October 19, 2019
Four blowouts and one poor showing later, the preseason is officially over for the Sixers. The end couldn't come soon enough. In a few days, there will be no qualifiers about whether the games or trends mean anything, and we can start talking and writing and yelling and perhaps drinking over basketball that counts.
That doesn't mean we didn't learn anything over the last month, or that you should feel like you wasted your time with October basketball. It was a month that confirmed a couple of the biggest offseason fears about the Sixers, and highlighted a couple of important developments with their young talent.
Before their preseason finale against the Wizards, Brett Brown told reporters that he thinks a lot higher of his team in the shooting department than the public seems to.
"I think that it's not as big of a problem, and time will tell, I think it's not as big of a problem as maybe the marketplace does," Brown said. "I think that we have shooters here. Are they at the standard of JJ Redick? No. But if that's the bar, well it's pretty high...I still have confidence that we have a team that can shoot."
The head coach and I do not agree here. If there is one giant red flag coming out of the preseason for the Sixers, it is this one. As a team, they shot just 31.7 percent from deep over the span of five games, and that number probably doesn't do justice to the problem they're facing going into the year.
If we throw out Ben Simmons and his one attempt, Philadelphia's best two shooters were Trey Burke and Zhaire Smith, two guys look to be outside the rotation heading into the year. They're followed by Mike Scott, who continues to deliver, Shake Milton, who has shown some of the range he showed in the G-League last season, and Al Horford, who has been excellent with limited reps.
It's a bloodbath after that. Every other player on the roster is shooting 33 percent or worse from deep, from Josh Richardson to Joel Embiid to James Ennis to Tobias Harris. Harris' numbers are particularly problematic — he made just five of his twenty attempts, continuing a trend that dates back to the moment he arrived in Philadelphia.
Harris spoke with reporters following the loss to Washington on Friday, and he thinks some of the team's struggles will dissipate as they spend more time together.
"I think we're just continuing to find each other's own games and where we want those looks from behind the arc," Harris said. "That'll continue to come with time and just us figuring out where each other needs the ball, wants the ball with shots and threes we want to take. I think the more we hunt the threes, the better off we are."
I'm not sure I agree with that last bit. The Sixers may have to prove to opponents they will punish them from deep before they respect them out there because they know they have to protect the paint against the likes of Joel Embiid, Al Horford, and Ben Simmons.
We have talked about this one a lot during the preseason, and rightfully so. A year after scooping an impactful shooter in the back half of the first round, the Sixers appear to have found another young player who can step into the rotation immediately.
This is a good development for the Sixers this season, but it's also a refreshing turn for a talent evaluation department that, well, was a little shaky under the previous GM. There were a lot of concerns about leaving the front office virtually untouched post-Burnergate after some spectacular fails in the draft under Bryan Colangelo, and they put the responsibility in the hands of a fresh-faced GM to boot.
A couple of nice finds in the first round shouldn't eliminate your skepticism. That said, they are trending in the right direction after striking out in spectacular fashion under the previous setup. With the team under serious salary cap constraints moving forward, talent identification and development is critical to sustained success.
Before we get too carried away praising the Sixers' scouting ability, let's turn our eyes to Smith. He and Thybulle were basically a package deal in conversations about the team this summer, and the older Thybulle has basically lapped Smith up to this point. One is in the rotation, the other did not get a chance to play beyond garbage time minutes in the preseason.
Smith had his best performance in the final game of the preseason, but once again it came with the game already decided. And as Brown explained at practice on Thursday afternoon, Smith and some of Philadelphia's young players may have to spend some time in Delaware to get minutes during the early part of the season.
"I'm not sort of prepared to declare that yet, but if something were to continue where I just didn't feel like he was getting NBA minutes, if I'm his brother, his father, his agent, that's what I would want for my son," Brown said. "I'd want him to go down and play significant minutes, get shots, grow, and I think with him, he missed all last year. The short answer is yes for everybody, as it relates to him, I understand."
The writing is on the wall here. Smith didn't get a "real" opportunity in the rotation all preseason, and that was with guys like Furkan Korkmaz getting to start and play real minutes alongside Philadelphia's top talent. You can call that an indictment of Brett Brown's preseason plan if you want, but it's not like Smith has blown the doors off of the competition when he has played in garbage time, either.
Getting more time in the G-League would be good for him. This is a kid who simply needs to play more basketball as he tries to make the transition from playing inside-out to outside-in. The role of young defensive specialist has been filled by Thybulle, and he needs to figure out what lane he can carve out for himself.
I think everyone should go into the season expecting this to be a developmental role in the background for Smith, and anything else that may come should be considered a bonus. That'll be disappointing compared to the offseason expectations, but it's realistic based on what we've seen so far.
The Sixers, as discussed up top, desperately need someone to emerge as a shooting threat on the bench. Mike Scott is going to do a lot of heavy lifting on that front, but his role is going to be limited due to the way the roster is constructed. That opens the door for a bench wing to sneak into the rotation.
While most of the media and fans have turned their attention to Thybulle, Milton and Korkmaz have quietly been getting chances to prove they can come off of the bench and knock down shots. It's advantage Milton at the moment — he shot nearly 42 percent from three during the preseason, and Brown has made sure to keep floating his name out when people begin penciling in their projected rotations for the season.
In fact, Brown has floated out comparisons for Milton that flatter the young man. He recently compared Milton's ability to come off the bench cold and make shots to Danny Green, who evolved from a little-used bench wing to one of the league's elite spot-up shooters. Milton is a long way from there yet, but his shift to more of an off-ball role has allowed him to focus on his strengths without being asked to do too much.
There's a firm 10-man rotation right now, pending the result of the backup point guard battle, but there's still room to sneak in for someone.
We have seen just about everyone take their crack at the backup point guard spot in the preseason, and no one has reached up to grab it with any authority. Brown was expected to come to a decision on that portion of the roster after the final preseason game Friday, and we're all still in the dark for the moment.
(If there is a "winner" of all this, it may be Raul Neto, who missed Friday's blowout loss at the perfect time. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and he's the only guy who can say he wasn't responsible for the Sixers getting shellacked.)
The more pressing concern is that there may not be anyone on the roster who can reliably create offense from the perimeter that isn't named Ben Simmons, and as we've discussed over and over this preseason, the shelf life of Simmons' game will be tested once he's put in the playoff pressure cooker again next spring.
Two of the guys in the starting unit you might expect to help here, Richardson and Harris, are better suited looking for their own shots than they are to make their teammates better. Richardson got chances to play point guard the last two games of the preseason with Simmons out, and the same warts that were there for him in Miami are still prevalent. He has an average handle, average finishing ability, and is better as a catch-and-shoot guy than he is harming teams off-the-dribble. That's just fine within the context of the starting lineup, not so much when he has to do heavier lifting on his own.
With Harris, the problem is getting stuck between two worlds. When he drives toward the rim, he has a tendency to come to a stop instead of attempting passes on the move, which allows defenses to reset and close windows that might have been there for shot opportunities. And with the question marks the Sixers have beyond the arc, teams will also likely swarm harder on drives than they might against an average opponent, which would only seem to play into that bad habit.
For this reason, I can't overstate how important it is for Harris to find his footing as a shooter/scorer. If you're devoid of players who can consistently create offense for others, you can make up for it with good individual offense and shotmaking. The trouble is there's not a perimeter player on this roster outside of Harris who could be expected to do that on high or even medium volume. He has to be a $180 million offensive machine to tie everything together.
Failing that, the Sixers would have you believe this is a problem they can make up for with unique gifts elsewhere. Horford is a uniquely gifted passer for a big man, and the Sixers are hoping they can weaponize that by unleashing their wings as cutters. Thybulle has already thrown down a couple of powerful dunks in the preseason off of passes from his bigs, and figures to do the same when the real lights go on.
But it's still hard to say who is going to be able to reliably put pressure on teams from the perimeter. This isn't the 1960's, and the Sixers aren't going to be able to just bowl everyone over at the rim with their bigs. It's a problem directly tied to their shooting woes — teams can collapse on drivers if they don't fear your shooters, and if they don't fear your shooters, it's harder to begin those drives in the first place.
If this sounds like doom and gloom, I remain high on Philly's chances this season. They are going to absolutely smother teams defensively, which will help them survive offensive slumps and give them a chance to win every game they play.
But as successful as their preseason was, it illustrated their pitfalls as a group beautifully.
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