtleties of screening and rolling

How Joel Embiid can improve with the subtleties of screening and rolling

The Sixers, through 22 games, have run the fewest pick-and-rolls in the NBA, and at the worst efficiency

Joel Embiid is in the bottom top 10 percent of the league in efficiency as a roll man. 

None of those stats are encouraging at first glance.

That said, are there any positive signs for Embiid’s progress as a screener and a roller? And how can he get better?

Rolling isn’t always the right option

While Brett Brown said after practice Wednesday that he wants Embiid “screening and rolling more than popping,” rolling isn’t always the right option for the All-Star center.

Because Ben Simmons frequently stations himself in the “dunker spot,” Embiid often needs to float out behind the three-point line for the Sixers to maintain proper spacing.

When opposing big men drop on the pick-and-roll, there’s typically not much to be gained by Embiid rolling.

Embiid pops on the play below against the Raptors, and it’s a reasonable move with Marc Gasol dropping into the paint on Josh Richardson’s drive. Ultimately, the bigger issue is he settles for a mid-range jumper instead of either taking an open three or putting pressure on Gasol to guard a drive to the rim. 

A game-winning variation  

Before Richardson’s hamstring injury, the Sixers were incorporating the action above more into their offense. It’s a basic look — Richardson rubs off a screen to the top of the key, then Embiid steps up to give him a ball screen. 

Embiid’s game-winning dunk on Nov. 12 vs. the Cavs came from a smart variation. After Embiid’s roll to the rim, he set a strong down screen for Tobias Harris, flowing into a perfectly executed high-low.

On most of the occasions Embiid rolls to the rim and doesn’t receive the ball initially, a deep post-up is the next best option. Instead of finding Embiid on the high-low Nov. 15 in Oklahoma City, Al Horford swung the ball to Harris and created a good angle for a post catch. Embiid will score or get fouled in these positions more often than not. 

Getting snug

The “snug pick-and-roll” is, in theory, a way to allow Embiid and Simmons to both be near the rim at the same time without the only result being claustrophobic spacing. 

Embiid set a hard screen on RJ Barrett, forced the desired switch and got an and-one Nov. 29 against the Knicks. 

“We've been trying to do that bit by bit over the years,” Brown told reporters. “I think that you have a deep pick-and-roll with those two, a lot of times they do switch. I thought Ben did a good job of finding that and if they don't switch you got Ben going downhill, and we're trying to just continue to work on his finishing. And it is a look that I think, especially in crunch-time environments, interests me a lot.” 

The obvious problem with the snug pick-and-roll is there’s minimal space for anything to develop. Simmons has little margin for error with his first read. 

Though Embiid eventually had the switch the Sixers wanted against the 6-foot-5 Malcolm Brogdon on the play above, Simmons had already committed to a righty jump hook on Myles Turner and didn’t have room to change his mind. 

Developing the tricks of the trade 

Embiid’s value as a roller increases against teams that aggressively hedge the pick-and-roll.

He didn’t even roll very far on this play from Nov. 8 in Denver — just a couple of feet after screening for Richardson — but the scheme the Nuggets were using meant Will Barton had to tag Embiid before flying out to Furkan Korkmaz. Barton couldn’t recover in time.

Embiid’s chemistry with his new teammates is predictably not yet at an advanced stage. Richardson has a tendency to snake back in the opposite direction of his initial drive, and Embiid still seems to be figuring that out. 

They were on different wavelengths here. 

Since Embiid draws so much respect from opposing defenses, many pick-and-roll actions involving him are going to be inelegant. Especially late in games, teams often know what’s coming and load up to stop it.

He can still be helpful in those situations by focusing on doing the simple things. The technique isn’t textbook on this play, but his screen on Donovan Mitchell gets the job done. 

One of the next steps in Embiid’s evolution as a screener and roller will be applying a few of the dark arts that are prevalent across the NBA, whether it’s stealthily using his upper body like Horford or giving the ball handler space to drive by sealing his man in the lane.

He did the latter well vs. Larry Nance Jr. and the Cavs. 

As a 7-foot, 280-pound player with diverse offensive skills, Embiid is a threat as a roller, at least on paper.

It often won’t be as easy for him as just rolling with purpose to the rim and being rewarded with dunks, but he’s shown he has the ability to help himself and his teammates get good looks. 

For Embiid, it’s clearly important to work on dealing with double teams, refining his post game, limiting turnovers and hitting open three-point shots at a decent rate. 

But the 25-year-old big man also has plenty of room to improve as a screener and roller. 

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