Brett Brown

Sixers weekly observations: There's a snarling competitor under Joel Embiid's big smile

Sixers weekly observations: There's a snarling competitor under Joel Embiid's big smile

Joel Embiid is getting ready to start in his second straight All-Star Game, Ben Simmons is set to play in his first, and we have a fresh set of weekly observations to tide you over during this limbo without competitive basketball. 

• The playfulness and social media exploits sometimes obscure the fact that Embiid competes.

Sure, he has off nights, but Embiid’s consistent effort, for a man of his size, is commendable. He’s played 54 games this season and scored in double figures in all of them, with double-doubles in all but six.

It sounds basic enough — of course stars should play hard every night — but it’s not the reality of the NBA. Especially given his immense defensive responsibilities, you can’t begrudge Embiid the occasional “load management” day. In all honesty, he probably needs more. No disrespect to Boban Marjanovic and Jonah Bolden, but there’s a big drop-off at center when Embiid is out. Though he might not be the MVP, Embiid is up there in the literal sense of being most valuable to his team. 

His decision to lean into the microphone and end his press conference after another Sixers’ loss to the Celtics with, “The referees f------ sucked” wasn’t the most mature outlet for his frustration, but it was another sign of his snarling competitiveness. 

Embiid, though, is the rare superstar who usually has a smile in testy moments.

His comments after the Sixers’ blowout win over the Rockets on Jan. 22, in which he and James Harden each picked up technical fouls following a combative exchange in the second quarter, come to mind.

I was just walking back to my basket and I think [Harden] pushed my leg and naturally I’m going to react, and I did. We both got technical fouls and we move on. To me, I’m having fun. I’m always having fun and a lot of guys take it seriously. Especially when it comes to that, we just had one guy our last game that was acting crazy. But it’s fun to me. I love it. 

That guy who Embiid referred to as “acting crazy,” Russell Westbrook, is now his teammate on Team Giannis in the All-Star Game. It should be an interesting night, as should Feb. 28, when the Sixers play the Thunder in Oklahoma City. 

Lingering questions

The Sixers fell to the Celtics in the playoffs last season for plenty of reasons, among them an inability to take care of the ball, Simmons’ struggles, exemplary defense by Al Horford and Aron Baynes on Embiid, and Boston’s guards capitalizing on mismatches.

While the Sixers might be lucky enough to avoid the Celtics in the postseason, those are all issues which still need to be addressed. To Brett Brown and company’s credit, you sense they’re closer to having answers.

Simmons has gone from a subpar post player to one of the most efficient in the league, and he didn’t have a bad game last time out against Boston, with 16 points on 7 for 9 shooting, five assists, five rebounds and two steals. His free throw shooting (2 for 7 Tuesday vs. the Celtics) is still a concern.

Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris should remove some of the pressure on Embiid to dominate offensively every single game in a series. That said, sharper decision-making against double-teams by Embiid and, perhaps, creative movement around Embiid in the post — as opposed to standing around and watching him work — would be helpful.

Since the Butler trade, the Sixers are 26th in the NBA in turnovers (15.2 per game) and 22nd in turnover percentage (14.8 percent). Those numbers mean little out of context. When turnovers occur in the playoffs — ideally not in bunches, and not of the careless, unforced variety — is more important. 

And finally, you’d expect Jonathon Simmons, James Ennis and Mike Scott will boost the Sixers’ playoff defense, or at least make the team less vulnerable to mismatches. 

But 24 games isn’t much time to juggle experimentation and jostling for playoff positioning. It should be fun, at least for Joel Embiid. 

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Five things we've learned about Sixers' new starting five

Five things we've learned about Sixers' new starting five

We don’t need to strain for creative nicknames, like “the Phantastic 5.” 

The Sixers’ new starting lineup is, to put it simply, a very good group of five basketball players, albeit one figuring out how to play with each other.

Here are five things we’ve learned about the new starting unit:

Harris fits well into the offense 

In his first four games with the Sixers, Tobias Harris has averaged 17.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game — not a bad start.

He’s fit naturally into the Sixers’ offense. Brett Brown has mostly plugged Harris into actions the Sixers already have installed, and Harris has generally thrived in those settings. The play below is a familiar “screen the screener” action. 

Out of a Horns set — two big men at the elbows, two wings in the corners — Harris sets a ball screen for Ben Simmons, then flares off a screen from Joel Embiid. He gets a mismatch on Nikola Jokic and dips in for a soft floater.

Though Harris is still learning his teammates’ tendencies, he hasn’t seemed too uncomfortable in unstructured situations, either when plays break down or in transition. He ran a nice pick-and-pop with Embiid early in the shot clock vs. the Lakers. 

There is one action the Sixers have recently introduced, a modified “Spain pick-and-roll.”

Jimmy Butler loops up to the top of the key. Off the ball, Joel Embiid sets a back screen for JJ Redick at the foul line, and Redick curls to the rim. Embiid then comes up to give Butler a ball screen, with Redick right behind him. Redick will typically give Embiid a back screen before shooting up to the top of the key — this is the traditional Spain pick-and-roll, that ball screen immediately followed by a back screen.

In the example above, Redick doesn’t make any contact with Embiid’s man, Al Horford, who decides to give a hard hedge on the pick-and-roll between Butler and Embiid. Still, the Celtics’ defense is slightly overbalanced toward Butler and Embiid. Harris, stationed in the weak side corner, takes advantage by driving baseline on Marcus Morris and drawing a foul.

The defense is a work in progress 

The Sixers’ new starting five is a long, versatile, switchable defensive unit. It is, however, still a work in progress.

In their first game together, the Sixers had some miscommunication on a couple of pick-and-rolls, including the one below. Harris and Simmons both take Will Barton, leaving Mason Plumlee open on the roll.

A poor defensive first quarter for the Sixers against the Lakers ended fittingly, with nobody picking up Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Simmons is shifting his approach 

While the first legitimate three-point attempt of his career Sunday understandably got the most attention (see story), Simmons appears more willing overall to take the open jumpers presented to him.

With LeBron James deep in the paint, he stepped into a jumper from the elbow early against the Lakers.

Simmons is now 14 for 70 (20 percent) this season on shots from 10 feet and out. It’ll be interesting to track whether, even as the playoffs approach, he continues to take shots that have been highly inefficient for him. 

The staples still work 

Brown has had a few shootarounds and just a single practice to incorporate new actions, so he’s mainly had to rely on old favorites.

“12,” the multi-layered action that starts with Redick sprinting up from the baseline, often to give Simmons a ball screen, is still very difficult to guard because of Redick’s threat as a shooter. Plumlee and Malik Beasley botch their coverage on this play and, after a clever hesitation, Simmons attacks the open lane.

“Elbow,” the Embiid-Redick two-man game, is never leaving the Sixers’ offense as long as those two are still around.

The Celtics did a good job denying Embiid the ball at the end of the first quarter, but the Sixers adjusted well. With Mike Scott double-teamed, Embiid flashed to the block and found T.J. McConnell on the opposite side for a lay-up.

Late-game execution will take time 

Boston, as has so often been the case, executed better than the Sixers when it mattered Tuesday night.

The Sixers weren’t quite sharp enough on their late, game-tying attempt off a sideline out of bounds play. 

Butler screens at the top of the key for Redick, who sprints toward Harris, the inbounder. The idea is to make an entry pass to Embiid and play a Redick-Embiid two-man game. But Embiid fumbles the pass, which  throws off the timing of the play. Instead of hand it off to Redick, Embiid kicks the ball out to Harris and runs out to set a ball screen, trying to create a sliver of space.

Embiid rebounds Harris' miss and puts it back in, despite the Sixers being out of timeouts and needing a three to tie. Afterwards, he admitted he wasn’t aware the Sixers had no timeouts left and called himself “an idiot” for not kicking the ball out.

These five pieces have only been together for four games — not everything is going to click automatically late in games. Things just need to be more precise come the playoffs. 

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Markelle Fultz describes injury, reflects on time with Sixers, makes odd comment about coaching

Markelle Fultz describes injury, reflects on time with Sixers, makes odd comment about coaching

The Markelle Fultz mystery has migrated to Orlando.

And though many questions still remain unanswered, we got more insight into Fultz’s situation from the former No. 1 pick himself Thursday at his introductory press conference.

Flanked by Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman and head coach Steve Clifford, Fultz took questions from reporters in Orlando about his diagnosis of thoracic outlet syndrome, what excites him about joining the Magic, and his time in Philadelphia.

His thoracic outlet syndrome symptoms 

For the first time, we got to hear from Fultz about his thoracic outlet syndrome. He said his rehabilitation is “going great” and that he’ll continue working in Los Angeles. Fultz didn’t directly answer questions about a timeframe or when he expects he’ll be able to shoot without discomfort.

It’s really hard to describe, hard to explain to people. It’s almost like hard to lift up your arms. You lose feeling in your fingers. It’s not really like you can tell when it’s going to happen. It’s not like you can do the same motion every time. You get tingling in your fingers, numbness, stuff like that. It was hard to describe. It’s tough, because you hear all this stuff about this, that and the third, but you know something’s wrong and you’re trying to figure it out. It was just hard to describe to a lot of people. If you’ve never been through it, you’re not going to really know. But if you talk to anybody who has TOS, they’re going to tell you it changes your life [dramatically].

‘Not just tell you what you want to hear’

He didn’t say it with anything approaching a malicious tone, but one of Fultz’s comments about why he’s looking forward to joining the Magic could be perceived as a shot at Brett Brown and the Sixers’ coaching staff.

“I think it excites me to have coaches that you know are going to push you to be better,” he said, “and not just tell you what you want to hear.”

Brown had only 33 games to coach Fultz, but he had to cope with plenty of off-court drama during Fultz's year-plus in Philadelphia. Brown inserted the 20-year-old into the starting lineup for the first 15 games of this season, during which Fultz averaged 9.0 points on 41.2 percent shooting, 3.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists. The Sixers were 9-6 with Fultz as a starter.

Brown reflected Friday on his feelings upon hearing Fultz had been traded.

I’d be lying if I didn’t feel sad. It was two emotions I had. Sad personally, selfishly I suppose. And that I never really felt like I got a chance to coach him. I never really feel like this city got a chance to see him. I felt sad for that. And I was pleased for him that he had a new start, a fresh start, another opportunity. 

What Fultz learned from the Sixers 

With the possible exception of the comment about now having coaches who are going to push him, Fultz was very complimentary of his time with the Sixers.

“I learned a lot, both from being on the court and off the court," he said. "Going to the playoffs last year, I learned about how physical it was. I was fortunate enough to see the game and be in the atmosphere. 

“Had great vets around me. Just learned that it matters — every practice matters going into the season. It’s a long season, but you go day by day. You just take it as profesionally as you can, but also have fun with your teammates. And the closer your team is, the better you’ll do.”

Fultz’s allure 

Weltman and Clifford both had high praise for Fultz’s potential. Weltman went as far as saying, “For us, this was an obvious choice.”

The Magic are enticed by the possibilities with Fultz, just as the Sixers and so many talent evaluators were in 2017.

“As Markelle’s game develops, as his body develops, as his experience level develops, there’s not going to be too many things in a game he can’t do,” Weltman said. 

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