amir johnson

Sixers recall Justin Patton from Blue Coats with injuries to Joel Embiid, Boban Marjanovic

Sixers recall Justin Patton from Blue Coats with injuries to Joel Embiid, Boban Marjanovic

Desperate times may call for desperate measures.

With Joel Embiid (knee soreness) and Boban Marjanovic (knee sprain) both ruled out in Oklahoma City Thursday, the Sixers on Wednesday recalled center Justin Patton from the Delaware Blue Coats.

Patton, acquired from the Timberwolves in the Jimmy Butler deal, played in just one NBA game in Minnesota last season. The 21-year-old suffered a Jones fracture in his right foot in September and has spent the last month in the G-League.

The former first-round pick has flashed some of his abilities. He’s playing just 18.2 minutes a night but is averaging 11.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in seven games with the 87ers. Selected 16th overall by the Bulls out of Creighton, Patton has a lot of the skills you’re looking for out of a modern NBA big.

He’s an athletic rim runner, meaning he can get up the floor in transition and defend the rim at the other end. He has good touch and has extended his range during his time out. The free throws (57 percent in Delaware) are still an issue.

The biggest concern will be at the defensive end — and the matchup Thursday isn’t ideal. The Thunder start the hulking Steven Adams but also have two athletic former Sixers in Nerlens Noel and Jerami Grant, who at times plays small-ball five. If Brett Brown mixes Patton in with rookie Jonah Bolden and veteran Amir Johnson, it’ll be a big ask.

With that said, there’s likely never been a better time to get a look at Patton, who will become an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. Plus, we have an idea of what Bolden is and definitely know what Johnson is. 

Let’s see what Patton can bring to the table.

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Backup big man problem behind Joel Embiid highlighted by injuries

Backup big man problem behind Joel Embiid highlighted by injuries

With Joel Embiid possessing the greatest injury risk of any superstar, it remains mystifying that the Sixers continue to have trouble finding a consistent backup big man behind him. A center off the bench for the Sixers could be starting around 15 or even 20 times per season given potential rest for Embiid or whenever he’s banged up. More importantly, that player may even be getting spot starts in the playoffs, as Ersan Ilyasova and Amir Johnson each started a game against the Heat last April when Embiid was sidelined. 

Embiid has been out for the Sixers’ last three games with left knee soreness and will be out once again Thursday night against Oklahoma City. Boban Marjanovic will also be inactive as he deals with a right knee bone bruise, leaving the Sixers with just Johnson, Justin Patton and rookie Jonah Bolden as the only available bigs for the team in their matchup with the Thunder.

The injury to Marjanovic only highlights this glaring depth issue. Despite putting up Wilt-like offensive numbers in a small amount of minutes throughout his career, he remains a statue defensively, prone to lapses against any big man with any semblance of speed or an outside shot. He’s a matchup-dependent player who will be needed against the likes of Marc Gasol in the postseason, but may get run off the court against stretchy bigs in the mold of Al Horford, Brook Lopez and Myles Turner. 

How did the Sixers go from the team with “too many” big men, rostering all of Embiid, Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor and Richaun Holmes at one point, to this?

Poor drafting over the last handful of years is the main culprit. Okafor, the third overall pick in 2015, was a bust from the minute he punched some House of Pain-loving guy in Boston during his rookie campaign. Noel, the sixth overall pick in 2013, and the organization at large seemed to detest one another during his last two seasons in Philly, leading to an underwhelming return for a defensively gifted big at the 2017 trade deadline. Holmes, a high second-rounder in 2015, never possessed the defensive awareness that Brett Brown demands from his bigs and he was promptly shipped off to Phoenix without much fanfare this past offseason.

Those guys were Sam Hinkie’s picks, but Bryan Colangelo completely bungling the 2016 and 2017 drafts only made a bad situation worse. 

The Sixers held two late first-rounders in 2016 that they used on Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Furkan Korkmaz, respectively. The fact that the Raptors’ blossoming young power forward Pascal Siakam was taken three spots after TLC and just one pick after Korkmaz stings more and more each game. Siakam is a defensive monster with a continuously improving three-point shot who could’ve worked alongside Embiid to create the league’s best defense or functioned as a Draymond Green-lite role player alongside Ben Simmons with Embiid on the bench. 

There’s the infamous 2017 case of Anzejs Pasecniks, a Latvian big man, who, for reasons I’m still not entirely sure, I’ve dedicated my Twitter account to slandering. Ol’ Big Collar needlessly traded a future first rounder from Oklahoma City for the right to move up and select Pasecniks, who is about five years away from being five years away. For all the talk of Dario Saric never coming over, this is actually the guy who is never coming over. Imagine Darko Milicic with the frame of a greased up light pole on Broad Street. Imagine Nikoloz Tskitishvili with a Latvian passport. This is the player Colangelo, through the transitive property of trades, acquired for Jerami Grant, a small-ball big currently guarding every position on the court and knocking down the occasional corner three for the Thunder. 

Maybe the simplest solution in the meantime is to let Bolden, who has flashed promise at times, go through whatever growing pains that are disauding Brown from giving him consistent minutes or to play super small at times with lineups that have Simmons as the team’s tallest player on the court. This problem isn’t simply going away when Embiid returns to the floor though. 

While talks of whether the Sixers can re-sign Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris will rightfully dominate this offseason, the team’s backup center situations remains an intriguing subplot. Armed with their own first rounder and two top-35 picks from Chicago and Cleveland, respectively, hitting on one of those selections needs to be a priority for Elton Brand and his front office.

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There's not one easy answer for Sixers' defensive problems

There's not one easy answer for Sixers' defensive problems

There are a few obvious explanations for the Sixers’ 113-101 loss Friday night to the Pacers (see observations)

Joel Embiid didn’t get enough support on a night in which he posted 40 points and a career-high 21 rebounds; the bench continues to look awfully thin for a team with championship aspirations; it would have been nice to have Jimmy Butler (he missed his second straight game with a strained groin) against a good, physical Pacers team that’s on a six-game winning streak and just surpassed the Sixers in the standings.

The Sixers’ defensive issues, though, defy a simple explanation.

After giving up 70 points in the second half of Wednesday’s loss to the Nets and 64 after halftime to Indiana, just about everyone you asked had a different answer.

While head coach Brett Brown framed the defensive problems as a team concern, he did single out two young players.

“Going down to the list, it’s not like you’re going to have a wide variety to choose from,” Brown said. “It’s not so much that, it’s trying to get those guys to expedite their birth certificates. They sure felt all of [the Pacers'] physicality, and I thought Furkan [Korkmaz] and Landry [Shamet] struggled defensively tonight.” 

Korkmaz and Shamet just don’t have the physical tools to be good NBA defenders at this stage. The Pacers identified Bogdan Bogdanovic’s advantage over the 21-year-old Korkmaz. Bogdanovic powered through Korkmaz for a couple early baskets and torched him on several occasions during a third-quarter run by Indiana.

JJ Redick had a different explanation.

“I’ll have to look at the tape on that one,” Redick said. “I think the biggest thing that we didn’t do tonight and didn’t do well against Brooklyn was just being aware of the hot guys — the hot guys being Bogdanovic, Allen Crabbe and Joe Harris, and allowing those guys to get catch-and-shoot threes. I thought we played our pick-and-roll defense tonight, and you’re going to give some stuff up against that.”

Like Redick, Embiid identified pick-and-roll defense as a concern. 

“Pick-and-roll, we gotta adjust a lot,” he said. “Like I’ve said in the past, it’s hard because coaches want us bigs to stay back and you got guys that just go and pull up. And when you come up, they get lobs or easy baskets. That’s what Indiana runs a lot — they run a lot of pick-and-rolls and they took advantage of it.”

We’ve already broken down the Sixers’ woes with pick-and-roll defense (see film review). As Embiid said, the Sixers prefer to play “drop” coverage, which leaves them vulnerable against players capable of knocking down pull up jumpers or attacking the soft spot in the defense.

At his locker before the game, Amir Johnson put aside the technical talk. Johnson, who did not play against the Pacers, has been on the fringe of the rotation.

I feel like we just gotta guard. [We've] been having trouble with 1-on-1 defense. I feel like it has to be a team effort. When we make a mistake, I feel like we gotta show anger and be pissed, like, ‘OK, I’m not going to let this motherf---er score on me again,’ excuse my language. But that’s how I think on defense, I know. I think that’s what we gotta bring. I think overall we’re 12th in defensive rating. I feel like if we get two or three stops, we can be top-10 or top-five or whatever. We just gotta guard and kinda feel painful when those guards coming off are scoring layups … just guard our man.

Every explanation that the Sixers provided for their defensive woes is plausible. Personnel; not adjusting fast enough when an opposing player is hot; pick-and-roll scheme; intensity and pride — all those things likely play a role.

Butler’s presence alleviates some of those issues, but one player doesn’t solve a problem that complex. 

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