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October 08, 2018

Instant observations from Sixers vs. Mavs rematch to close China tour

The dream is dead. The Sixers have closed their trip to China and their formal preseason with a loss, ruining their chance at an undefeated record. Thankfully, that doesn't matter even a little bit, and there's much more to talk about than their record in a bunch of exhibition games.

At the top of the list: the play of Philadelphia's changed starting unit on this overseas trip, which has been a lot more up-and-down than the Sixers would have hoped. Joel Embiid's play should inspire confidence in a potential run at some major individual hardware, but Markelle Fultz's struggles will reopen quesitons about whether it's worth pushing JJ Redick to the bench to accommodate the young guard.

Here's what I saw in Philadelphia's final game of the preseason.

The Good

• Joel Embiid's three-point shooting still hasn't shown up in the preseason yet, and that's a trend to watch with the Sixers needing his floor spacing more than ever. Thankfully, he has been masterful at just about everything else on the offensive end of the floor, and a healthy offseason appears to have him ready to dominate in his third season of action.

With some assistance from officials that are calling fouls tighter in the post so far this preseason, Embiid has feasted around the basket. When big men have given him space to operate, he has used it to crush teams with touch shots. When they've played him tight, he has turned the physicality against them to earn trips to the charity stripe.

You can see the difference his conditioning makes when it comes to getting him easy baskets. With Embiid running the floor better than ever, he has been able to establish early position and catch early entry feeds from Ben Simmons or Markelle Fultz, and it's a wrap from there.

Embiid has scored in bunches during his preseason minutes, including 12 in the first quarter and 20 in the first half on Monday despite a rough start from outside. He is poised for a big season on offense.

• It's not as though we haven't seen it before, but it was nice to see T.J. McConnell and JJ Redick come off the bench and make an impact against Dallas on Monday. The Sixers came out pretty lifeless to start the game, and things only began to change once the second unit got their opportunity to shine.

McConnell, in particular, came out like he had something to prove, perhaps because he (once again) does this preseason. Brown had relegated McConnell to mop-up duty early in the preseason and looked primed to give Jerryd Bayless an opportunity to rejoin the rotation. It may end up that McConnell will force his way back into the mix once again, even with Fultz getting more developmental minutes this season.

Say this for McConnell: he knows where his spots on the floor are, and he gets to them often. The Fultz experience has been a rollercoaster so far, and it wouldn't be shocking to see Brown lean back toward a less volatile option as the year winds on.

The Sixers' depth may actually be a strength this season, which is a big change from the beginning of last year.

• Much like Embiid, Robert Covington's outside shot was failing him early on Monday. And much like his more talented peer, Covington did not let that deter him.

Touches and shots will be at a premium for Covington this season with Fultz back in the mix, so he has to make the most of what he's given lest he lose those opportunities altogether. One easy way to make sure he stays on the score sheet? Run the floor, because one of his playmakers will find him.

Covington was back to his menacing ways on defense, too, collecting six steals on the night. Let's just try to minimize the dribbling as much as possible, because it's still an adventure.

• Relative to expectations coming in, I think the player who has helped himself the most during the preseason is Landry Shamet. He has been solid all over the place for a Sixers team in need of internal growth and fits pretty much perfectly into their offensive flow.

I don't think there should be any question about putting him the rotation to start the year. He'll be a low minutes guy with Redick's move to the bench taking up a good chunk of the backup wing minutes, but his ability to shoot on the move and put it on the floor to either create or score should guarantee playing time.

The Bad

• Dario Saric was given the night off for rest purposes, which gave Brett Brown to do some creative things with his lineup configurations. Unfortunately, Brown's decision was to simply insert Mike Muscala into the starting spot vacated by Saric.

I've mentioned this in some of our preview material for the new season, but Brown has always talked a bigger game about small ball than he has walked it. Wilson Chandler's preseason hamstring issue has made it harder to lean into small ball, but with a supersized point guard in Ben Simmons, Brown could make this work quite easily. At this point, it just appears he's not super interested in configuring his lineups that way, and that he wants to lean into more traditional setups.

It seems a shame to have a group with the potential flexibility as this one only to not lean into that.

• The disparity between how well Markelle Fultz navigates screens on offense and how well he does so on defense is staggering at times. Brett Brown has commented often about how Fultz's inclusion in the starting lineup can make a difference on defense, but he still has some glaring deficiencies right now.

Whether he's trying to sink under or fight over screens, Fultz is putting himself behind the eight ball in any plays where a screen comes his way. In his attempts to play catch-up during the preseason, Fultz has often overpursued following these mistakes and doubled down on his mistake by committing fouls.

Getting into foul trouble doesn't mean much in a preseason game, but Fultz has to learn to play impactful defense without fouling. NBA officials are already calling things tighter right now as it is, so he can't keep putting himself in positions to draw their attention.

Here's the bottom line: Fultz can't pick up four fouls in a half. There's no excuse for it, green in the gills or not.

• Speaking of Fultz, JJ Redick took his place in the starting group when the second half kicked off, which could mean nothing and could mean everything. Getting Redick minutes with other presumed starters isn't strictly necessary, as they had plenty of time to develop chemistry on their way to being the most productive starting five in the league last season.

This doesn't strike me as a good sign of how other teams currently view Fultz:

We'll have to wait and see what Brown's explanation for this is postgame, if he offers one at all. Regardless, it was a rough trip overseas for Fultz, and he'll have to recenter himself before the Sixers travel to Boston for the season opener next Tuesday. Best believe the Celtics fans are going to let him hear it.  

The Ugly

• The technical given to Ben Simmons for celebrating a dunk was super corny. It's an exhibition game overseas trying to promote the game, let these guys have some fun.

(I'm of the mind these sort of technicals are goofy anyway, but in a meaningless game they're even more pointless.)

• The officiating in general remains a watchability issue for the league. NBA refs are calling way too many fouls on both teams in an effort to follow the league's new "freedom of movement" points of education. It makes for a choppy product, and I don't know how you can expect anyone to get into a rhythm in this constant start-stop environment.

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