Sixers weekly observations: This season's bench compared to last season's, possible playoff matchups, more

Sixers weekly observations: This season's bench compared to last season's, possible playoff matchups, more

After the Sixers’ first three-game losing streak of the season, the team secured back-to-back 50-win seasons by beating the Bulls Saturday night. 

With Miami up next on Tuesday and Chicago again Wednesday, the Sixers’ magic number to clinch the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference is one. The Celtics’ final two games are against the Magic on Sunday night and the Wizards on Tuesday night.

Let’s get into our final weekly observations of the season: 

• Back on Dec. 11, about a month after the Sixers had acquired Jimmy Butler, Brett Brown was asked whether he thought this season’s bench was better than last season’s.

“No,” he replied.

Why?

“Ersan and Marco.”

Four or so months later, Brown’s straightforward assessment still seems sound. The Sixers’ bench is a plus-4 through 80 games, good for 12th in the NBA. They’re a minus-11 in 26 games since the trade deadline, 16th in the league.

With Belinelli and Ilyasova, the Sixers won 20 of their final 23 regular-season games in 2017-18 and the bench was sixth best in the NBA during that stretch.

The positive spin for the Sixers is regular-season stats don’t mean everything. Belinelli and Ilyasova could both score better than any player on the Sixers’ current bench, but the two struggled to defend in the Celtics series. 

The bench certainly has its flaws. Zhaire Smith and Jonah Bolden have no playoff experience and James Ennis is hurt. Jonathon Simmons was unimpressive in limited opportunities and Boban Marjanovic has been an automatic target for opposing offenses. T.J. McConnell’s pick-and-roll defense has been poor. Mike Scott, a Sixer for two months, is the most reliable member of the rotation.

All that granted, Ennis, Scott, Bolden, Smith and Simmons are each average to above-average defenders, unlike Belinelli and Ilyasova. They won’t all see significant time in the playoffs, but Brown at least has a couple more reasonable defensive options than he did last year. 

• It feels like we’ve all just been waiting for the playoffs to start for months, and the Sixers played that way much of this past week, especially in losses to the Mavs on Monday and the Hawks on Wednesday — unfocused and unmotivated. Joel Embiid’s absence was obviously a major factor as well.

It will be a relief for players, coaches, fans — everyone associated with the Sixers — when all the speculation about the playoffs stops and the the real thing begins.

• While we’re on the topic of speculation, the likeliest first-round opponents for the Sixers are the Nets, Magic and Pistons. 

The Magic might be the most difficult to play of that group. Orlando is 18-8 with the best net rating and best defensive rating in the Eastern Conference since the trade deadline. The Sixers’ 21-point loss in Orlando on March 25 was their worst with Joel Embiid of the new year.

Brown has also spoken candidly about how the Nets' guards expose the Sixers’ perimeter defense. None of the matchups would likely be a breeze, but the Sixers have much more talent than Brooklyn, Orlando or Detroit — whose biggest problem remains not giving Blake Griffin enough help. They’re too good to lose in the first round. 

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Sixers weekly observations: Is there any downside to resting Joel Embiid for road trip?

Sixers weekly observations: Is there any downside to resting Joel Embiid for road trip?

Seventy-six games down, six to go.

In our observations this week, we examine the Sixers' move to rest Joel Embiid and highlight a key question facing the Sixers following assistant coach Billy Lange's departure for St. Joe's and Jim O'Brien's return to the front of the bench to take charge of the defense. 

• In my mind, there are a few potential downsides to the Sixers' decision to rest Embiid, none of which hold much weight when examined closer.

1. It could stunt the team’s growth as the playoffs approach
The Sixers’ new starting five has played just 10 games together, and they’ve gone pretty well — they’re 8-2. If Embiid plays the final four games of the regular season (along with the four other starters), they’ll have 14 games of experience together, which certainly isn’t a ton for a team looking to make a Finals run.

Still, it’s unlikely three more games would make much of a difference. As we touched on last week, Brett Brown isn’t a believer in installing new, exotic actions or strategies with the season winding now, so it’s not as if Embiid is going to suddenly have to play catch up as far as Xs and Os are concerned.

2. It could make Embiid sluggish in the playoffs
Embiid has said in the past that he feels he gets out of shape quickly, so this worry is understandable. That said, Embiid had 33 points and 12 rebounds on March 10 vs. Indiana after missing the past eight games —  he’s proven he can be dominant even when not in perfect shape. His knee feeling as good as it can should be a higher priority. 

3. The Sixers should worry about playoff seeding first 
The Sixers are almost certainly going to be the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. They have a 4.5-game lead over both the Celtics and Pacers, each of whom have five games left, and they're not going to catch Toronto (see standings). 

With the three seed secure barring a 1964 Phillies-like collapse, there’s plenty of value in a player like Jonah Bolden getting a chance to boost his case for postseason minutes. 

• Though the Sixers’ defense regressed some this year compared to last, when the team had the third-best defensive rating in the NBA, it’s difficult to attribute much of that to Lange’s coaching. He was hampered by a perpetually rotating cast of players, many of whom were below-average defenders — you’ll recall a point when Landry Shamet, Furkan Korkmaz, JJ Redick and T.J. McConnell all had key roles.

With the personnel Lange had, the Sixers were inevitably in trouble when defenders failed to fight through screens and switches were required. Lange may not have minded switching one through four, but he wasn’t instructing his players to allow Joel Embiid to guard point guards (see film review).  

One of the big questions Brown was frank in discussing before the season began was how Embiid would cope in a “five out” environment, when opponents drew him away from the hoop by removing a traditional center from the floor. Against the Bucks, it looks like the answer is having Embiid guard Giannis Antetokounmpo. 

When the Nets used Rondae Hollis-Jefferson at center Thursday with Embiid on the bench, Lange and Brown decided to stick with Boban Marjanovic at center and asked him to take advantage of the matchup offensively. 

Whether that’s a sustainable solution in a postseason series, and whether there are any new strategies O’Brien and Brown might use to counteract a “five out” look in the playoffs will be an important storyline to follow. 

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Sixers weekly observations: Joel Embiid's Hall of Fame prospects and Brett Brown's 'perfecting vanilla' philosophy

Sixers weekly observations: Joel Embiid's Hall of Fame prospects and Brett Brown's 'perfecting vanilla' philosophy

The Sixers took down the team with the best record in the NBA, pushed aside questions about the Celtics having their number and beat the Hornets behind JJ Redick’s first career double-double. Though the week ended on a low, with a loss Saturday to the 26-48 Hawks, the Sixers hold a three-game lead over the Pacers for the third seed in the Eastern Conference (see standings). 

Here are a couple of observations from the week:

• Joel Embiid averaged 34.7 points, 16.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game this week. His stats sometimes creep up on you, but it feels like his numbers don’t even properly capture his contributions, especially against Milwaukee and Boston.

After Friday’s practice, Embiid said he not only wants to be the best Sixer ever, but “the best to ever do it" (see story). He mentioned wanting to eventually shoot 90 percent from the foul line and later added he’s “sure he’s going to get to a point” where he’s a 40 percent three-point shooter. To have a realistic chance of being the best player ever, Embiid may very well have to reach those absurd marks. Dirk Nowitzki, the best big man shooter ever, only hit marks of 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the free throw line once, in the 2006-07 season.

Embiid’s ambition of being the greatest of all time might be a stretch (though there’s certainly nothing wrong with his drive to be great). The thought that he could one day be a Hall of Famer, though, is not anywhere close to delusional. If he can stay healthy — which, for the sake of the sport of basketball, let’s hope he does — the Hall of Fame looks downright probable. His consistent dominance and special skills suggest as much, and so do the stats. 

Our Reuben Frank found an incredible stat on Embiid. Only nine players in NBA history have had 3,500 points and 1,500 rebounds through their first 150 career games, per Basketball Reference. One of them is Embiid, and the other eight are Hall of Famers. 

• Brett Brown likes to talk about “perfecting vanilla” — sharpening the basics and avoiding overcomplication. The wins over the Bucks and Celtics are good arguments for his approach, illustrations of how the Sixers have the talent to beat elite teams without doing anything too exotic.

But perfecting vanilla doesn’t necessarily exclude incorporating subtle wrinkles. Brown told NBC Sports Philadelphia last week the Sixers are interested in more “slashing” around Embiid in the post, more off-ball movement against “blind” defensive players (see story). We’re also starting to see more pick-and-rolls between Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. For the most part, though, the offense has a few fundamental actions that work.

You can’t say the same about the defense. 

The strategy of putting Embiid on Giannis Antetokounmpo and living with the other Bucks taking threes was ultimately effective, though Milwaukee still put up 43 points in the fourth quarter Sunday. The defensive effort in the first half against Charlotte was mediocre, and the Sixers were fortunate the Hornets missed a number of open threes late. Kyrie Irving and Terry Rozier had their way Wednesday for the first two quarters. And in Atlanta, the team’s pick-and-roll defense was not pretty — miscommunications, players getting caught on top of screens without much resistance, inconsistent help defense.

Though the Sixers’ offense appears to have the freedom to expand a little beyond the basics if they’d like, the defense doesn’t have that same luxury. 

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