January 13, 2020
Exactly 41 games into the season, the 2019-20 Sixers have done a remarkable job of infuriating absolutely everyone who watches them night-to-night. They have not answered a single big picture question outsiders had about the team coming into the year, at least not in a positive fashion, and any dreams about their playoff ceiling have been tarnished by the harsh reality of their place in the standings, sixth place with half of the season to go.
How do you grade a team like this? Good question, dear reader. There is no dressing up the fact that Sixers have disappointed up to this point, some great stretches and individual performances aside. It would probably be cathartic for a lot of you if I simply failed everyone, but that's not what I'm here to do.
A note on these grades/evaluations before we get started: these players are not being graded on the same scale, obviously. I have different standards for Joel Embiid than I do Norvel Pelle, or for a rookie compared to veteran anchors of the team. One player getting an "A" does not necessarily mean I think they're having a better season than someone who got a lower grade. You may disagree with that approach and may disagree with the grades in any case, and if you do, I suggest you decide on your own scale and we can compare notes later.
Embiid is, has been, and likely will be Philadelphia's best player as long as he is here. He has not been as good as he has been in years past, partially because of team context but partially because of his own shortcomings.
Making reads out of double teams has been a weakness for his entire career, and Embiid has improved there, albeit not at the rate many would have hoped for. That is the lone thing that stands out as a positive development for Embiid this season, who has been a bit worse protecting the rim, remains a below-average shooter from three, and can't seem to find the balance between preserving his health and playing hard enough to will Philly to comfortable wins. When he has been motivated, few have reached the levels he has hit this season, but they don't hand out hardware for being dominant on an occasional basis.
Even with all of that being said, he is their superhero at times, a guy who can put up cartoonish box score numbers that still don't do justice to his impact. Each time he sits, you can see how much they miss him and how valuable his skills are. They got the most expensive backup plan/insurance policy that they could, and they are still dead in the water without him.
The Sixers need him to lead by example. On the nights where he does so, they win. He has a responsibility right now to put in the work to stay in shape while he's out and recovering from hand surgery, and his professionalism in that regard may ultimately decide where this team ends up once they reach the playoffs.
A lot of Al Horford's problems in Philadelphia are contextual. It wouldn't matter that he was having a down year shooting the ball from outside if he wasn't being asked to play next to a post-up center and a 6-foot-10 point guard who won't shoot jumpers. It wouldn't matter if he took a defensive step back if the Sixers were taking better advantage of skills like his short-roll passing.
Unfortunately, it does matter that all of the aforementioned things have impacted Horford's effectiveness. Coming here meant signing up for a job where his three-point shooting would matter more than ever, accepting a role as a secondary figure who would lift up Embiid and Ben Simmons. He may have given Simmons the best backup center he has ever played with, but that was a small hurdle to clear, and the guy who is supposed to be the ultimate teammate complained about his role to reporters before half of the season had gone by, despite his role being clear the moment he put pen to paper.
With some defensive tweaks, the Sixers have gotten more out of Horford recently, so I'm not writing him off for the year. But he has rarely been close to the guy he was in Boston.
I was openly skeptical of Tobias Harris' claim that he would be an improved defender this season. You don't see many players make defensive leaps mid-career, and Harris shifting to more of a true wing role this season seemed destined to set him up for failure.
The guy who has made it a habit to improve yearly pulled it off again. Harris is certainly not a lockdown guy, but he has improved a great deal in one-on-one situations and has made huge strides as a help defender, putting out some fires on the back end.
Philly isn't winning any titles because Harris turned into a decent defender, however. His three-point shooting has hovered around league average, which won't cut it with the way this team is constructed. Harris has done a good job of finding his offense despite the structural concerns, thriving in the mid-post area against smaller defenders, but they need him to be closer to the shooter he was in Los Angeles to have a real Finals chance.
An area to watch in the second half — will Harris get more chances to run pick-and-roll? His efficiency has sagged on those plays this season, but it has been a good source of offense for him in the past and the team is short on handlers.
Truthfully, I am surprised Richardson isn't more divisive with fans. Perhaps it's because he has taken such a large share of the ballhandling responsibilities, or the fact that he plays with an edge, but his swings from good to bad and bad to good are extraordinary. It's hard to figure out the logic behind his decision-making sometimes, and though he launched Philadelphia's "accountability" campaign, he would do well to take some accountability for the head-scratching passes he throws once or twice a game.
But the Sixers have badly needed his versatility, and his development path in Miami has helped them plug holes in a team filled with them. His early days as a true three-and-D guy prepared him to play away from the ball, and recent seasons with more responsibility allowed him to develop his pick-and-roll game to the point where he has become Philly's most trusted handler out of those looks.
Simmons' presence often allows him to take the second-toughest assignment on the perimeter, which feels like the perfect spot for him to be in. He gets burned for playing overly physical at times, but that feels like a potential asset for the playoffs rather than a liability.
I can hear some of you grumbling already. I don't think there's a grade I could give that would satisfy everyone, as Simmons is an eye of the beholder player.
He has turned into, without question, one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, and he will deserve whatever year-end honors he earns there. But if we are talking about year-on-year improvement, most of Simmons' leap forward this season is effort-based. We saw him shut down D'Angelo Russell in last year's playoffs, and he was the only thing stopping Kawhi Leonard from dropping 55 points per game in the Toronto series. When he is on and engaged, he's electric defensively.
The most meaningful changes still have not been made. Everyone knew he had to come back with offensive improvements, and we were promised those improvements by Simmons and his head coach before the season began. He has dug his heels in even more on a team worse-equipped to overcome his biggest flaw than ever before. The script is the same, with Simmons unable and/or unwilling to impact the game when things get tight in second halves.
He is better than almost every player who has been floated as a fake trade target, and he has been let down by poor roster construction/understanding of how to get him going. But no matter what changes about the context, with Embiid and without Embiid, he is prone to the same ups and downs in form, the same disappearing act late in games. That's on him.
Thybulle has not quite lived up to the torrid steals pace he was on in the preseason, and he still has a lot of issues to clean up between now and the playoffs. Good offensive players are on to him, and they have baited him into cheap fouls repeatedly when given the opportunity.
So why an A? He has been better than he has any right to be at this stage of his career, bringing plus-shooting to the table along with generally excellent defense. If the second unit has had any identity, it is because Thybulle has helped create it, teaming with Simmons to terrify opponents in passing lanes.
The next step for the rookie is to tighten up the handle, which would help him avoid car wrecks in transition and wild drives in the halfcourt. A good kid most people speak very highly of, and a good get for Elton Brand.
He's the only regular bench player, non-Thybulle division, who isn't a liability at one end of the floor. Ideally, he would be down a spot or two in the rotation behind better players, but he'll do for now.
I would offer a defense of this grade, but that would be more than Korkmaz has played all season.
Ideally, a trade would push Korkmaz out of the rotation, but he has been perfectly adequate at what they have needed him to do. The shooting promise he showed as an amateur player has finally shown up in an NBA setting, so Brown keeps going to him. With the way the rest of this group has shot all year, I get it, even if I don't have to like watching teams hunt him on the other end as often as they do.
Burke has slightly outplayed Neto this year, in part because he works better on a second unit that desperately needs some scoring punch. Neto's hesitance to attack is a bummer, as even though he is the better defender and has shot well, Burke's tempo makes him a better fit for what Philly needs in this bit role.
The Sixers could really use a better option in this spot, though plucking a true sixth man for cheap doesn't seem realistic midseason.
Scott's numbers do not paint a proper picture of how bad he has been. Unguarded three-point attempts are barely hitting the rim. Defensive rotations aren't made, and when they are, they're a step slow and ineffective at actually helping Philadelphia's defense. He admitted that he thought he was "ass" with the Clippers when he arrived in Philly as part of the Tobias Harris trade last season, which seems a fitting description of how he has looked so far.
He is a logical candidate to bounce back as a shooter during the second half, but it doesn't seem likely that will take place in Philadelphia. I have enjoyed having Mike Scott around as a human being. The Sixers need a better basketball player.
A preseason favorite, O'Quinn looked like a natural fit for Philadelphia's needs and style of play. He's a good passer, a decent rim protector, and he's now at least a willing three-point shooter.
As it turns out, once teams started preparing for games that mattered, O'Quinn didn't help fix the issues of backup units built around Ben Simmons. He has been bumped from third center duties by Norvel Pelle, which doesn't seem like a great sign for his future here.
We will talk about what I think of Pelle's two-way contract below, but in terms of on-court contributions, the Sixers have gotten more from Pelle than I thought was realistically possible coming into the year. He has given Philly a needed jolt of energy at times, and his unflinching desire to protect the rim is admirable in a league where most guys are fearful of being dunked on.
Has been getting shots up with no regard for human life in the G League. Might be worth a look with the big club at some point — not sure he can defend absolutely anyone, but shooters are always welcome.
Milton looked like he might be the "bomber" Brett Brown wanted off of the bench early on, but an injury setback opened the door for Furkan Korkmaz, and Milton has been pretty bad in the small bursts we have seen from him since.
Five NBA minutes played is hardly enough to grade him on this year.
No one is necessarily to blame for Smith's current predicament, but last year's freak allergic reaction and subsequent missed time robbed him of time he didn't have to lose. Philadelphia's gamble on a lottery ticket (and acquisition of an extra pick) made sense when they executed the trade, but developmental minutes have dried up in Philly, and Smith's cameos have shown who he is, an athlete still trying to figure out who he is as a basketball player.
Another team with time to offer him and a less pressing need for shooting might be able to turn him into something. It seems increasingly unlikely that will happen here, with Smith one of the most obvious candidates to be traded between now and the deadline.
Brett Brown is not the reason the Sixers have underwhelmed, and Brett Brown also hasn't been the agent of positive change to pull them out of ruts. The conversation about his job security strikes me as not worth the time and energy most spend on it, at least relative to other concerns.
There are real criticisms to make, and my gripes with Brown are primarily about speed. He's often too slow to call a timeout, too hesitant to make a change that goes against his initial judgment.
In Embiid's absence, changes have been made to the defensive scheme to better suit Horford as the primary center, and it strikes one as obvious they should have done more to scheme around Horford's defensive gifts with backup groups from the beginning. If his signing was a fundamental plank of the offseason, it's on the coach to figure out how to get the most out of him. Waiting as long as they did to unleash Simmons as a screener in pick-and-rolls, where he has thrived recently, is another example of the same phenomenon.
Brown coaches reactively in spite of the collective understanding that their view is on the playoffs, which should be the perfect motivation for proactive adjustments and constant tinkering that don't take place. We don't see things like small-ball lineups with Simmons at center* until the Sixers have been forced into tough decisions by health or circumstance, and Brown's default mode is to go down swinging with the original plan. There is value in stability, but his Sixers have been inflexible to a fault.
(*Do I think Simmons at small-ball center is a winning play for Philly? Ultimately, not really. But it is hard to know when the Sixers so rarely try to do things like this.)
I am less bothered by other common complaints. It is hard to force-feed more pick-and-roll when your franchise center doesn't like running it and isn't good as a roll man anyway. Fans who tuned out the NBA for years think they are a team of reckless gunners from three and will be surprised to learn they are near the bottom of the league in volume, and that less than 3.5 percent of their total attempts are on three-point shots with a defender within four feet of their shooters.
In other words, they create the looks every team strives for in spite of their ugly jigsaw puzzle of a roster, and they understand the need to shoot threes but know their strengths lie elsewhere. Offensively, they are often trying to make chicken noodle soup out of chicken shit.
(You may not have noticed, by the way, but the Sixers are now firmly middle-of-the-pack in turnovers, dead even with the Lakers. Immediately behind them? The woeful Warriors. Turnovers have never been a stat that matters as much as people think.)
The question of whether his voice is "too familiar" to Embiid and Simmons (and whether that is the difference between competing for a title or not) is perhaps the most important one for management to answer. Simmons ignoring his public request for threes and Embiid turning his motivation on and off has not reflected well on the dynamic. They wouldn't be the first pair of young, talented players who needed a fresh voice to bring the best out of them.
That said, an NBA coach's role in "motivation" is overrated by some. No one could have asked for a better motivational tool than Philadelphia's stars suffering a crushing defeat and watching a potential title vanish into the Toronto night, one year after being humiliated by an undermanned Boston team. Great athletes channel adversity into personal growth, and the Sixers' frontline stars responded to it by arriving back on the scene the same as they ever were. It is not on a professional coach to babysit players all summer. Improvement has to come from within.
You are only going to get one real shot at a coaching change with this group, lest you invite chaos. Barring the wheels coming off, Brown will get his chance to show they really are built for the playoffs. But I don't suspect a change in approach is coming, and as we have seen, that comes with obvious drawbacks.
A harsher grade for Brand would have been well-earned, given where the team is today and where they were a few short years ago. The Sixers are no closer to fixing their inherent problems than they were when Brand took over as GM, overseeing a roster that counted Robert Covington and Dario Saric as starters.
The Sixers keep trying to dance around the issue at their core: their two most important players are a horrific offensive fit. Not yet willing to entertain trading one of them, Brand has tried to build the biggest, most imposing team possible to maximize the value of their defensive gifts. With a slowed-down pace and shortened rotations, you can see what he envisioned. Unfortunately, Brand left the Sixers without fallback plans and in denial of skills the Sixers desperately need on offense, shooting and ball-handling most prominently.
A good GM will not nail every move or ace every player evaluation, but they will pile up wins on the margins more often than not. The Sixers have gotten absolutely worked on the margins over the last year-plus, from the unnecessarily large haul they gave up for Tobias Harris to the telegraphing of their interest in Matisse Thybulle (even if acquiring him ended up being the correct move.)
Not even the silver linings are untainted. Pelle, a nice recent story, follows along those lines. Philadelphia has hundreds of millions of dollars invested in centers, a veteran third big in O'Quinn, and yet they are still using a valuable two-way spot on a big man who turns 27 in February. Bigs are not fungible in the way guards and wings are, and Pelle's only path to prominence in Philly is if something goes horribly wrong with their larger investments.
The confusing thing is that Brand and the people flanking him seemed to understand their needs better at points in the past. The Markelle Fultz trade, made by Bryan Colangelo, shares DNA with Brand's move to acquire Butler. Both showed an understanding of Philadelphia's creative dearth and the need to ease the offensive burden on Simmons. Brand did well to pick up Richardson when Butler made it clear South Beach was his future home, but somehow lost sight of the team's underlying problems in the process.
This year's deadline could be a pivotal moment in franchise history, as the right piece(s) could be the difference between being a real contender or just a talented group of misfits that can't get over the hump. And if the Sixers fail, the very question Brand has tried to avoid will be the star of the show this summer: can they build a title-winner around this core duo?
Only time will tell.
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