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January 17, 2018

JJ Redick injury comes at worst possible time for Sixers

Sixers NBA

Listen to Brett Brown talk about JJ Redick for even 30 seconds, and you'll learn everything you need to know about the veteran guard's impact on the team. The "pro's pro" is a steady voice in the locker room, a secondary ballhandler and a deadeye shooter who sucks attention toward him whenever he's on the court. Bryan Colangelo backed up the truck for him last summer for good reason.

So when the Sixers passed down news that Redick will likely miss at least the next two weeks due to injury on Tuesday evening, it was a real gut punch for a Sixers team finally finding their footing. The team's language in the press release was almost comically specific:

With 4:37 remaining in the fourth quarter of last night’s game, JJ Redick sustained an injury to his left leg resulting from contact with an opponent. He underwent X-rays following the game last night, which were negative. An MRI was performed late this afternoon that revealed bone edema and a small cortical crack in the fibular head of his left leg. Redick is out and will be re-evaluated in approximately 10 days to two weeks.

I'm certainly not going to complain about additional transparency from the Sixers, but the news was a downer after Adrian Wojnarowski initially reported Redick would miss only a "short window of time." That seemed like a day-to-day knock that would keep him out for a game or two.

Instead, Redick will hit the shelf at what is perhaps the worst possible time for the Sixers, and will only be reevaluated at the end of the current timetable. Over the next two weeks, the Sixers will play eight games, the crowded schedule one huge downside of a London trip in the middle of their season. After their game against Boston this Thursday, there are no breaks longer than a day between games until February 4 and 5.

So where do the Sixers turn now? Glad you asked.

It will take a collective effort to replace him

While it goes without saying you can't just patch together a solution to replace one of the greatest three-point shooters in modern NBA history, the Sixers are particularly ill-equipped to account for his absence. Their wing and guard depth is rough with a healthy Redick, and that problem only gets worse with him hurt.

No one the Sixers will put in his place demands the same attention as Redick, a reality reflected in the On/Off numbers for the Duke product. The Sixers' offensive efficiency when Redick is on the court (107.9) is equivalent to a top-10 offense in the NBA. Their offensive efficiency when he sits (99.2) would place them dead last in the NBA, behind even the lowly Sacramento Kings. That's an almost unfathomable drop, and it should not make anyone feel good that the guys behind him now have to play more minutes.

Jerryd Bayless will likely be the guy who fills the immediate void in the starting lineup, if Brett Brown's rotations this year are any indication. The good news? Bayless has actually been significantly better as a starter than a bench player this year, shooting over 40 percent from deep in the 10 games he has started.

The normal starting five has been dynamite, and that's one reason for optimism here. Between Ben Simmons' creation talents, Joel Embiid getting doubled in the post, and the glue work from Dario Saric and Robert Covington the Sixers will make the fifth guy in that lineup look better. If Bayless can simply knock down open threes — he should get plenty of them — it'll go a long way toward minimizing the damage.

But counting on Bayless for bigger stretches also exposes his limitations as a ballhandler and defender, while making it necessary to give other guys more minutes off the bench. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot's role has grown fairly insignificant over time and for good reason: he hasn't been good enough as a shooter or defender, giving the Sixers none of what you need in a modern NBA wing.

The other options aren't great either. Justin Anderson is clamoring for more minutes after a long injury layoff, but Brown hasn't seemed particularly inclined to play him and he's more activity than skill at this point. TJ McConnell will be asked to sop up more minutes, though his hesitation to shoot and pass-first mentality has burned the Sixers a bunch this season. Could they really turn to James Young, the two-way guy they recently brought in?

Philadelphia's plans have a big free agency push in mind for the summer of 2018, and that's all well and good but it has left them with a scarcity of cover on the wing this season. So perhaps Brett Brown could choose to approach this another way.

Could the Sixers bring back bully ball?

Behind "Will Joel Embiid play tonight?" and "What's going on with Markelle Fultz?" the most common question I've been asked this season is "Why is Amir Johnson playing over Richaun Holmes?" That answer is quite simple — defensive trust from the coaching staff — but Holmes may get a larger opportunity with Redick recovering from injury.

Brown has relayed to us that he's been encouraged by Holmes' play as a power forward alongside Embiid, and so far has only used the combination situationally. Against teams like the Lakers and Timberwolves who play multiple "traditional" bigs at a time on occasion, it makes sense to counter that with size of your own, especially because Embiid can play away from the basket and negate some of the clutter.

It might be time to dust it off and force matchup weirdness yourself. With the rotation behind Redick being what it is, the Sixers aren't going to get the benefit of floor spacing almost regardless of who gets those extra minutes, so they might as well try to amplify some of the other strengths of their team.

The Embiid-Saric frontcourt has been a masterclass in bullying teams on the glass, and though Holmes is individually not the best rebounder, in theory, his size, activity and athleticism could produce some of the same results with Embiid drawing attention when shots come off the rim. Holmes also gives the Sixers some offensive verticality they don't otherwise have, and he has flashed some obvious chemistry with Simmons and Embiid in limited minutes.

There's no better time to try it than now.

The ever-looming Fultz return

Of course, there's also the matter of the No. 1 pick and his eventual return to the court. We have yet to be given any indication that there is a return date in mind for Fultz, and if shooting a basketball well is a precursor we appear to be a long way away.

Eager fans have been quick to suggest Redick's injury could speed up the process for Fultz returning to play, but I think the processes at work are wholly independent. Fultz could very well return during Redick's absence, but it will not be because Redick is gone that they throw their sputtering draftee into the mix. It would be shortsighted to spend all this time protecting Fultz's health (mentally and physically) and then thrust him into action because of an injury to someone in the rotation.

It's worth noting, however, the specificity in the Redick press release vs. anything we've been told on Fultz all season. The Sixers used insanely specific language attached to a concrete timeline for Redick, yet Fultz's issues are relegated to "scapular muscle imbalance" and timeframes that stack three-week reevaluations one on top of the other. This would suggest there is a lot more to the Fultz situation than they've ever disclosed publicly, and make you wonder why that is.

Should the Sixers get Fultz back sometime before the end of February, you can pretty obviously forget about him as a replacement for Redick's shooting. But he would give the Sixers some shake off the dribble that can be weaponized, if not for himself then as an avenue toward easy buckets for his running mates.

Dribbling creativity and the ability to separate from defenders has been desperately needed for months, and that remains true even when Redick returns to the lineup.

Frankly, any guesses at what Fultz can contribute to the Sixers when he returns are just that. An outcome with Fultz seemingly unable to shoot from three was not even on the table when the Sixers drafted him, and we're operating from a massive information deficit anytime we discuss him. All the half-speed practice footage in the world doesn't change that.

But hey, if he feels up for it and the coaching staff feels good about where he's at, there's no better time than now for Fultz to make his presence felt. Just try to bend your knees a little on your rise-up, buddy.