April 01, 2018
Just two months into Ben Simmons' rookie season, it was fair to wonder whether opposing teams had figured out a credible gameplan to slow him down. The Sixers went through almost a month-long funk in December, and Simmons' dip in production was a big reason for the swoon. It is, quite frankly, the only reason a debate is still taking place about the Rookie of the Year award.
But boy, do those concerns feel silly now. Behind another dominant performance from their standout rookie, the Sixers cruised to a 119-102 win over the Hornets on Easter Sunday, mercifully closing the book on what felt like an endless recent string of games against Charlotte.
He did not pick up another triple-double — get it together, slacker! — but Simmons came up with a healthy line for the evening: 20 points, eight rebounds, 15 assists, three steals, and two blocks on 10/17 shooting, stepping up in the absence of Joel Embiid and Dario Saric.
Only this isn't really a huge departure from what Simmons has offered his team this season, especially since the All-Star break. He's putting up comical numbers for any player, let alone a rookie, and has been the catalyst for Philadelphia's stretch as one of the hottest teams in basketball.
With Embiid on the shelf, the Sixers have more reason than ever to get out on the fast break and run, which empowers Simmons to be an even better version for himself. Philadelphia's shooters and finishers know they'll be rewarded if they get up the floor quickly, so as soon as a defensive rebound is collected, they are off to the races.
The ball will always move faster than a player can, and Brett Brown can't hide how proud he is about the team's identity when he talks about their performances. He attributes some of that to Simmons' development as a leader.
"It's nine straight games that we've had 30+ assists," said Brown. "It's a real credit to our guys. Ben had 15 assists himself, and really hadn't it been for the ball that was the first play of the game that he kicked out, that was his only turnover ... Ben, all over the place — his presence, his disposition, and lately, even more, his voice — reeks of leadership."
Simmons sets the tone for Philadelphia on the passing front, which has a carryover effect on the rest of the team. Amir Johnson came up short on the potential finish, but this was one of the most beautiful possessions the Sixers have had as a team all season:
They're a long way away from being the 2013-14 Spurs — who also featured Marco Belinelli in a bench role — but there is a collective unselfishness the team plays with reminiscent of the great Spurs teams of the past.
Perhaps that should trigger another discussion...
There has not been a lot of material for the "Fire Brett Brown!" crowd lately, and Philadelphia's late push for homecourt advantage should prompt some introspection on what criticism was valid about the coach earlier this season.
Those pesky turnovers that haunted the Sixers all season? Down by a lot since the calendar turned to 2018. Those second-half collapses that plagued them early on? Now turning into dominant third quarters that pull the Sixers out of harm's way. The defense is elite, the offense has improved with better pieces, and the Sixers are in the middle of their longest win streak since 2001, the last time they want to the finals.
An upgrade in personnel has helped a lot, to be sure. Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova have given the Sixers life off the bench, and the upgrade in the shooting has made staggering Simmons and Embiid a lot more successful. Simmons can thrive in the minutes he plays with Amir Johnson because the Sixers can still put a trio of shooters at the other spots on the floor.
But the coach's role should not be discounted in their ascent, because they're playing a brand of basketball that the coach has aspired for the entire time he has been in Philadelphia. With the personnel to execute, they are the freewheeling, defensively-stout squad he has openly pined for since taking over the job in 2013.
A friendly schedule down the stretch has the Sixers within striking distance of 50 wins and the No. 3 seed, which would have seemed crazy even for the most optimistic fans last offseason. That they might be able to pull it off with Embiid on the shelf speaks to the culture and collective spirit in Philadelphia right now.
The one caveat here is how tight the race will be for coaching's top honor of 2018. Mike D'Antoni's Rockets have locked up the West's No. 1 seed, shrugging off offseason concerns about James Harden and Chris Paul coexisting. Dwane Casey revamped Toronto's system and took the Raptors to a new level. Brad Stevens has helped the Celtics survive major (and repeated) injuries. Indiana's Nate McMillan, too, deserves credit for a team many wrote off overachieving.
But Brown deserves to be somewhere in this conversation, for coaxing the best out of a team that has to play two different styles to empower their two best players, who lost their No. 1 overall pick to mysterious circumstances, and who had no bench to speak of for a large part of the season.
"The Process" produced a lot of great, exciting things for the Sixers. Despite the initial mountain of losses, it may have also produced a good coach.
I'm half-convinced he is incapable of making a shot if he goes straight up and down with the ball, because Belinelli puts in some absolute circus shots sometimes.
Here, for example, was the most preposterous of his nine shots made on Sunday afternoon:
This sort of thing is infuriating to watch when shots aren't falling, and we don't have to pretend Belinelli has been the most consistent player in the world since joining the Sixers. Even against Charlotte his game came with warts — Belinelli turned the ball over five times, a few of which came in transition opportunities that should have been easy shot opportunities for the Sixers.
The Sixers will live with those because even on his worst day he represents a major boost for Philadelphia's bench. For too much of the season, Brown was forced to play guys in the backup wing spot who nobody respected as a shooter, which allowed teams to clog the paint in an effort to stop both Simmons and Embiid. Belinelli being around keeps at least one more guy from cheating away from the perimeter, which is small but significant.
Where he has really set himself apart is as a cutter, because he has a great understanding of how to get around screens and time his cuts around the passing of Saric and Simmons (and sometimes Embiid). Teams have started to notice this, and the Sixers have added a nice wrinkle: a dummy cut after passing the first screener, which helps create more separation when Belinelli gets a pick at the top of the key.
Those sort of things add up at the end of a game, and Belinelli deserves his portion of the credit for Philadelphia's recent hot streak.
The usual disclaimer belongs here: Fultz has been fairly good at running the second unit on offense, which is more than a lot of people expected for a rookie coming off a long layoff. With shooters around him, Fultz has consistently made good reads as a passer/playmaker in his brief time back.
And every so often, you see some flashes of why he was the No. 1 overall pick. With some space in the open floor in the first half, Fultz turned on the jets and went all the way to the rim for a nice finish.
But if you're sitting at home pondering a question like, "Why haven't Simmons and Fultz gotten a chance to play together?" the answer seems quite obvious. You can only have one guard on the floor at a time who can't shoot threes, so the coaches aren't going to bother trying it out.
There are times when it is more glaring than others, but none were as bad as this clip from garbage time when Fultz passed up an impossibly open shot to dribble into traffic and pass the ball to Justin Anderson:
While I understand people being satisfied with Fultz being "useful" for right now, they did not draft him to just be "useful." He was selected with the idea in mind that he could be the final piece of Philadelphia's young core, the man who would tie everything together.
Perhaps it's unfair to judge him by those standards at the moment given the long road back, but this is one area where we have seen no tangible progress or change from Fultz's early-season struggles. If you don't believe me, the tape doesn't lie — watch him turn down a shot from almost the exact same spot against Boston in the season's first week, only to make a pass to a player better covered in the same corner spot.
Here it was again when Fultz never even thought about a three before barreling into the teeth of Toronto's defense:
At least the play against Boston featured Fultz considering thinking about shooting. There was a thought process to do the thing he did so well in college, which is more than you could say about the other two clips. If a guard in the 2018 NBA isn't even considering shooting with that much space, it's a huge problem.
If Fultz is deemed worthy of playing minutes in a playoff series — and with the way the rotation has been looking, it looks like we're headed that way — this is something good teams are going to exploit the heck out of. Were it a case of playing within the offense and prioritizing good shots, it'd be one thing, but you aren't getting any better opportunities to get shots up than a wide open three in garbage-time minutes.
The willingness to take pull-up jumpers from 15 feet is great. It is not what will define his future and career with the Sixers.
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