Is it unreasonable to be disappointed with a team in November? The Sixers improved to 8-5 Sunday after beating the brakes off the Cavaliers in Cleveland, a nice and easy win that ended a five-game road losing streak.
Most NBA teams would be fine with 8-5 after playing a schedule that included nine of 13 on the road, but most NBA teams do not share the same championship aspirations that the 76ers do. The reality is that you need to rack up these November and December wins if you want home court advantage in April, May, and hopefully June, which is the reason why the “it’s still early” excuse holds less weight in 2019.
So if you remain underwhelmed with the Sixers through 13 games, you’re probably justified in feeling that way. They could very easily be 9-4 or 10-3 at this point if they hadn’t blown the big lead in Denver and played better fourth quarters in Orlando and/or Oklahoma City.
Keeping in mind that the bar is set much higher this season, here are 15 thoughts on the squad:
1. Ben Simmons
10 points and a season-high 11 assists on Sunday. A solid double-double performance.
Problem is, he’s the same player he was last year and the year before, at least on the offensive side of the ball, where his game has not expanded or evolved since he entered the league. His free throw shooting is down and his shooting outside the paint remains nonexistent, which Joel Embiid touched on when he dropped this quote the other night:
“We have been encouraging him since he has been here, but you u know, that is him. He is comfortable playing certain ways. For us to win we are going to need him to shoot, but you know I am fine with him playing his game, not forcing anything. But hopefully, at some point. I am sure he is going to pick it up. But he is fine, he is doing a great job of being a point guard, not forcing anything. So I am fine letting him grow into himself and not force anything. I mean, I know a lot of people want him to shoot, shoot, shoot, but if he is not comfortable, he shouldn’t do it. We have a lot of scorers on the team, so we are going to figure it out.”
We should be seeing more than this during his third NBA season:
2. Joel Embiid
Still too many casual possessions from him, where he shows a lack of urgency in getting to his spots and getting set up. The play where he fell over in Oklahoma City after lollygagging his way up the floor should never happen.
This is much more of what you want to see from him:
Purposeful Embiid is required – assertive, but not aggressive. He needs to think less and just let the game come to him, which he did in that clip above.
3. The head coach
When Brett Brown has been involved in the offense, he’s drawn up some really good end of game ATO (after time out) plays.
Four off the top of my head:
- the high/low look for Embiid in the Atlanta win
- Furkan Korkmaz open three pointer in the Portland win
- Embiid high/low (with a bogus foul) in the Denver loss
- seal and slip off the pick and roll in first Cavaliers win
There’s plenty of proof that Brett knows what he’s doing from a static X’s and O’s point of view. He’s more than capable when he it comes to these SLOB and BLOB plays that typically follow a timeout. Where he needs to be more involved is during stretches of half court possessions, typically in the fourth quarter, when the offense is stagnant and his players are unable to lift themselves out of a funk. When Brett is hands off and letting “organic basketball” develop, his team typically tries to post up without much movement or creativity.
That’s where he really needs to put his fingerprints on this squad, in those moments where opponents are getting hot and his team is going through batches of empty half court possessions. Playoff games are won in the half-court during the fourth quarter, as we saw during games four and seven against Toronto.
4. Jimmy Butler
Yeah, he’d be a tremendous help in these fourth quarters as a guy who can create his own shot in isolation situations or work off the pick and roll.
Remember, though, that last year everybody was complaining that he’d be completely AWOL before showing up for the fourth, which was a formula that worked while perhaps being unfair to the rest of his teammates. Who knows, however, how they really felt. Maybe the Sixers were better off letting Embiid and Simmons work for three quarters, then deferring to Jimmy down the stretch. It seemed like a reasonable trade-off at the time, but it was a recurring storyline nonetheless.
Also, Jimmy did have some clunkers last year, namely this play from game seven:
Jimmy had some great moments, but that 5-14 game seven performance (1-6 from three) wasn’t one of them.
5. Statistical story telling
When the Sixers were 5-0, which seems like an eternity ago, these were some of the league-wide ranks they were pulling:
- 31.5% from three (24th)
- 74.8% from the foul line (17th)
- 26.2 free throw attempts per game (10th)
- 7 blocks per game (3rd)
- 99.6 defensive rating (6th)
- 107.3 offensive rating (12th)
- 106 possessions per game (5th)
- 59.6 points in the paint (#1 by a large margin)
- 44.4 opponent points in the paint (10th best)
- 11.4 team steals per game (#1)
Now they are ranked like this:
- 34.1% from three (19th)
- 73.1 % from the foul line (25th)
- 21.8 free throw attempts per game (22nd)
- 5.9 blocks per game (6th)
- 103.6 defensive rating (10th)
- 106.7 offensive rating (18th)
- 102 possessions per game (15th)
- 52.6 points in the paint (4th)
- 47.1 opponent points in the paint (13th best)
- 9.2 team steals per game (4th)
The three point shooting has improved slight while the foul shooting needs to be better. They also need to get to the line more than 21.8 times per game and that defensive rating should be top five for the entirety of the season. Everything else will swing back towards their early season numbers when they start playing some crappy teams at home.
6. Jay Wright
Perhaps he’d be an improvement over Brett Brown, but people should know that Jay shares a lot of coaching philosophies with Brett. Wright also runs a motion offense and similarly prefers concepts and reads to play calls, i.e. ‘organic basketball.’ Villanova doesn’t have a ton of half court plays in their playbook and they typically just progress through rule sets at a very high level. Wright will literally tell you that he tries to teach his team how to play basketball instead of run plays.
Jay’s scheme is four-out/one-in and he’ll hit you with lineups that can shoot the shit out of the ball. His offense most closely resembles the Golden State Warriors in the way you typically go small and just space the floor with three-point shooters. He can’t exactly do that with this Sixers roster and would encounter a lot of the same Embiid/Simmons spacing issues that Brett deals with.
That’s not to say that Wright couldn’t adapt, because plenty of college coaches have transitioned to the NBA and figured it out (Brad Stevens), but I don’t think he’d come in as a magic bullet and solve every problem right away. If you’re running some semblance of four-in/one-out, then either Joel Embiid is standing on the perimeter or Ben Simmons gets traded. It would be very interesting to see Wright navigate the Sixers’ unique personnel situation and/or fit his scheme to the players.
They were dead last in this category last week, but they’ve cut that 18.8 number down to 17.5 and climbed up to 27th in the NBA. They finished with 14.9 last year and there’s no reason why they can’t get that number into the 14-15 range, which would still be bottom half, but much more manageable.
8. Shooting more shots than the opponent
The Sixers take 88.6 field goals per game, which is 17th in the NBA.
Where they really excel is their #1 league-wide number in opponent field goal attempts, which is just 83.4. They continue to mask their turnover problem with offensive rebounding and creating turnovers of their own, which helps them enjoy a +5.2 margin on field goal attempts.
9. Too many fouls committed
24.9 is last in the NBA. They have to lower this number because they’re putting teams on the line 28 times per game, which is third-worst overall.
The starting five is a +22 this season with 70 minutes shared on the court.
Here are the three lineups that have played the next most minutes:
- Horford, Harris, Richardson, Simmons, Korkmaz: 38 minutes at -4
- Horford, Harris, Richardson, Simmons, Thybulle: 30 minutes at +9
- Horford, Harris, Neto, Embiid, Richardson: 27 minutes at +1
We can flesh this out more once we get about 15-20 games into the season. Thirteen games is a bit of a small sample size.
11. On and off
Josh Richardson is actually #1 in this category. The Sixers are +6.2 when he’s on the floor (per game). Trey Burke is posting good on/off numbers as well in limited action. Joel Embiid will eventually start to crush this statistic when he dials it in and starts playing more like himself.
12. Talking about practice
When Brett Brown said that the offense might not be clicking until December, it sounded rather ridiculous, but the fact of the matter is that practice time is hard to come by during the early part of the season.
For instance, Tuesday will be the first session the Sixers have had in Camden in more than two weeks, due to the existence of a schedule where the team typically goes:
The schedule is packed tight and it was front-loaded with road games, so meaningful practice time was sparse. They’ll have some more opportunities to bring things along in the coming weeks, with a stack of home games on the slate and much less travel.
13. Hot and cold
Check out the Sixers’ team shot chart in hex format. Blue is cold, below league average, while red is hot, above league average:
Obviously losing JJ Redick is going to bring down perimeter shooting significantly, but that’s a lopsided chart. They really don’t hit very efficiently from the left side above the break, or from midrange down near the post and along the baseline.
Last year, they finished below average in only one area, the right corner three and mid-range, where Redick struggled:
Might be worth going through some individual charts later today to see which players are dragging them down on the left.
14. The Eastern Conference
- Boston is good but doesn’t match up against the Sixers as well as they used to.
- Miami is good but they don’t have the bigs to compete with Philly in a seven-game series.
- Toronto is about what you would expect after losing Kawhi Leonard, i.e. good but not great.
- Milwaukee could use Malcolm Brogdon but they’ll ride Giannis to another top-two finish.
In short, I personally don’t see anything super concerning for the Sixers. There are a handful of decent teams in the east, but I still think Philly and Milwaukee are the cream of the crop. The Western Conference is much more competitive.
15. Sixers Twitter
After a every game (win or loss), you have to go outside for 15 minutes and either get some fresh air or smoke a cigarette. Then you can come back inside, log on, and type whatever you’d like. If you’re caught tweeting immediately after a game, you get a 10-day ban.
Happy Tuesday morning.