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April 28, 2021

What we still have left to learn about Sixers in final regular season stretch

Eleven games stand between the Sixers and the 2021 postseason. It is perhaps their best chance to contend since they made their storybook run to the Finals in 2001, riding Allen Iverson's torrid scoring run to a date with the Los Angeles Lakers. And as good as this season has been for Philadelphia, the expectations are real now. No one is going to be satisfied with another exit in the second round or earlier, context be damned. 

According to BetMGM, via Pickswise, Philly has a +1000 chance to win the title right now, sixth best in the league. Weeks away from the opening of the postseason, there are still some major things for the Sixers to sort out. Let's take a look at a few of them.

What George Hill's role will ultimately be

Joining a team in the middle of an NBA season is a tough enough task for role players during a normal year. That's doubly true during this COVID-impacted year, with practices at a minimum, a relentless schedule, and absences from the lineup plaguing teams around the league.

George Hill, mind you, also lost time due to recovery from hand surgery that pushed into the start of his Sixers tenure. And with just 11 games left on the calendar for the Sixers, it's unclear exactly how large of a role Doc Rivers wants to carve out for Hill, because it's unclear what the rotation is actually going to look like with everybody healthy. Still, his impact is already being felt.

"I thought he was a difference-maker when he came in just defensively," Rivers said after Philadelphia's win over the Thunder. "You can still see his rhythm offensively is not great yet, but defensively man he is so good and talks. Just listening to him on the floor tonight, directing Shake [Milton] and directing those guys where to be, man, he's good. He's gonna be good for us, you can feel it you can see it."

Can a player get his legs under him when he has no idea where those legs will be needed from night to night? That's the question being asked at the moment. Hill has operated all over the floor for Philadelphia, serving as a corner shooting threat, a handoff recipient from the free-throw line extended, and as the primary initator in pick-and-rolls above the break. Thankfully, he's a guy who is used to being used as a guard Swiss army knife throughout his career, a capable playmaker who has found ways to fit in with ball-dominant stars of different types.

Rivers is not wrong to point out Hill's defensive impact on the second unit. Matisse Thybulle has done most of the heavy lifting for that group all season, and while Hill doesn't have the burst or agility of his youth, he has wisdom acquired over time to help him bridge that gap. Putting another plus defender (or at least solid defender) on the floor pushes weaker defenders onto easier assignments, giving them all a better chance to win their battles.

But I don't think Hill has been behind the pace on offense as much as Rivers suggests. Perhaps it's because I've watched many worse guards put on a Sixers uniform over the years, but Hill consistently makes plays that other guards on this team either aren't capable of or rarely try. He can hit the weakside corner with a pass out of pick-and-rolls, probe the baseline until he finds a window to feed his bigs, and use the attention paid to him as an off-the-dribble player to create open shots for teammates. He does "traditional" point guard things while having a skill set that allows him not to get pigeonholed as a point guard only, which helps him blend in with the mix of guards they already have.

Ultimately, the question is whether Hill will settle into a lead guard role off of the bench or play himself into consideration for a closer's role, even if he doesn't start. Rivers and Daryl Morey have talked up the desire to avoid subbing offense-defense too much at the end of games, and Hill seems like an obvious fit to help them avoid that, a capable defender who can punish teams as a shooter. One potential pitfall — he's probably a more reluctant shooter than Seth Curry is, and the Sixers already have too many possessions with record scratch moments in the current closing configuration.

What they look like vs. Eastern Conference contenders

Look, I know this is infuriating to bring up so frequently, but it remains a major question mark. Through no real fault of their own, the Sixers have played a remarkably small number of games against real competition. Save for their wins over the Lakers and Jazz at home — statement victories that are worth celebrating — nearly every win they've had against a good team featured absences for their opponent or even the Sixers. Philadelphia heads into the playoffs as a total unknown against the Nets and Bucks, their two most obvious threats for conference supremacy.

If you're into mystery, this is great. Should the Sixers get matched up with one (or perhaps both) of Brooklyn or Milwaukee, we won't have a body of work from the regular season to scout either side of the matchup. Early games in a series are often "feel out games" to a certain degree, and that has never been more true than it will be this season.

Of course, certain truths will remain self-evident either way. The Nets have no one who can guard Embiid, the Sixers are short on options to guard the Brooklyn perimeter trio, and Philadelphia's struggles to guard teams in five-out looks might come back to haunt them. But the rest will be a problem-solving exercise in real-time. Speaking of...

Is Doc Rivers ready to turn over a new leaf?

There are a number of important differences between Rivers and his staff compared to Brett Brown and the team he had around him. From defensive coverage to the firmness of the hand Rivers guides with, the impact of a new head coach has been evident for the Sixers this season.

Still, there are looming questions about how Rivers will coach in a playoff setting that traces back to years of heartbreak in Los Angeles (and to some extent, Boston). If there is something Rivers shares with Brown, it's belief in their convictions, which is either a needed dose of stability in tough times or stubbornness that can end your season depending on your viewpoint. For Rivers, last season was more of the latter — the Clippers collapsed in spectacular fashion because Rivers went down with the lineups and combinations that had gotten them there.

Most mistrust of Rivers stems from that checkered past, not the job he has done in Philadelphia this season. Still, shades of that reluctance to change have been there all season, with Rivers frequently going back to the all-bench well even after the Sixers have been killed in first halves using that look. Rivers' reluctance to stagger stars has relented some in recent weeks after Zion Williamson killed his bench-heavy groups in New Orleans, but the health of the lineup has not allowed us to see if that's a more permanent change or not.

The ability for coaches to adapt following failure has led to plenty of success stories all across the sporting landscape. While he's a beneficiary of the Pat Mahomes experience, former Eagles head coach Andy Reid has become a better, more aggressive offensive coach over time thanks to his well-publicized failures as an Eagles coach. The question I've had about Rivers this year is pretty simple: did he have enough time to properly reflect on what he did wrong in L.A. to avoid it happening in Philadelphia? In normal circumstances, almost certainly not. The Sixers hired him basically immediately after the Clippers let him go, springing into action and setting aside any reservations one might have after watching the Clippers choke act. But given that we've all had time to do almost nothing but reflect from our homes over the past year, it stands to reason Rivers could be a changed man in the postseason.

Verbally, Rivers has at the very least paid lip service to the idea that things are up in the air down the stretch. Tyrese Maxey has impressed with a chance to play in recent weeks, often giving the Sixers more on both ends than entrenched sixth man Shake Milton, and Rivers would not write off Maxey as a playoff contributor when asked about him Monday night.

"I don't know if he's gonna be in the regular rotation or not but I have no doubt that he'll play in the playoffs, I'm fully confident of that and fully confident of him," Rivers said of young Maxey. "We're gonna have them all ready. And then when the playoffs start, we'll see who will play, but I would have no hesitation putting him in."

Whether that holds up when push comes to shove is another story. Rather than leaning on Ivica Zubac in the playoffs last season, who was outplaying Montrzel Harrell when he had opportunities to play, Rivers went down with the more decorated guy who had been a bigger regular-season contributor to his team. There may not be a dynamic like that for Philly in the postseason, but will Rivers be quick to give someone like Maxey a shot if they need an injection of pace off of the bench? That remains to be seen.

Can everybody get (or stay) healthy?

There's no game tape to analyze on this one. The Sixers, like most other teams hoping to contend, are just hoping to make it to the postseason unscathed at this point. But they face some unique hurdles in the final weeks of the season, starting with a big one — they have three pairs of back-to-backs between now and the end of the season, representing more than half of their remaining games before the playoffs begin.

Frankly, it's a bit of an absurd situation for them to deal with this late in the year. And the Sixers have no shortage of bumps and bruises for their best players. Joel Embiid is now nursing a sore shoulder on top of the knee trouble that has required him to wear a brace. Tobias Harris recently dealt with a bone bruise, and he has been a nightly question mark in the lineup over the last week or two. Simmons is returning from an illness-related absence. Some other guys are frankly just a bit older, with Danny Green carrying the weight of consistent deep playoff runs on his shoulders.

The Sixers have told reporters on numerous occasions that pursuing the No. 1 seed was one of their big goals coming into the year, a desire which has only grown over time as it has become a more realistic pursuit. By some measures, they have the easiest schedule in the league to close things out, which could lean in either direction. Perhaps that means they go all out to give themselves the best chance to avoid Brooklyn and Milwaukee in round two, or perhaps they see it as an opportunity to rest players aggressively without sacrificing a chance at No. 1. 

It's a delicate balance, something we saw on Monday when Embiid fell hard on his aching shoulder during a second-half possession in a blowout. 

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