76ers midseason report card: Starters still trying to jell; familiar issues plague Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons
Halfway through the season, the Sixers haven't quite lived up to lofty preseason expectations
The Philadelphia 76ers aren't where they expected to be at the midway point of the 2019-20 NBA season. Heading in, coach Brett Brown made it clear that the Sixers were gunning for the top overall seed in the Eastern Conference. But, through 41 games they sit at 25-16 and sixth in the conference, a full 10.5 games behind the Bucks for the top spot entering Wednesday. If the playoffs started today, the Sixers wouldn't even have home-court advantage in the first round, which is an issue as they have been substantially better within the friendly confines of the Wells Fargo Center than they have been on the road. It's almost like they're two different teams, as they're 18-2 at home and just 7-14 elsewhere.
Philadelphia's inconsistent play has overshadowed some notable first-half highlights, like their impressive Christmas Day victory over the Bucks, or the fact that they're 3-0 against the rival Boston Celtics. The good news for the Sixers is that they still have the whole second half of the season to find their stride, and GM Elton Brand still has an opportunity to improve the roster before the Feb. 6 trade deadline. Ultimately, the Sixers will be judged on how they perform in the postseason, as Brown has said several times that this team is built for the playoffs. For now, though, we examine how they've performed through the first half of their current campaign with a midseason report card.
All stats accurate as of Jan. 14
Team chemistry: C
The Sixers were a couple of unfriendly bounces on a Kawhi Leonard corner jumper -- or a fully healthy Joel Embiid -- away from a potential Eastern Conference finals appearance last season. Instead of standing pat, though, Brand shook things up in a major way over the summer by replacing Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick in Philadelphia's starting lineup with Al Horford and Josh Richardson. So far, the results have been mixed.
As expected, the Sixers as a team have been stout defensively, led by their first five. Philadelphia's defensive rating of 105.7 is good for sixth in the NBA, and they're the league's second-best defensive rebounding team behind the Bucks. In turn, they also allow the second-fewest second chance points per game and they're also in the top eight league-wide in both team blocks and steals per game. Things haven't gone as smoothly on the other end of the floor though, as their offense has been inconsistent, and at times awkward; they're ranked just 17th in offensive rating (108.8). Their main struggles on this end of the floor have to do with spacing, or a lack thereof.
Horford, especially, has struggled to fit in with his new franchise. The main issue is that Horford's skill set on the offensive end is redundant with Philadelphia's two other All-Stars. Horford is at his best when he's operating either from the elbow or the low block. He is very comfortable with creating good looks for himself and others from these areas. The issue with that is Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are also both most comfortable in these areas, especially on the low block, where Embiid does a fair share of his damage, and where Simmons is often relegated as a result of his inability to space the floor with his shot.
The Sixers' spacing struggles have led Embiid to publicly plead with his teammates to step outside of their comfort zones for the betterment of the team, and also led Horford to publicly lament his inability to find a rhythm with his new squad. Philadelphia's spacing issue was well-exemplified on one particular play during the matchup between the Sixers and Pacers on Monday night:
In the play, Simmons served as the screener and forced a switch to get a smaller guard on him (Aaron Holiday). He then instinctually retreated to the block where he could take advantage of the size mismatch. The problem was that Horford was already occupying the area, and the two ended up almost on top of each other. Things like this happen to the Sixers far too often, and Embiid wasn't even on the floor for this play.
Spacing isn't the only issue negatively impacting Philadelphia's chemistry either, as Josh Richardson recently questioned the team's accountability after a blowout loss.
"I don't think that there's enough accountability in our locker room right now, honestly," Richardson said. "I think that we got some new guys, who don't want to step on toes, including myself. I feel like we kind of go play, and don't compete as much. There's been games that we have and it's been great. But when it's not going good, we got to hold each other accountable. I think that's where a lot of our problems start."
An adjustment period was to be expected for the Sixers after the changes that they made over the summer, but it's not usually a good sign when three different starters publicly express dissatisfaction before the midway point of the season.
Development of young All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons: C-
The Sixers can shuffle the supporting cast, and they have, but ultimately, they are going to go as far as their two young All-Stars, Embiid and Simmons, are capable of taking them. Unfortunately for the Sixers, neither player has looked like the best player on a potential championship team this season. In fact, outside of Simmons' improvement on the defensive end, both look largely like the same players that they were last season, as both have been plagued by familiar issues.
Though Embiid has trimmed his turnovers each of his first four seasons in the league, he still averages three a game, and he still seems to have a penchant for untimely mistakes late in games. He's gotten better at reading double teams, but he still has a habit of over-dribbling, or simply trying to do too much. When he does this, turnovers tend to occur. Like these:
Embiid clearly still needs to learn to take better care of the basketball, but his largest looming issue remains his inconsistent availability. Embiid missed 88 total games over his first three seasons (not including the two full seasons that he missed at the start of his career), and he has missed 10 games already this season; a number that will balloon as he remains sidelined following surgery for a torn ligament in his left hand.
The Sixers are obviously a far superior squad with their All-Star center in the lineup, so his absence hurts them when it comes to playoff positioning, as they have a better chance of winning regular-season games with him on the floor. Plus, with their best player in and out of the lineup, it becomes difficult for Brett Brown to find a rhythm with his rotation, and similarly difficult for the team to develop on-court chemistry that they can carry over to the postseason. It also prevents Embiid himself from consistently remaining in peak game shape. The Sixers have dealt with this issue each of the past two seasons, and unfortunately, due to Embiid's unique size and injury history, it may be one that they have to manage for the entirety of his tenure with the team.
When it comes to Ben Simmons, it has to be pointed out that he has made a major jump on the defensive end of the floor this season. With his combination of size, length, and athleticism, Simmons has developed into one of the league's most versatile defenders, and as such he has spent time guarding all five positions at different points throughout the season. He excels at quickly closing passing lanes, and he leads the league in steals per game as a result. Many of his steals lead directly to high percentage fast break opportunities for the Sixers. Simmons has been engaged and dedicated defensively, and he could very well find himself on an All-Defensive team at the end of the season.
Offensively though, Simmons remains limited as he hasn't expanded his range in any meaningful way, despite public prodding from his coach and teammates. The importance of Simmons developing some semblance of a jump shot in order for him to reach his full potential as a player, and for the Sixers to reach their full potential as a team, has been well documented by myself and others. But while Simmons has converted a pair of 3-pointers on the season, he still doesn't look for his own shot anywhere outside of the paint. Here's a look at his shot chart for the season:
Simmons is so naturally talented that he can still be extremely effective and productive on most nights without spacing the floor at all. His natural size and strength help here, too, as he is often able to simply overpower smaller guards in order to get into the paint, and to the rim. However, as we've seen in the past, especially in the postseason, teams with the proper personnel can scheme to stop Simmons' drives in half-court sets and thus severely limit his overall effectiveness. In these situations, his inability to space the floor hampers the Sixers and makes them infinitely easier to guard. Many had hoped that this would be the season that Simmons began to regularly incorporate a jump shot into his repertoire, but that hasn't been the case thus far.
Bench Play: C-
Philadelphia's bench has left a lot to be desired so far this season. After spending big on the first five over the summer, the Sixers had limited salary cap space remaining to allocate to their reserves, and it has shown. Philadelphia's bench ranks 28th out of 30 teams in terms of point production per game (28.8), 29th in rebounding (12.4 per game), and 27th in assists (5.7 per game). They don't have a single double-digit scorer off of the bench, which has also lacked the consistent shooting and playmaking prowess to meaningfully move the needle for Philadelphia.
Furkan Korkmaz is the team's leading scorer off of the bench (8.0 points per game), and also their second-best 3-point shooter on the season at 37-percent. While he has provided the team with some much-needed floor-spacing, his defensive deficiencies make it difficult for Brett Brown to play him for long stretches of game time. Mike Scott has been a major disappointment after the Sixers re-signed him to a two-year deal over the summer. When he's not hitting consistently from long distance Scott doesn't provide much else for the SIxers, and on the year he's converting his 3-pointers at just a 33 percent clip after he shot 41-percent from deep for the Sixers last season. Offseason addition Kyle O'Quinn has virtually lost his spot in the rotation, and the team remains without a clear cut backup point guard. Trey Burke and Raul Neto have both spent time at the spot, and while neither has been bad, neither has been exceptional, either, and Brett Brown doesn't appear sold on either as the long-term answer at the position. Brown even tried to use shooting guard Josh Richardson as a secondary ballhandler earlier in the season, to underwhelming results.
It hasn't been all bad for Philadelphia's bench, as James Ennis has been fine, and rookie Matisse Thybulle has been the pleasant surprise of the season for the Sixers, as he has already developed into a defensive dynamo and a legitimate rotation piece for the team, despite his inexperience at the professional level. He's also converting his 3s at a 42-percent rate, which is the highest on the team. Overall, he reminds one of a young Andre Iguodala and looks like he could be a key contributor for the Sixers for years to come. Norvelle Pelle has also shown flashes of potential at the backup center spot as he has a knack for blocking shots and the ability to finish at the rim. Ultimately though, the Sixers will need to bolster their bench with some more reliable shooters and/or playmakers if they want to give themselves their best chance of capturing a championship this season.
Overall Grade: C
The Sixers have underwhelmed through 41 games this season, there's no doubt about that. Their offense is middling and their road record is worse than the Pelicans, who are 14th in the West. There are reasons for optimism though. They've been solid defensively, dominant at home, and they've fared reasonably well against the other top teams in the East; they're 7-5 combined against the Bucks, Celtics, Heat, Raptors, and Pacers. They also have a ton of talent, and there remains a chance that the team will hit its stride closer to the postseason as familiarity grows. Plus, Elton Brand has the opportunity to tweak the roster prior to the trade deadline.
In short, it's not time to write the Sixers off, even if they haven't necessarily inspired confidence in their status as a legitimate contender through the first half of the season.
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