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February 19, 2018

Grading the Sixers at the 2018 All-Star break

The 2017-18 Sixers' season has been a year-long example of beauty being in the eye of the beholder. At 30-25 heading into the home stretch, you can either rave about how they're set up for a strong push in the last 27 games or lament the losses they've taken at the hands of bad teams around the league.

If you're looking for the most truthful assessment, it's probably somewhere in the middle. The Sixers did well to overcome a brutal schedule out of the gate, clashing with some of the league's best teams as they tried to build chemistry with a brand-new rotation and an absent No. 1 overall pick. Those excuses do nothing to placate the Brett Brown critics, who believe their turnovers and blown leads are the biggest story of the first "half" of the season.

But this team, after years of churning out losses in the final months of the season, is worth assessing on a deeper level than that. So as we wait for the real games to start up again on Thursday — lord knows that abomination of an All-Star Game doesn't count — let's go through Philadelphia's roster and talk about the season each man has had to date.

(A note before we get started: each player is not being graded on the same scale. An A for a star player is not the same as an A for a role player and vice versa. Different talent and role, different expectations)

Joel Embiid — A

Anything other than a top grade for the young center would be nitpicking. He has been one of the league's most impactful players when he has been on the court, and unlike in his rookie season, there aren't a whole lot of qualifiers to attach to that statement.

One of the big questions facing Embiid this season was whether he'd be able to sustain his production once he started playing more minutes. Embiid has put all those questions to rest through the team's first 55 games, seeing an uptick in production and effectiveness coincide with more minutes played.

The only downside to Embiid's season has been the turnovers that plagued him throughout his rookie year. They are a natural product of giving a guy with little basketball experience so much offensive responsibility, particularly on plays that are as inefficient as post-ups. It doesn't make them any prettier to watch or any less harmful to the team.

But those turnovers are a small blemish in the grand scheme of things. Embiid is one of the most impactful defensive players in the league, the anchor of an elite defensive team, on top of assuming a monstrous offensive burden in his second NBA season. Watch him direct traffic from the paint night after night, and you will gain a deep appreciation for how gifted he is at such a young age.

He has excelled in his role and has already risen closer to the NBA's tippy-top tier of players. Just stay healthy, kid.

Dario Saric — B+

When the season started, it looked like Saric was on his way to being an odd man out in Philadelphia. Struggling in a bench role and assumed as a wonky fit alongside Ben Simmons, Saric was elevated back to the starting lineup by head coach Brett Brown, a move inspired by equal parts necessity and desperation.

No one has any doubts about where Saric fits in at the moment. He has become the stretch four the Sixers needed him to be in order to play alongside Embiid, though he brings a heck of a lot more to the table than your average sharpshooter at the power forward spot. If anything, Saric's shooting has only opened up the floor for him and allowed him to take advantage of his gifts as a passer and playmaker.

The number most people focus on is the mark from deep: 39.2 percent from deep represents an eight-point improvement over his rookie season, a massive one-year jump on a high volume of attempts. His improvement around the basket, however, is just as significant. "The Homie" is making 62 percent of his shots from within five feet — up from 55 percent from the same area during his rookie year — which is a function of his shooting creating more driving lanes and building chemistry as a cutter away from Embiid and Simmons.

All things being equal, you would still ideally like a player with Saric's strengths to come equipped with a little more defensive flexibility. If you have to make that trade-off, at least you're still getting a guy who competes on every play and makes you better with effort and hustle plays.

Robert Covington — C+

If we were grading Covington strictly on his performance over the last month-and-a-half, this grade would be decidedly lower. The shooting that helped propel the Sixers to their fast start has cooled considerably, and that dip coinciding with Covington's big contract extension has put the spotlight on him in a big way.

Even with those shooting problems, Covington continues to bring it every night and is one of their most important defensive pieces. He is a plus-minus superstar, which doesn't mean a whole lot on a game-to-game basis but ultimately reflects what he represents as a link in the chain. There is no replacing what he brings to the table, even when the shots aren't falling.

Philadelphia does, however, need him to return to respectability in the season's final months. He is the only wing on the roster who can credibly give you threes and defense on a given night, and if the shots aren't falling his coach is put in a position where he needs to choose one or the other. That can work during the grind of the regular season, but it's untenable during a seven-game series.

A little more consistency would go a long way.

JJ Redick — B

Redick was brought to Philadelphia to do exactly two things: make three-point jumpers and add a dose of veteran leadership to the locker room. He has excelled at both, and though the price tag is exorbitant he is getting the job done.

So why not an A? Redick has been a tad more frustrating to watch than you might have expected him to be coming into the year. The problems are mostly contextual; he has been asked to handle the ball more with Markelle Fultz out of the lineup, which has coincided with an uptick in turnovers. Pair that with what can be an infuriating tendency to settle for long twos and you have a frustrating cocktail.

That said, this Sixers team would be in big trouble without Redick, and his floor spacing has been invaluable this season. They have been fairly successful running two-man game with he and Embiid at the end of games, a responsibility you hope one day will fall in the hands of another core member of the team. For now, he's a fairly ideal stopgap. 

Ben Simmons — A-

I wavered on this grade quite a bit because it almost feels wrong to give Simmons a top grade without him having a passable jump shot. But it's important to remember he is a rookie, and within that lens he has exceeded any reasonable expectations for his rookie year.

Within the context of the "race" for Rookie of the Year, you can already see how people struggle to contextualize what Simmons is doing against more traditional players. Donovan Mitchell being the No. 1 scoring option on his team has helped solidify his case, despite the Jazz guard lagging behind Simmons in several other major stat categories.

Simmons is unique among box-score stuffers in that he puts up cartoon numbers without putting up crazy scoring numbers. A natural product of playing with the ball in your hands so much tends to be an increase in scoring, but Simmons has been more steady than dominant getting his. 

In fact, passiveness has been the one major critique you could make of him through the first 55 games of Philadelphia's season. He has not shied away from big moments, but he has struggled to find a balance between letting Embiid operate on the block and making his presence felt. You could apply this to the other three-quarters of the game, certainly.

Simmons remains within striking distance of an A, in my view, because of everything else. His defense has been an especially nice surprise in his rookie season, with the young Australian becoming one of the few first-year players to be legitimately impactful on that end of the floor. He's a little jumpy with his instincts, but his activity and tools are both top notch.

If there has been any silver lining to the Fultz injury, it has been the transfer of more ballhandling reps to Simmons. He has proven capable of being the 1A ballhandler on a good, young team, and the experience gained this year gives him a wealth of knowledge he may not have had otherwise.

TJ McConnell — B+

Without McConnell on the bench this season, the Sixers may have been under .500 heading into the All-Star break. He has been that important to their success, and one of the great stories of this Sixers season.

His role was questioned a ton last offseason, with the arrival of Markelle Fultz and the return of Jerryd Bayless from last year's wrist injury expected to eat into his role off the bench. The ailments of the former and the ineffectiveness of the latter have thrust McConnell into a bigger role than most envisioned last August, and to his credit, he has run with the opportunity.

The guy is a fan favorite for a reason. He is a perpetual pain in the ass for opposing ballhandlers, an occasional source of crossover highlights, and his three-point shot has been a huge story this season. On an admittedly small number of attempts, he is shooting a blistering 51.1 percent from beyond the three-point line.

The problem? He has simply been too reluctant to take them.

This is a problem McConnell himself has acknowledged and is something he has to rectify over time. That shot represents the difference between just sticking around the league for a long time and being a legitimate piece for a good team, and he knows it. Expect him to work on this area of his game accordingly.

Should he clean that part up, there's not a whole lot to complain about with McConnell. 

Jerryd Bayless — D

There was a point in the season where I was keeping a personal log of all the wide-open threes Bayless missed during crunch-time opportunities. I eventually discontinued tracking that specific occurrence to use my time more wisely, but that is a summation of what it feels like to watch Bayless this season.

Strangely enough, Bayless hasn't been all that bad by the numbers this year. He's making 37 percent of his shots from deep, which is perfectly acceptable and good for a combo guard off the bench.

Bayless' issues, like many of Redick's, have been a product of overextension. Early in the season, he was asked to do far too much playmaking and ballhandling, which has since been dialed back. Even that hasn't stopped him from being a frustrating player to watch; some of his turnovers are mind-numbing, and he hasn't exactly made up for them on the defensive end.

In a different role on a different team, he would look a lot better. Unfortunately, all we have to grade him on is this role on this team.

Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot — D

Because they decided to load up on one-year deals in an attempt to preserve flexibility moving forward, the Sixers bet a lot on internal improvement to carry their bench. TLC has been one of the biggest disappointments on that front and is a big reason why the wing rotation looks so poor.

In theory, Luwawu-Cabarrot is the exact sort of player who would benefit from playing alongside Simmons and Embiid, but his marginal improvement from three has not been enough to offset his ineffectiveness from everywhere else on the floor. TLC is shooting just 49.4 percent on shots at the rim, a dismal mark for a player who doesn't have to create the vast majority of his attempts.

Defensively, he has been even more frustrating to watch. He did a nice job as a cog in the starting lineup while Redick missed time earlier this year, but he has been erratic and downright ineffective there for most of the season. He frequently takes unnecessary fouls in situations that don't warrant them, refusing to trust his length to deter a shooter.

With Marco Belinelli joining the mix, it's going to be even tougher for him to get minutes the rest of the season. Hopefully, he can flash some improvement in what little time he gets. 

Amir Johnson and Richaun Holmes — C

It only feels right to grade these two together. They have both been perfectly fine this season, though Brown has leaned toward the older veteran for one simple reason: defense.

Defensive awareness continues to be the thing holding Holmes back from more minutes, and teams punish his overaggressiveness every time he enters a game. Johnson presents a different problem for the Sixers, with his lack of credibility as a shooter making life tough for a team dying for spacing as it is.

What this season may have highlighted is a need for the Sixers to find a two-way big to spell Embiid. That's a harder thing to find than you might think because most big men who are even competent at both ends of the court command huge contracts in free agency.

Understandable as it has been to play the savvy veteran this season, Holmes deserves an opportunity to play through some ups and downs in the hope he develops into a better player. Johnson is what he is, which is plenty serviceable, but the long-term potential just isn't there.

Trevor Booker — C-

Booker has been something of an easy target since joining the Sixers, for reasons that are completely outside of his control. He is a tough fit alongside the team's most important players, and his mere presence on the court complicates life for the guys driving their success.

Let's look at what that looks like in a handy chart:

Sixers' team efficiency with Booker on/off court

 Player On CourtOffensive Efficiency (Booker Off) Offensive Efficiency (Booker On) 
 Ben Simmons 108.598.7
 Joel Embiid 115.8 107.0

Booker is depressing the team's offensive efficiency through no real fault of his own because the guy works hard and ostensibly does the same things he has done throughout his career. But his instinct is to operate in the areas of the floor where Simmons and Embiid set up shop, and it ends up bringing an overload of help defense into the paint.

There is a smaller, but still, noticeable hit to the team's defensive efficiency whenever Booker hits the floor, so he's not exactly making it up on that end. There may not be a solution to this problem beyond playing him next to Richaun Holmes more, which gave the Sixers a big spark in a comeback win against Miami last week.

Justin Anderson — B-

This won't be the first Sixers player you've ever heard this about, but Anderson's biggest problem this year has just been staying on the court. After dealing with shin splints earlier in the year, Anderson recently suffered a nasty ankle sprain that has him back on the shelf.

When he has been able to suit up, Anderson has been a nice surprise for the Sixers. His three-point shooting has climbed to a more respectable 34.9 percent this season, a fairly big leap for a career 30 percent shooter from downtown. Anderson may never have the most picturesque shot, but he has tightened up a few things mechanically which have prompted the jump.

With the way the NBA is trending, it has been helpful just to have an athletic wing with switchability across different positions. You can put Anderson on the floor in a lot of different lineup compositions and he will give you the strength and activity a modern NBA defense requires, while also serving as a threat off-the-ball on offense.

Will the shooting sustain at higher volume? That's impossible to say because he has only taken 63 total attempts from three so far this year. Proving his shot is for real, on top of cutting down on some overzealousness on defense, will be the key to solidifying his role moving forward.

Markelle Fultz — Incomplete

There are only so many words to be written about a player who has suited up in just four games this season. We don't have to sugarcoat it: Fultz was bad in the limited action he has been available for, and the saga he has gone through is one of the more fascinating NBA stories in recent memory.

Still, there are a lot of NBA players who go through tough four-game stretches that do not define their seasons or careers. When he was able to play, Fultz did show some flashes of his all-around ability despite being a completely bastardized version of the player we saw in college and at Summer League.

If Fultz never relearns how to shoot, it will be tough for him to get anything but a failing grade. He routinely got his shot blocked at the rim early on, with teams quickly figuring out he was not a threat to shoot beyond the paint, a fact which has since been confirmed by his own GM.

For now, we can defer the decision and see how it all plays out because these grades mean as much as the points in Whose Line Is It Anyway?

Furkan Korkmaz — Incomplete

Korkmaz hasn't played enough meaningful minutes to care about any of his stats or play this season. Prior to suffering a Lisfranc injury, Korkmaz played almost exclusively in garbage time next to two-way players and other bench guys, and those sort of minutes are no real indication of ability.

This was always going to be a developmental year for the Turkish wing, with most of his work being put in at the practice facility and in the weight room. If he comes into next season stronger and more physically prepared for the NBA grind, this year will have been successful in spite of the injury.

Marco Belinelli — A

The guy scored 17 points and helped spark a massive comeback in his debut. What more could you want?

In all seriousness, this is obviously another incomplete for now. But theoretically, he's a nice fit alongside what the Sixers have who should give them a nice bump down the stretch.

Brett Brown — B-

This feels like the sweet spot for a coach whose critics and proponents seem to do battle after every win and loss. He hasn't been one of the best coaches in the NBA by any stretch, but he has done a fine job getting the Sixers positioned for a strong close to the year.

With the personnel to play the style of basketball he has always wanted to, Brown is finally getting results. The Sixers are an elite defensive team this season, with the combination of Embiid, Simmons, and Covington giving Brown a foundation from which to build. Combined with a perfectly average, No. 15 ranked offense — an overachievement given the bench and the youth of their top players — and the Sixers currently sit at No. 8 in the league in point differential, despite a brutal schedule to date.

There's still plenty to question despite this success. Brown has been fairly rigid with his rotations this year, refusing to break from his chosen lineups even when matchups might necessitate a curveball. This has been a little surprising given some of his experimentings in the past; even dating back to the rebuild years, he toyed around with smaller players like Jerami Grant at center, a trend that continued with Saric early this season. Not trying that elsewhere, a la playing Covington more minutes as the backup four, has been a tad frustrating and a contributing factor in the bench's ineffectiveness.

Still, overall he has done pretty well with a job that is tougher than it seems on the surface. He has to manage a team that has a 6'10" rookie playmaker at the helm and a 7'2" turnover-prone center in the middle of everything. The styles of his two best players directly clash, with the former needing to run-and-gun and the latter at his best when it all slows down. Trying to coax the best out of both guys is no small task and an exercise in placating egos as much as it is designing sets.

Is Brown the guy to take them to the promised land? That remains to be seen. For now, there's plenty of evidence to suggest he's a good leader in the locker room and equipped to help them take this first, important step.

Bryan Colangelo — C

Truthfully, Colangelo probably deserves an incomplete grade just like his No. 1 overall pick. So much of what he has done has been with an eye on the future, and this front office has bet a lot of their future on the ability to lure big-name free agents this summer or next.

Colangelo's future at this moment hinges on a couple major components. First and foremost is the development of Fultz, who he invested a lot in to be the third core piece of a future contender. The Sixers' brain trust believed he would be the perfect fit alongside Simmons and Embiid, and that evaluation is at the center of their story moving forward. If Fultz becomes the All-Star many believed he could be, the sky is the limit for the Sixers.

But we're a long way from seeing that Fultz, and if the Sixers don't get that internal growth to take them to the next level, it will be an outside force that has to put them over the top. Getting the perfect fit through free agency or another draft pick will be exceedingly difficult, especially because the Sixers will start running into cap-clogging after the summer of 2019. Their time to lure a star player is not as long as you might think, barring a future trade that shakes up the roster. Even that has become less likely because of the Fultz deal — the Sixers simply don't have as many assets as they did pre-Fultz trade.

Beyond that, Colangelo's moves have been hit or miss. Redick has been an obvious help for the starters and Johnson has helped keep the defense together on the bench, but Bayless has been infuriating and Booker doesn't fit with the current group. Beyond the slam-dunk pick he got to make at No. 1 in the form of Simmons, his other draft selections have offered very little so far.

Two years in, I remain in wait-and-see mode with Colangelo. He has preserved cap space and added some decent help in the short-term. But his biggest long-term move has gone up in smoke so far, and if Fultz never gets right, it will be that trade that defines his tenure above all else.

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