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February 04, 2021

Mailbag: Sixers trade targets, Seth Curry's swoon, biggest needs moving forward

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Josh_Harris_Daryl_Morey_Hornets_Sixers_Frese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, right, talks with managing partner Josh Harris, left.

With apologies for my slacking on the matter, there have been far too few Sixers mailbags around these parts recently, something I plan to rectify in the weeks and months to come. We are starting to learn more about this new group under Doc Rivers, and that should make for more diverse questions about the team.

Of course, if you ever have questions that aren't Sixers related, you are always free to drop them here, on Twitter, or my email inbox, where I'm happy to get to them if and when I have the chance.

Let's get to it.

Mark, via email: Can Joel Embiid's MVP level of play translate to the playoffs?

Can it? Absolutely. Will it? We've all got to see it to believe it.

There are reasons to be dubious of the Sixers' winning formula holding up under playoff pressure. Officials are less inclined to let you live at the free-throw line in the playoffs, something we see hamper Embiid in crunch time even in the regular season. Beating double teams will almost certainly be tougher for Embiid in the playoffs. Not only will he be up against better defenses, he'll be up against defenses that can prep for him exclusively, picking up on weaknesses and forcing role players to beat them in big moments.

On the other side of it, Embiid's development as a self creator has been the least discussed major storyline of the early stretch for Philly. The Sixers are now basically able to hand him the ball and let him run the offense as soon as he crosses halfcourt. His pull-up shooting ability has been ridiculous around the free-throw line this season, and he has been less stubborn about relentless post-ups when they're not working against a specific matchup. With Embiid able to reliably create offense on his own, it dampens the impact other teams can have on him with double teams in the post, and you'd expect his arsenal will expand throughout the season as the Sixers work on more looks.

I think people should be prepared for some regression from Embiid shooting the ball, but that's less a playoff concern than it is a reflection of his insane start to the year. Even with a moderate drop from midrange, he will be putting up elite efficiency from an area of the floor that is supposed to be no man's land. And his defense has looked tremendous to start the year, even with Doc Rivers and Dan Burke asking him to add more to his plate this season. He's the least of my worries from a playoff perspective.

It is undoubtedly Ben Simmons in my eyes. I spend a lot of time (perhaps too much time!) scrutinizing his game, and it's because he will likely be the difference between the Sixers contending for a title or exiting early. He ties things together for Philly in a big way, and he has flaws that are magnified in a playoff setting.

Some of the concerns I have about the Sixers in the playoffs have faded for the Embiid reasons mentioned above. But I am dubious you can win with an offense that puts a lot of pressure on role players to shoot/score when it matters. That dynamic starts with Simmons, who must fine the line between setting the table for teammates and hunting his own shots proactively.

Admittedly, it's a balance many great players have had to figure out over time. Even his mentor LeBron James — who was a considerably more gifted scorer as a rookie than Simmons is now — had to go through some high-profile failures in big moments to inspire change in who he is as a player. Simmons has undoubtedly heard plenty about how he was neutered in back-to-back years once Philly reached the second round, and it's on him to respond.

And yes, his defensive versatility will matter even more in the playoffs, when the Sixers will be tasked with stopping high-level players every single night. If the current top four in the East of Philly-Milwaukee-Boston-Brooklyn holds, there is no easy matchup they can get in round two. Simmons will need to guard an All-NBA caliber player in any one of those matchups, and that will help decide their fate.

When we spoke to Doc Rivers after Thursday night's game, the head coach wouldn't say definitively that COVID after-effects were the reason Curry left at halftime of the Portland game. But he didn't rule it out, either.

"We’re just checking out everything, that could be part of it," Rivers said. "He just looks tired, he’s looked like that for a while, so we just need to be very safe, we're in uncharted waters with all this stuff. He said he didn't feel great and that's all we needed to hear. And we just have to be very careful right now."

On my end of things, it's really difficult to give you guys any sort of definitive answer on this, for reasons that are specific to Curry and reasons that apply to this virus more broadly. 

We absolutely know a lot more now than we did when it first swept through the country, but the range of outcomes is all over the place while actively dealing with it and while recovering from it. There have been reports of new cardiac issues, lingering lung problems, feelings of fatigue, and then there are plenty of people who have mostly returned to normal pretty quickly.

There are extreme examples in some cases. Asia Durr, a WNBA player most recently for the New York Liberty, did an interview with Real Sports on HBO in late January where she said she had lost 30+ pounds and has been unable to resume even training to play basketball since she was diagnosed in early June 2020. 

I don't bring that up to suggest that's what Curry is staring at or to fearmonger about the general impact of COVID on athletes. Generally speaking, young and healthy people recover reasonably quickly. But the range of outcomes is pretty wide even within a relatively small group (professional athletes who have contracted COVID) to study. Add new mutations on top of that, and I'm out of my depth on this one. I hope for his sake he's back in top shape ASAP.

As a veteran/victim of the Jahlil Okafor era, it's a no for me. 

This primarily comes down to two things for me: lineup combinations and the lack of a dynamic scorer who can carry the bench. Philly's young guards have looked like they could fill the latter role at times, and Tobias Harris is having a heck of a season in his own right, but they don't have anyone who is a night-in, night-out threat to just go off against anyone standing in front of them.

Those guys are hard to find, and tend to cost you quite a bit in dollars and assets to acquire. So the focus for me has to be cleaning up their lineup combinations to better facilitate good offense. While we're on the subject...

If we're talking about the most impactful addition the Sixers could make between now and the playoffs, it's a shot creator, but that's going to be pricy if you're after someone who actually moves the needle. Realistically? It's a hybrid four/five who can shoot the ball and open the floor up for backup units built around Ben Simmons.

One of the issues for the Sixers right now is they basically don't have a usable lineup combination if Dwight Howard has a bad night or if the matchup isn't suited for his game. Slowly but surely, the Sixers are trying to introduce more looks with Simmons playing defacto center, and while they try to get that look off the ground, it would help to have a floor-spacing five (or flexible forward) who could help spread the floor out for Simmons.

There's even a guy who they're familiar with having a great season shooting the basketball. Mike Muscala is making a little over $2 million on an expiring deal and is making almost 38.6 percent of his threes on over five attempts per game. Guys like that are available for cheap, and the Sixers should be able to find one between now and the deadline. Heck, PJ Tucker is probably there to be had, and I think he'd fit great here.

In theory, Markkanen fits into the role described above, but he's a guy in search of a payday in the offseason that would also probably want/need a bigger role than they'd be able to offer him here. You'd also be paying for him at peak value with Markkanen off to the best shooting start of his career, which I'm not super enamored with. And there's no playoff track record to boot! 

That's a lot of issues for a guy who you'd probably have to deal decent ammunition to acquire. If I'm going to have "empty calories" type guys on the team, which is sort of how I view Markkanen, I don't want to be giving up assets and potentially paying them a lot of money.

Great question. Would you believe me if I said it's basically all of them? The Sixers have a knack for flipping the script in a game routinely, whether that's playing poorly in the first half and rallying or playing excellent in the first half and letting another team back in the game down the stretch.

It's why I try to focus a lot of my energy on specific components of a game that will remain true regardless of outcome. Fourth quarters are chaotic when there are runs happening because I'm making decisions as I'm trying to process the most important part of the game. Is this criticism too harsh? Does this praise I started writing at halftime hold up?

The game against Indiana on Sunday was a terrific example of the struggle. Matisse Thybulle was one of the worst players on the floor for the first three quarters and then completely changed the game in the fourth, so I just straight up deleted a decent-sized blurb about the issues he had early. But that's sort of the beauty of recapping the games how I do. I can move things in, out, and around when things change, and focus on telling a more structured story with follow-ups.

This is absolutely a potential turning point in the season for Philadelphia. Sustain your high-level play during this stretch, and I think people will start treating them as serious contenders. Sputter a bit as the intensity of the schedule picks up, and they'll be looked at as they were to start the year, a talented but ultimately sort of toothless playoff team.

The full list of upcoming games, for reference: vs. BKN, @ SAC, @ POR, @ PHX, @ UTA, vs. HOU, vs. CHI, @ TOR (2x), vs. DAL, vs. CLE, vs. IND, vs. UTA.

The good news for Philadelphia: there are no back-to-backs during that stretch. The bad news? From the Sacramento game on February 9th through the Utah game that represents the end of their first-half schedule, the Sixers will play every other day, with nary a rest day or practice opportunity in sight.

If you're asking me for a very unscientific prediction, I think they beat Brooklyn, get 2/3 from the SAC/POR/PHX trio out West, lose to Utah on the road, beat Houston and Chicago at home, split with Toronto, and then have a good chance to win four in a row at home to close it out, health and form permitting. 

Realistically, I think that plausible 10-3 scenario ends up being closer to 9-4 or 8-5, and it could get even thornier if they don't take care of business against the teams they should beat. And that assumes they remain relatively injury-free, which isn't exactly a safe bet for this team.

Maxey is in sort of a difficult spot right now. He's not playing enough minutes to really get into the flow of the game, and he's not a great fit with the players he's matched up with when he has been getting time on the floor. There are mistakes he's making on his own independent of those issues, but they are real issues worth considering.

The rookie is at his best when he can just play free-flowing basketball and attack as much as he wants, but that's not the reality for him when he shares the floor with Joel Embiid. He hasn't found his place in Embiid-centric bench lineups for pretty obvious reasons in my eyes — he doesn't have a quick enough trigger when he's the first pass out on a post-up, and he's not a good or confident enough shooter to stick him in the weakside corner to benefit from swing passes.

In an ideal world, you would see him used in more pick-and-roll play against backup guards and bigs, but those lineups are often the time when Embiid has his most favorable matchup of the night, so the Sixers understandably play through the big dog. It's a learning process for the rookie, who has shown plenty this season and deserves a bit of time to settle in.

I'm not sure if there's a stat for this, but I think it makes total sense that Green would be a useful player to have alongside an Embiid post-up. As we have seen between this year and last, entry passes make a major difference. When Embiid can catch a pass without giving up his early position, he can go right into a move and beat a defender instead of having to regain his footing while inviting pressure in the post.

The only guy who I think has had real issues with post passing this year is Maxey, everyone else has done a pretty good job of getting the ball to the big guy when and where and he wants it. 

A big reason for this comes down to role and shot distribution if you're asking me. Milton was used relatively frequently as more of a pure two in the past, focusing heavily on catch-and-shoot looks, and now he's often the man in charge of the second unit, having been given an extremely green light by his head coach.

Last season, almost 39 percent of all Milton's shots were catch-and-shoot threes, and he made a grip of them, knocking down 43.9 percent of those looks. Those shots make up a much smaller percentage of his total shots (23.3 percent) and his efficiency is way down (33.3 percent). Milton has shown he has more to offer than just serving as a stationary shooter, but it's hard to remain elite at a skill when you're given new responsibilities and things to learn under a new coach.

(Curiously, he's actually shooting fewer pull-up threes by percentage than he did last season, with pull-up jumpers inside the arc featuring much more prominently this year. Rivers has not empowered his guys to hunt midrange shots a ton this season.)

On top of that, I think he's probably just due for a breakout. He has been a high-level shooter dating back to his amateur days, and I think it comes around eventually. 

If I had an answer to this, I would be making money as some sort of consultant/trainer/coach instead of spending my time "journalizin" as Jimmy Kempski likes to call it. I think the mid-range jumper would help Simmons, but I'm much more focused on his ability (and willingness) to get to the free-throw line. 

Offensively, I don't think you've seen the wholesale changes that people may have been expecting coming into the year. There have certainly been tweaks and additions — Embiid initiating the offense in the middle of the floor in "Delay" and increased pick-and-roll usage are two standouts for me. But even then, the Sixers are not even league average in pick-and-roll frequency, clocking in at 18th, which is still admittedly a step up from years past.

The bigger changes are on defense, where the primary ask has been for Embiid to play "up to touch" more against pick-and-rolls, something the Sixers were reluctant to do at any time under Brett Brown. No longer are they exclusively a drop coverage team, which has (to some extent) prevented guards from going on the mid-range shooting barrages that tortured Philly in the past.

Those tweaks haven't come without some pain, as it puts as much stress on the rotations and decisions behind/around Embiid as it does on the big guy himself. There are communication issues to clean up as well, something Doc Rivers has mentioned multiple times in recent weeks. But working on multiple coverages now should pay dividends down the road.

Anything that helps them drive revenue, no matter how big or small, is on the table for the league right now. That applies to both sides of the negotiating table — owners are hyperaware of lost profits, and the players feel that even more than the billionaires do, especially the young guys and fringe players who are fighting to find their footing in the league.

I don't give a damn about the All-Star Game generally, but it's an event that isn't for me in the first place.

I feel like Kevin asked me this exact question in the past but maybe living through the last 10 months has permanently warped my brain and memory.

As a matter of fact, I found the exact post where Kevin asked me this question in the past, dated February 2020. My observations have not changed. Let the record show my brain is in working order, even if my fashion sense is only hovering around average to above average.

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