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March 02, 2020

NBA Power Rankings Roundup: Sixers hanging on despite recent rash of injuries to starters

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Shake-Milton_030220_usat Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia 76ers guard Shake Milton reacts after hitting a three point basket in the first half against the Los Angeles Clippers.

Last week was not a banner week for the Sixers. It began with the team announcing that Ben Simmons would miss at least the next two weeks (one week now) with a pinched nerve in his back and ended with the team falling to Clippers after losing another starter, Josh Richardson, to a concussion.

Oh, and in the interim the Sixers lost franchise center Joel Embiid to a sprained shoulder before falling to the lowly Cavaliers in Cleveland as the team's road woes continued. Following the loss, Richardson questioned his teammate's heart and a few days later a report came out that suggested Glenn Robinson III never had his role explained when he arrived in Philly, something Brett Brown vehemently denied. 

And while it may feel like the world is falling down around Sixers fans, it wasn't all bad last week for Philly. Despite all those injuries, the Sixers still managed to go 2-2, although playing a few games against the bottom of the Eastern Conference didn't hurt. They also played the Clippers tough after losing Richardson early thanks in large part to a career day from Shake Milton. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough for them to pull off the upset in Los Angeles. 

The Sixers' West Coast trip will continue on Tuesday with a game against the Lakers and will wrap up later this week with dates against the Kings and Warriors before the team returns for a four-game homestand beginning next week. The good news for the Sixers is they should have two of their starters (Embiid and Richardson) back by the time they return to Philly, and could be getting a third (Simmons) back during that homestand. The bad news is they'll have to survive these last three games out West without at least one and possibly two members of their starting lineup.

Still, the Sixers (37-24) are currently clinging to the fifth spot in the East, a half game up on the Pacers and a game and a half behind the Heat for that coveted No. 4 seed. 

With the calendar now flipped to March, the playoff race is ready to hit another gear, and the Sixers will need to be at their best in order to keep pace with the top teams in the East. 

Despite all the injuries and inconsistent play on the court, the Sixers didn't take that big of a hit in the weekly power rankings this week. Let's take a look at where they currently stand with 21 games left to play... 

CBS Sports — 9th

CHANGE: -1

The 76ers lost Joel Embiid during Wednesday's loss to the Cavs, as he joined Ben Simmons on the inactive list for the rest of the week. In a win over the Knicks and a loss to the Clippers, Shake Milton proved he's much more than a serviceable backup. He averaged 29 points in the two games, making 12-of-14 3-pointers, including an incredible 39-point performance against the Clippers, during which he tied an NBA record with his 13th straight made 3-pointer over the course of three games.  [Colin Ward-Henninger, CBSSports.com]

Breaking it down: Shake Milton had himself a game on Sunday — and he's shown those types of flashes in the past — but let's not crown him the next big thing just yet. The second-year guard out of SMU has been a developmental player for the Sixers, and with Philly shorthanded and in need of someone to score some points, it seems like he was finally able to show off his skills. I mean, just look at the confidence on this shot. 

People who are expecting this to be a regular thing from Milton may want to pump the brakes a little bit. Can he be a guy who gives you close to 30 points per game on incredibly efficient shooting? Almost certainly not. Can he be a contributor off the bench and a spark plug in Brett Brown's offense? Absolutely. That's not a slight on Milton in the least, as he's still just 23 years old. Plus, the Sixers desperately need a guy who can create (and make) his own shot as well as keep defenders honest in order to maximize the Sixers spacing on the floor. And Milton appears ready to be that guy. 

If he continues to play this well, it will be interesting to see how Brett Brown tweaks his rotations to put Milton in more lineups where he can do what he does best: get buckets. He may not be a long term solution for the Sixers — although they'd be foolish not to give him a chance — but he's certainly been able to fill the void when key contributors go down. And with this team's injury history, that's not nothing.

ESPN — 10th

CHANGE: +1

After struggling away from home all season, the 76ers finally proved that they can compete with top teams on the road. Ben Simmons (back) and Joel Embiid (shoulder) both missed Sunday's 136-130 loss to the Clippers with injury, and the 76ers lost a third starter, Josh Richardson, early in the second quarter thanks to a nose contusion. (Richardson was later diagnosed with a concussion and has entered concussion protocol.) Philadelphia took on the next-man-up approach and got a career-high 39 points from reserve guard Shake Milton. Before the game, Milton had cracked 20 points only twice in his NBA career. The extended minutes for Milton without Simmons in the lineup will prove beneficial when the playoffs begin in mid-April.  [Bobby Marks, ESPN.com]

Breaking it down: I spent so much time talking about Milton in that last blurb that I almost forgot to comment on where CBS Sports has the Sixers ranked. Oh, you don't care? You just want more Shake Milton highlights? Fair enough... 

As for the rankings, after the week the Sixers had and the uncertainty moving forward, ninth seems a bit high — especially considering he had them moving up a spot. If it was from 14th to 13th, that might've made a little more sense. Similarly, ESPN has the Sixers in 10th and also had them climbing up a spot in the rankings this week.

However, that one spot rise likely has more to do with the fact that the Jazz are currently in free fall and have lost four out of five since the All-Star Break. They tumbled from nine to 12 in ESPN's ranking and allowing the teams behind them, like the Sixers, Mavericks and Thunder to move up. 

Sports Illustrated — 10th

CHANGE: +1

Tobias Harris has turned in a middling 2019-20 after receiving a $180 million contract from Philadelphia this summer. Yet any disappointment over Harris’ performance can dissipate with a strong effort over the next two weeks. Harris got off to a good start without Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons with a 34-point night against the Knicks on Thursday. Similar performances through March could keep Philadelphia afloat in the Eastern Conference.  [Michael Shapiro, SI.com]

Breaking it down: Milton may have stolen the show this week with a stellar performance on Sunday, but Tobias Harris has played a big role in keeping the Sixers above water. He definitely deserves his credit for not only stepping up his level of play, but his level of aggressiveness as well. Harris has taken command of the offense at times and looked like the guy the Sixers expected when they signed him to a max deal this offseason. Keep it up — especially when Simmons and Embiid return — and the Sixers might suddenly start looking like contenders again rather than a team who might struggle to get out of the first round.

NBA.com — 12th

CHANGE: -1

Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are now both on the shelf. And if Simmons' back issue isn't a short-term thing, then not much else matters. But if he can heal in the next six weeks, hope is not yet lost, and maybe the Sixers are more dangerous than we thought just a week ago.

Shake Milton was seemingly a placeholder when Josh Richardson was out, was out of the rotation when Richardson was back in the starting lineup in the last game before the All-Star break, and appeared unlikely to get any meaningful playoff minutes. But the second-year guard broke out last week, averaging 26 points (with a career-high 39 in L.A. on Sunday) over the last three games, shooting 16-for-20 from 3-point range and coming up with some deft finishes at the rim.

The Sixers have been pretty bad offensively (102.9 points scored per 100 possessions) in 223 minutes with Milton and Simmons on the floor together, but they can obviously use all the shooting they can get and things might be different now that Milton knows he can play with the best.  [John Schuhmann, NBA.com]

Breaking it down: Of the rankings we've seen so far, this one is about where I'd have the Sixers ranked. Also, it's a shame that it took Simmons and Embiid getting hurt for us to finally see some of the other players on the team come into their own. Not sure what they says about the current construction of the team... 

The Athletic — 12th

CHANGE: -1

Positive Takeaway: The injuries they’ve suffered shouldn’t be long-term damaging. The mystery about what’s causing the impingement in Ben Simmons’s back is concerning, but it shouldn’t be something that ruins his career (we hope). Joel Embiid’s shoulder injury doesn’t look like it will be anything more serious than a sprain. Considering the luck of the Philadelphia 76ers’ health over the past five years or so, this is extremely good news. The Sixers should be able to get everybody back before the playoffs and build some decent momentum. It would have to be a quick process of getting everybody comfortable with each other on the floor again, but it’s a lot better than the alternative of having these injuries end seasons now. Instead, they get a chance to assess this whole thing a little bit better before they decide to panic this summer. Speaking of panic…

Negative Question: Did Elton Brand screw this whole thing up? Maybe it’s too early to freak out about this experiment, especially after being so high on it before the season. But the Tobias Harris fit doesn’t really seem to exist and we know the problems of getting Al Horford and Joel Embiid to mesh together on the floor. Especially when Ben Simmons is out there occupying similar space. The Sixers need shooters all around the floor and Brand has struggled to bring that in. He swung big with the Jimmy Butler trade and then the Harris trade and then the Horford signing. But I’m just not sure how much more leeway the Sixers will have with this iteration.  [Zach Harper, TheAthletic.com]

Breaking it down: Another solid ranking, but a concerning read nonetheless. That being said, it is worth debating whether or not Elton Brand made the right moves in constructing this team — and that dates all the way back to his first big move as GM: trading for Jimmy Butler. There's a lot to break down about that, much more than would fit in this paragraph here, so we'll move on. That's another story for another day, most likely once the season comes to an end and we have a little more finality on the moves.

Bleacher Report — 13th

CHANGE: -2

With Ben Simmons already set to miss extended time, the sight of Joel Embiid's left shoulder hanging limp after a collision Wednesday with Cavs center Ante Zizic was enough to turn stomachs across the state of Pennsylvania.

Fortunately, there's no structural damage, but Embiid is expected to sit out for at least a week.

Not that it saves them from a rankings tumble (losing your two best players can't have any other effect), but the Sixers can still field a respectable lineup in the meantime. Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson and Al Horford can keep things competitive in a pinch. Harris scored 34 points, one off his season high, in Thursday's 115-106 win over the Knicks.

Still, this isn't the ideal time for the four-game swing on the West Coast that kicked off with Sunday's loss to the Clippers. Shake Milton's 39 points weren't enough to avoid a 136-130 defeat.

Philadelphia's road struggles were pronounced even with a full roster (9-22, worst among playoff teams in either conference), so the remaining healthy Sixers have their work cut out for them.  [Grant Hughes, BleacherReport.com]

Breaking it down: I might have had the Sixers a little higher, precisely because they were able to show that they could still compete without a few starters, but everything else in here tracks. Hard to complain.

Sporting News — 13th

CHANGE: N/A

It appears that the 76ers have found their replacement for All-Star guard Ben Simmons, who's out of the lineup with lower back tightness.

Second year, undrafted guard Shake Milton made his presence known in the team's final game of the week against the Clippers. Though the effort came in a loss, Milton put on a show with a career-high 39 points to go with eight made 3-pointers.

Tobias Harris was also great this past week in the absence of Simmons and All-Star centre Joel Embiid, who is also out with a shoulder injury. Responsibility will fall on Harris, Al Horford, and apparently Milton to keep this team afloat while the Sixers try and get healthy before the playoffs.  [Kyle Irving, SportingNews.com]

Breaking it down: Again, it's a little lower than I would have them, but it's hard to fault them given the current health of the Sixers starters. It will be interesting to see what happens next week if the Sixers can win a few games here while at well under 100%. If so, that, coupled with the potential returns of Embiid, Simmons and Richardson could send the Sixers skyrocketing up the rankings. 

Of course, they'll have to win a few road games first....


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