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October 25, 2018

5 observations from the Sixers' disjointed loss to the Bucks

The return of Ben Simmons should have been a shot in the arm for the Sixers on the second night of a back-to-back in Milwaukee. And while Simmons showed some needed urgency while teammates struggled to turn it up, by the end it was all for naught. Philadelphia closed out a quick road trip 0-2 with a 123-108 loss in Milwaukee, and even that scoreline seems pretty generous to the Sixers.

Below average on both sides of the ball through five games, the Sixers are showing few signs of progress as they attempt to implement a major "new" piece into the rotation to start the year. But even beyond the Fultz experiment and the two sets of starting lineups, they are a group of players that look more like a pickup team than a cohesive unit.

And so to kick today's observations off, we will start with some commentary on the roster, and the impact its construction has had on their current predicament.

The Sixers' roster and rotation is a mess 

The biggest problem with this iteration of the Sixers is that despite the carry-over effect they should have from last year's roster, they look like a team without a plan or a purpose. That starts with the construction of the roster, which is a product of years worth of work that put them in this position.

Handed an arsenal of picks and gobs of cap space — on top of two outlier talents to build the franchise around — the Sixers have produced next to nothing of consequence with what the previous regime was afforded.

Even if you set aside the burner scandal and how ridiculous and embarrassing it was for the franchise, the repercussions of the Bryan Colangelo era become clearer with each passing game. Outside of Ben Simmons, who was about as no-brainer a pick as you're going to see at No. 1, the Sixers have gotten just about nothing from the draftees of that era. And with Colangelo sent packing this past summer, Philadelphia had to cobble together a front office for the biggest offseason in franchise history.

There are missing pieces that will give the Sixers more clarity on how they will fill in the blanks, but it's a project that feels very far from completion despite their top-end talent.

The team across from them on Wednesday night, after years wandering through the wilderness despite their talent, has a clear purpose as mandated by both the front office and new coaching staff. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the foundation upon which they are built, and the personnel around him makes complete sense: athletes and shooters, in many cases a mixture of both.

It will be harder for the Sixers because of the skill sets of their two best players and how they clash. But they need those very same things around them, and the Sixers very rarely put anyone on the floor who can be considered an athlete and a shooter simultaneously. As the rest of the league goes small, the Sixers rarely do and are rarely able to without actively harming themselves.

Perfect example: the Sixers have basically been forced into going too small without the services of Wilson Chandler, all in an effort to get more shooting on the floor. But they are getting none of the benefits they are supposed to be getting from this with all of the downside — look at how Giannis Antetokounmpo abuses the likes of Landry Shamet and Furkan Korkmaz when they had the misfortune of being matched up with him.

This team is more science experiment than a cohesive project right now, as a result of decisions made over years of time and a constantly shifting rotation that is attempting to accommodate the strangest No. 1 pick in recent memory. I don't know if Philadelphia needs roster-shifting moves to be made in the future, but I know right now they do not resemble a good basketball team, and didn't when they won against Chicago and Orlando, either.

(If any of this sounds like an excuse for Brett Brown, by the way, he doesn't get a pass either. Brown has as much power in the organization as pretty much anyone now, and has long had the ear of ownership. They have held out on major acquisitions, for the most part, in order to chase major upside down the road. He and Elton Brand and the rest of the front office better hope their faith in that route isn't misplaced.)

Joel Embiid is the only person keeping things afloat, even on off nights

You could make an argument that his performance against the Celtics was worse because of his turnover problem, but Embiid was pretty brutal against Milwaukee on Wednesday. His shot selection was heinous at times, and he tried to force shots that simply weren't there regardless of how talented he is.

But then you look down at the box score at the end of the game and you understand how insane his talent is anyway. Embiid finished with an absurd 30 points, 19 rebounds, and six assists on the evening, and was the only starter to finish the game on the positive side of the ledger.

There are two keys to that: defense and free-throw rate. Embiid has been an absolute machine generating attempts at the charity stripe early this season, adding 13 more attempts to his season average of 9.3 entering the night. This has come from a combination of Embiid forcing the issue more in the paint, getting more respect from the officials, and the league's freedom of movement rules benefitting him as the game is called tighter.

He hasn't cleaned it up altogether, but there's a lot less desperate flailing and a lot more of Embiid leaning into the physical side of the game. Instead of resorting to rip-through moves that can leave him flinging wild shots at the hoop, Embiid is just going to work in the paint and trusting that with repeated reps he will get whistles. And he has been right so far.

His flop against the Pistons notwithstanding, I think this has been an encouraging reflection of what a healthy summer meant to him. It's one thing to be big and strong, it's another to use it as a weapon.

And despite the team's overall struggles on defense, I think Embiid has been the only thing standing between a complete catastrophe on that end. Uncertain rotations and underwhelming performances from their top individual defenders have combined to undercut last year's elite unit, and Embiid has had to do a ton of cleaning up on the back end.

Unfortunately, there are only so many things he can do to keep things on track.

Markelle Fultz is not good enough offensively to justify his porous defense

We can set aside extended conversation about Fultz's offensive contributions for at least one day. They weren't good against the Bucks, but at least he shot (and made!) a corner three after turning down this wide-open shot in the first half:

What we will talk about, however, are Fultz's horrific defensive instincts. He may indeed have the tools to be a decent defender one day, but at the moment he's a glorified revolving door when he's forced into action on-the-ball.

Malcolm Brogdon is a fine enough player, but his off-the-dribble game is not his strength and something you'd prefer him to try vs. camping out and launching open threes. But Fultz made him look much more capable than he actually is on that end, allowing a couple layups (including one where he took a soft foul for an and-one) where he offered little resistance.

That second play isn't anything more than Fultz just being blown by. No screen, no misdirection, just Brogdon coasting right past him.

The worst part is, on-ball defense was supposed to be the least of his concerns entering the league. Defense was not ever going to be a strength right away, but the primary concern back then was that Fultz had a tendency to slip in and out of focus when the ball wasn't in front of him, a trait many young players have and eventually grow out of.

What we're seeing now is a bit more concerning. He doesn't leverage his considerable wingspan, his defensive stance isn't helping him stay in front of guys, and when he gets beat he often picks up cheap fouls that don't stop the players he's guarding from getting good looks near the basket.

The biggest disappointment with Fultz so far has been that he has so far to go in so many different areas. In a normal, median outcome for him coming out of college, he at least would have had his scorer's instincts and floor spacing to fall back on, which could buoy him when he got torched on defense or struggled to finish in traffic.

Right now, there are too many minutes where he's on the floor and is an active negative. The on/off stats are too noisy to read into yet, especially because dropping Fultz often means a cleaner fit in the form of JJ Redick, but it goes without saying they are better with Fultz on the bench right now.

To illustrate that with some (extremely noisy) numbers: last year's starting five has been about seven points better than their opponents this year, with a defensive efficiency mark that would put them third in the league. By doing nothing more than replacing Redick with Fultz, the Sixers' most-played lineup drops to a -34 NETRTG. 

Developing him is going to take a lot of time and effort, and it's anyone's guess how long it can continue if he doesn't pop more on either side of the ball. In the short-term, the team is visibly suffering.

Philadelphia's defense is significantly worse than it should be

Yes, the Sixers haven't been healthy, the rules for how defense is played have been altered slightly, and it's a small sample size. But their defensive performance has been completely inexcusable through five games, given the high-end defensive personnel they have between Embiid, Simmons, and Robert Covington.

I know the latter's critics like to pretend like he isn't impactful on the defensive end, which is just willful ignorance if you watch enough of this team. He forced several turnovers out of the Bucks best perimeter players, slapping balls out of the hands of Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton that careened out of bounds.

And yet, on far too many occasions the Sixers are allowing easy looks at the rim or open shots on the perimeter. Their hot start to the game in Milwaukee was not the product of stifling defense, but more a reflection of poor execution from the other team. They conceded a wide-open three to Eric Bledsoe, for example, that the veteran guard pinged off the side of the backboard.

The Sixers sit in the bottom half of the league (18th to be precise) in defensive efficiency right now, and if that holds over the course of a full season they are doomed. The scary part is they've reached that level of awful with a blend of teams at the top and bottom of the league in offense — Orlando and Boston are both bottom five offenses right now, while Detroit and Milwaukee sit in the top-10.

If this team wants to be at all good this season, that defense has to be the backbone of their identity, as it was for the majority of last season. They need to figure out how to defend lineups that spread the floor and draw Embiid away from the basket, because they will see more and more of them as the league continues to downsize in the years to come. None of the problems are going away.

It's a problem that would flummox any GM, and the Sixers have an unproven guy in the lead chair who is surrounded by all the front office guys from the last couple seasons (Colangelo obviously excluded) who put them here in the first place. Skepticism is warranted.

The back-to-back was a factor, but not an excuse for that performance

And finally, we can acknowledge that fatigue played a factor in last night's game without being the decisive force that caused Philadelphia to lose. Their tired legs showed up on a lot of offensive rebounds for Milwaukee, allowing the opponent to pile up extra possessions and wear them down even further.

But there are times when guys didn't even attempt to pretend they were involved in plays when sets didn't include them, and that's not something they can afford to have happen with their personnel limitations. This is not to pick on Fultz, as it was a teamwide problem, but look at him in the corner on this set and tell me if you think any defender should care at all about what he's doing away from the play, or whether they can drift toward his teammates and make life tougher for them.

Regardless of whether you're going to be the recipient or an active participant in a play, you need to look and actually be ready to shine for when things break down. Philadelphia's off-ball cutting and movement — which was a strength at times last season — has left a lot to be desired early on. It's especially jarring on Embiid post-ups, which can turn into a whole lot of standing around while he goes to work.

The Bucks are much improved this year, but they are not as good as the Sixers made them look last night. A healthier roster and simple attention to detail will help get them back on track, but Philadelphia hasn't had a single game yet this year that you could call good or solid on both ends. And JJ Redick perhaps summed it up best with his comments postgame.

"I think we — you can't assume anything in this league, and I think maybe we assumed we would just pick up where we left off, or there would be more carryover from last year. But players get better, teams get better, the league evolves, and I think if we've learned anything these first five games, it's that we have some improvement to make," said Redick. "I'm confident in our group and our coaching staff that we'll do that. It's not our best five-game stretch by any means."

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