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November 15, 2018

5 lessons Sixers' new core can learn from loss to Magic in Jimmy Butler's debut

The Sixers are 0-1 in the Jimmy Butler era and made a lot of the same mistakes that have cost them in previous losses. This can only mean one thing: fire the coach and blow up the team before things start to get even worse.

In all seriousness, the Sixers coughed up a game in Orlando, and it was undoubtedly a frustrating performance to watch in the fourth quarter. Conceding a 16-point lead to a Magic team short on offensive weapons is pretty brutal, and the Sixers should be able to comfortably close games out with the Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler, and Ben Simmons trio to turn to at any time.

But on rewatch, a lot of Philadelphia's issues seem pretty fixable, and even that ghastly 21-0 run for Orlando seemed to be a product of execution, rather than systemic problems that can't or won't be addressed. There are some valuable things to be learned from the loss and applied to how they approach the rest of the season with Butler in the mix.

Joel Embiid needs to cut down on hero-ball shots

Embiid is talented enough that he can experience periods of success from all over the floor. He works diligently on his three-point shooting, face-up plays against other big men, and old-school basketball down in the post. When he has it all going it is a sight to behold.

That doesn't mean he should necessarily try to do all of that every night. There is a time and place for everything, and we saw things go a bit off the rails late in the game because Embiid focused on the wrong sort of shots.

Embiid was a big part of the Sixers jumping out to a 16-point lead in the first place, but offensive stagnation can be put on his shoulders a lot of the time in spite of his talent. His instinct to try to take the game into his hands is probably a good one, but settling for long twos (and making the ones he takes more difficult than they need to be) is probably not the route he or the team should be going.

(There was another particularly egregious one of these in crunch time, for what it's worth.)

That said, I think the offensive execution during the huge Orlando comeback was much better than people are going to think having only watched it in real time. When you watch it live and can think of nothing more than, "Wow, how are they letting Orlando come back?!" it's difficult to compartmentalize the individual plays.

But there were plenty of sets that generated good shots and looked fluid for the Sixers, they just didn't take advantage of the opportunities. To show a couple examples: Embiid found Chandler for a shot he should be taking and making from the perimeter, and Embiid screened for Butler on a mid-range shot their new star will be trusted to convert in most cases.

There was also a JJ Redick screen that cleared a massive lane for Fultz to drive that was called back for an offensive foul during the down period for Philly early in the fourth. These sort of errors are execution issues that are squarely on the shoulders of the players.

The bottom line is this: there needs to be an increased urgency from every player on the roster to get Embiid the ball in deep post position.  It starts with him establishing himself down there, but the rest of the supporting cast needs to push him in that direction whenever possible. Getting him to the charity stripe has been their best and most consistent source of offense this year, and it should be a group effort to make that happen when the game starts slipping away.

Jimmy Butler is already capable of helping you in crunch time

It is admittedly hard to have someone join you in the middle of the season and hit the ground running, particularly when they're a star player with no experience playing in your system. Implementing Marco Belinelli into a Spurs-esque system last season wasn't all that difficult, and it's a completely different task than getting Butler up to speed.

The Sixers still made it look a little more difficult than it needed to be to get Butler into the flow of things. I thought he did an excellent job of helping himself, constantly moving away from the ball and getting a lot of his offense as a product of simple activity. That's something the Sixers will need in order to make this work.

But at the end of games, keeping it simple is the move. And Butler absolutely did not need the playbook to run more pick-and-rolls on offense.

When Butler was given the ball to run sets with Embiid at the end of the game, the Sixers were getting all sorts of space to work with. The shots did not always drop, but the product of getting Butler involved in a play during the fourth quarter was often an open look for somebody, with Orlando putting so much attention on him that they blew assignments elsewhere.

Point being: they can call his number now, they don't have to wait.  

The Sixers need to figure out better options for their backup frontcourt minutes

I feel like I'll be saying this until I'm blue in the face, but the Sixers really need to figure out exactly what they're doing in the frontcourt beyond playing Embiid as much as possible. Wilson Chandler has been solid and at times great during his minutes, but he's basically the only flexible wing you can move around in the rotation now.

That Amir Johnson only played only played six minutes on Wednesday night doesn't change the fundamental problem. Mike Muscala should be getting the bulk (if not all) of the backup minutes at the five, even if Brown wants to give him a healthy dose of time as a floor-spacing four. Embiid played 36 minutes against Orlando and is going to be around 32-33 on a lot of nights, so there's really no justification to not turn to Muscala there. He can easily play 12 backup center minutes and still help you space the floor around Embiid in bench-heavy units.

Because of the limitations some of their high draftees have, the Sixers need to try to work around their deficiencies to bring out the best in them. Playing either of those guys with a center who is little threat to score, not treated as a shooting threat, and has slipped defensively is just tying another anchor around their necks.

Lineups with Johnson at center this season are being outscored by 10.1 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning The Glass. They're bad across the board: they ran in the sixth percentile on defensive efficiency, turn the ball over at one of the worst rates in the league, and generally bring very little to the table. Lineups with Muscala as the primary big haven't fared well either, but they've received roughly one-sixth of the playtime in spite of the better on-paper fit.

I'm not asking for Brown to turn Simmons into a center whenever Embiid is off the floor, but this is an area that needs addressing at some point, if not by Brown than by the front office. 

Fultz and Butler works better than Fultz and Simmons

It should go without saying, but pairing Fultz with someone who can be effective away from the ball and score is much better than force feeding him looks next to Simmons. Fultz and Simmons only amplify their weaknesses playing next to one another, and bring out very few of the other's strengths.

Butler is a different story. Fultz was asked to briefly run an all-bench lineup in the first half, but Butler hung around to ease him into the game in the second half. It worked out well, with the Sixers starting to build their second-half lead (that they'd later cough up) with Fultz and Butler on the floor together.

Philadelphia's rotations tend to be too rigid for my liking, but just as a thought exercise Simmons should be coming out earlier in order to keep him fresher for the closing stages of games and to lean into lineups with more scoring punch and dribble-drive flexibility.

Butler's ability to shapeshift in his role on offense will make him a much better running mate for Fultz if the two can get some time together. It's still not an ideal pairing — Butler can't operate as well from his preferred mid-post area if teams double away from Fultz off-ball — but it's certainly better than some of the other partnerships we've seen for the young guard this year.

The makings of a Butler-Embiid partnership are already there in game one

Here's the major positive from game one — we saw flashes of absolute brilliance from Butler and Embiid on both ends, and those two look like they can get on the same page quickly. As everything else falls into place around them, that's something the Sixers can build around.

Defensively is where this duo popped the most to me. The Magic tried to run some action that required switching (or at least attentiveness) from the two of them, and both Butler and Embiid stepped up to the challenge to lock it down.

Most people expected these two to be a pain in the ass to play on the defensive end, but usually, it takes time to get on the same page when you're implementing a brand-new player into a huge role. That wasn't the case for these two, who switched with ease and walked the line between converging on the ball and cutting off passing lanes and shot opportunities for other players.

These two are going to be just fine. As long as the other guys settle in around them — and Simmons is really the big question mark on this front — I'm inclined to believe things are going to work out well for this group, at least on the basketball court.

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