The Sixers have a lot of problems right now, 30 of which I outlined yesterday on the site, like a post-Festivus airing of grievances.
Today they practiced in Camden ahead of Thursday’s uber-important trip to Milwaukee, a matchup with a Bucks team they plastered at home on Christmas Day while knocking down 21 three pointers in the process.
In recent weeks, the shooting just hasn’t been there. After hitting 36% and 38% of their three pointers in November and December, respectively, they hit at just 32.6% in January, slumping from the perimeter while seeing their defensive mettle also lapse. Joel Embiid’s return to the lineup brought with it the spacing issue that exists between him and Ben Simmons, that square peg/round hole of an elite, slower tempo post-up guy playing alongside an elite, uptempo transitional player.
Embiid spoke today at practice and we asked him straight up if the Sixers have an offensive identity now 51 games into the season:
“No, we don’t. Spacing is an issue. Sometimes we play fast, sometimes we play slow, but at the end of the day, when you think about it, as we try to get ready for the playoffs, the game slows down. It becomes a half court game, and that’s where we struggle the most. Hopefully we do a better job in the next three games before the All Star break.”
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody. Embiid and Simmons can coexist, but without the right pieces around them, you see an amplification in the non-congruent areas of their partnership. Right now you have three guys in the starting lineup who can work from the post, but not enough perimeter shooting from anybody to really pull defenses apart and allow you to move the ball efficiently and avoid digs and double teams.
Joel on that:
“I gotta do what I can, obviously I feel comfortable being down there (in the post) and from time to time I have to spend a lot of time at the three point line to make sure there’s some spacing. Everybody keeps saying ‘get in the post,’ but if you actually understand basketball, you have to find a balance. It’s not about me, it’s about the team. Whatever I can do to help my teammates with spacing, which has been a struggle for us, I gotta do. If it means that I have to stay at the three point line all game, I guess, I gotta do it. But at the same time I have to find ways to maximize what I do best, but then again there’s also a bad aspect because every team doubles me every single game. It’s hard to find our balance but we gotta keep going.”
Embiid also said that Simmons shooting more “could” help him, but said he wants his teammate to do what he’s comfortable doing. It was a polite answer to a rather direct question, and he passed on the opportunity to slide Simmons directly under the bus.
Brett Brown offered this on the topic:
Crossing Broad: Does this team have an offensive identity right now, at this point in the season?
Brett Brown: “Not that I would want. You can point to different reasons for that. The obvious reason is probably Groundhog Day (repetitive). But no, not to the level at this stage that we need. We are not equipped to go into the playoffs on February, what is it? February 5th -”
Crossing Broad: So what do you want it to be? You’re not shooting the three ball very well but it’s also not bully ball right now. It’s something in between. Where do want it to be and where does it need to be?
Brett Brown: “There’s sort of (a few) areas we could all point to. When we play fast and give the ball to Ben, you keep the court spread and sprinkle shooters around, and he’s done a great job of understanding the crowd, coming to jump stops, not leaving his feet without a plan – I think you’d say that’s pretty good. And the pieces around that can thrive I think out of that.
When you talk about Atlanta, for instance, the first half was an acrobatic dunk contest. Then you go to say, Joel, when we won in Boston he was dominant out of the post and he passed out of the post, he scored out of the post. He had 22 post touches.
Somewhere in the middle of those facts, it’s not either/or, like you’re either Ben or Joel. It’s not either/or. It’s intertwined, and we have resources that need to be tapped into and coexist. You don’t always get a chance to win on your own terms. To recognize what’s good for tonight, and every game presents a different answer to what’s good for tonight, clearly there will be advantages in Milwaukee. At some point, to find out who are we, what is our style, I’ve just laid out two certain styles, and then within that trying to find a better clarity as to how it works for our two All Stars and in intermittent ways with Al and Tobias and J Rich, as examples.”
Brett is basically saying that he has two different teams, not necessarily like Jekyll and Hyde, but two stars with two different styles that need to be meshed in some fashion. There’s the Joel Embiid game and the Ben Simmons game, and the front office has been committed to keeping those guys together and trying to make it work, even though everybody knows it’s not a perfect marriage and never will be. The underlying thinking is that both guys are uber-talented and that at some point it will start to look like one concept rather than two separate concepts.
Embiid says the balance comes via this:
“Sacrificing. If you look at how we played last year, obviously a different setup and different structure. The ball movement was better. This year we got different players. I’ve sacrificed a lot trying to make everybody comfortable. And that’s normal. We all have to sacrifice, if it means taking less shots just to make sure everybody is happy and we keep winning, then that’s what we’ve gotta do. At the same time we have to understand what’s going on around us and how we can help each other be better.”
There you have it.
Read into that how you will.