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May 07, 2021

Sixers mailbag: Playoff expectations, Tyrese Maxey's role, and robbing a bank with Sixers

NBA Pickswise
Ben-Simmons-Doc-Rivers-Sixers-76ers_022421_USAT Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports

Doc Rivers has Ben Simmons and the rest of the Sixers buying in, and playing hard this season.

The Sixers haven't played a team with a healthy or competent roster in what feels like months — and when they have, they've been shorthanded themselves — so I can understand how desperate everyone is to get to the playoffs. That's why it's time to break up the monotony with a mailbag, one of the very few we have left before the Sixers begin their pursuit of a title (which, according to BetMGM, via Pickswise they hold the fourth best NBA championship odds for at +900).

If you have any questions, musings, or recommendations of movies to watch before we switch into #PlayoffMode, feel free to hit me up on Twitter, via email, or anywhere else you can find a way to contact me between now and round one. We'll likely squeeze in another mailbag before then.

My confidence in this team heading into the playoffs is certainly higher than it was to start the year. How couldn't it be? They've sustained a No. 1 seed pace behind an MVP candidate at center, and all their changes have been wildly successful. The team fits together, the coaching staff has (mostly) pressed the right buttons, and important players have taken steps forward.

Philadelphia has taken a big step on defense, which is their most important trait as a contender aside from Embiid's evolution into an MVP-caliber player. They were very good but stopped short of great there in past years, and Dan Burke's tweaks to the system have made them tougher to solve in the halfcourt. Embiid shows higher against pick-and-rolls, the team toggles in and out of different looks, Ben Simmons is playing at a DPOY level, and Matisse Thybulle is madness personified coming off of the bench. When they are locked in, they are a sphinx-like problem to solve. 

I'm sure you're waiting for the, "Yeah, but..." portion of the segment, and regular readers probably know what it is. Do you trust Simmons in a high-level series in the second round or deeper? I don't, and the question for Philadelphia will be two-fold: have they grown enough around him to shrug off his limitations, and can he be impactful enough as an all-around player to make up for what he lacks as a scoring option?

This often gets twisted as anti-Simmons complaining, but it is as much about the realities of the supporting cast as everyone else. I don't believe you win playoff games by relying on role players to make a lot of jumpers. Good defenses help and recover better, shrinking shooting windows and upping the degree of difficulty for guys who make their living as catch-and-shoot guys. As much as I talk up Danny Green in this space, Sixers fans saw firsthand how wild the swings back and forth can be for him in a series. In the 2019 seven-game affair against Toronto, Green ultimately shot over 37 percent from deep, but he swung wildly back and forth between bad nights (1/8 in Game 2) and good nights (5/8 in Game 5). If these guys weren't volatile, they wouldn't be role players.

You need guys who see role players are struggling and have both the motivation and the ability to say, "screw it, I got this." Embiid has certainly shown he has that within him, and Tobias Harris has been a credible No. 2 option for most of this season. Maybe that will be enough, and past concerns can be left in the past. But since I still worry some about how Embiid will handle aggressive doubling, and I still worry some about whether Harris is built for that sort of role under the bright postseason lights, it's harder for me to dismiss the issues we have seen Simmons have in these moments. Keeping in mind that he is going to be taking on high-level assignments on defense for basically every minute he's on the floor while playing more minutes than usual, it would be silly to expect him to have a bigger impact than he usually does on offense. 

Insofar as anyone can, this group matches up well with Brooklyn, who I still ultimately believe will end up winning the East as long as they get and keep everyone on the floor. They have a cohesive team identity, a solid understanding of team hierarchy, and a relatively deep team for the Embiid-Simmons era. Simmons and Thybulle should be able to slow down 2/3 of Brooklyn's stars, and Embiid should be basically unguardable in that series. I think they have a shot to contend, I just wouldn't bet the house on it.

Shake Milton is a decent candidate to flop if we're looking elsewhere. George Hill joining the lineup has made his life easier in the early going, but he's an up-and-down player who has to make a lot of tough shots because of his lack of high-end burst, which is a recipe for some stink bombs in a playoff series. I wouldn't want to be the guy betting on his shotmaking in the playoffs, though I would love for him to prove that skepticism is unfounded.

If we're actually trying to factor in expectations, I think you have to look at guys like Dwight Howard or even Thybulle, not because I think they'll fail but because they have further to fall than some other role players and thus would inspire a disappointing feeling if they come up short. Milton is viewed as an up-and-down guy, so I don't know how surprising it would be if he ends up on the downside. If Thybulle is unplayable because of his jumper or the team falls apart with Embiid off of the floor, the doom and gloom will be something fierce around here.

On the other end of the spectrum, I think the aforementioned Hill has a chance to be a huge part of this team's playoff rotation, potentially creeping into the closing group depending on how things go for Seth Curry on the defensive end of the floor. Hill is the sort of player who wins trust from coaches quickly, and they may eventually believe that they need a stabilizer on the floor more often against playoff-caliber defenses. 

I can't say I have kept up with the LB comment section much since I took the gig with PhillyVoice back in 2017 (man, time flies) but I certainly love you all and hope you've continued to read me without the chaos of the message board. 

I wouldn't read too far into anything Rivers says in a press conference, at least when it comes to praising his players and tipping his plans. He's a politician behind the microphone a lot of the time, and I don't say that pejoratively. Rivers is savvy enough to understand that he can save individual criticisms for conversations behind closed doors, spending his time at the podium pumping up his guys or (on rare occasions) tearing down a bad team effort without directing his scorn at anyone in particular.

But I'll say this about Maxey — he has certainly shown he deserves consideration for the playoff rotation, and I think what Rivers has tipped is that he's not reluctant to use him as a change-of-pace if their normal options/rotations aren't going well. The rookie offers something different than Shake Milton or George Hill, an off-the-dribble pace that is hard for anyone else on the team to replicate. Though his shooting splits still leave a lot to be desired, Maxey's willingness to get all the way to the rim instead of settling for floaters has been much improved in the second half of the season, corresponding with an uptick in free-throw rate and efficiency as his minutes have dwindled.

Trusting a rookie in a playoff series, mind you, is not something many coaches are up for unless that rookie is one of the driving forces behind the team, a la Simmons with the 2017-18 Sixers. Maxey's defense has improved as the season has gone on, but he is still sort of a target on that end due to his size and his tendency to drift just a bit too far away from where he's supposed to be off-ball. That can be tolerated against the dregs of the league and banged-up rosters in the regular season, but it almost certainly won't be when the games really matter.

If he does play a decent-sized role, yes, this certainly would qualify as a surprising development. But with the number of guard upgrades the team has tried to make during this season, it would be nice to go into the offseason with at least some idea of what Maxey can offer them in the playoffs as he begins his development path. Figuring out whether he's an essential future component or a guy who's more useful as a trade chip is pretty key for them.

Keith and I sit next to (or at least near) each other at Sixers games and have for at least a couple of years, and I can't say I have ever seen him eat any food during the game. It's #AllBusinessFlow for him once he takes his seat, as far as I know.

Speaking of seats, our "press box" lately has been at the club level at the Wells Fargo Center now that the partially full arena is a thing. It's going to be very difficult to go back to the old press setup, which is much closer to the court but obstructed in a major way due to its placement behind one of the baskets. Improved seating has been one of very few life improvements for me as a result of the pandemic, though I'll obviously take the old ways back as soon as we get the all clear.

I suppose it depends on what you're looking for in a getaway driver. Ben Simmons probably has the largest collection of fast cars (at least to my knowledge) so he might be the best option as the driver, assuming he gets the opportunity to take those out on the road fairly often. If we're not factoring that in, though, I think I would probably go with Danny Green. You need a guy who is calm under pressure behind the wheel, and Green is a veteran of countless big playoff games and moments where he never blinked when the ball swung his way. Since I have no experience to draw from to assess their actual driving abilities, that's where my head is at.

The safehouse is another matter entirely, because you basically have to eliminate all the most famous players who are too easily identifiable in public and a risk of getting us caught as a result. Embiid keeps a low profile off the court these days, but one step out of the apartment for a trip to Wawa and the jig is up.

Do I know enough about former Sixers' two-way player Mason Jones to put our riches and security in his hands? Certainly not. But he's a normal person's idea of tall at 6'4", relatively anonymous in terms of on-the-spot recognition, and that's enough for me to put our safety in his hands. Plus, having been cut by the team Thursday, he's more willing to go the extra mile/not flip on his co-conspirators to protect the cash. 

This is at least the third time Kevin has asked this question, so I'm starting to wonder if he just wants me to say it's him for either answer. Or maybe me. Can't get a read on this one still. 

It's not a collection of winners in style, I can tell you that. The Queer Eye team would be able to make an impact.

At this point in both of their careers, I don't think they're all that different as players, so it's a pretty good question. Jordan is the younger player and probably the more likely bet to stay healthy for that and other reasons, though he hasn't been without his bumps and bruises in recent seasons. Howard is a more tenacious rebounder and a superior defensive player, and I'll admit I'm a sucker for Howard's late-career turn as the wise veteran mentor. He has been a delightful person to deal with and talk basketball with for most of this year, and all the guys seem to enjoy having him around. I think there's a lot of value in that even if we posit that their basketball value is similar.

Would not have predicted this when Howard was at peak pain-in-the-ass levels as a teammate, but this team has been better due to his presence. Wouldn't hate to see him stick around beyond this year.

Is there an answer other than Liu Kang? In the original movie timeline he was the undisputed champion for the first four editions of Mortal Kombat and he was basically the protagonist of the series, plus the guy shoots fireballs. Hard to compete with that.

Liking Liu Kang made it a little difficult to get into the new Mortal Kombat reboot at times — he's portrayed as an apprentice-level fighter rather than the master he is throughout the series — and the new primary character absolutely stunk on every level. They would have been better off building the story around Sonya Blade, who was one of the few characters who actually seemed to benefit from how they chose to tell the story. But if we're being honest, I certainly didn't go into Mortal Kombat wanting anything other than some gory fight sequences, and we got enough of those to make the two-hour watch worthwhile. Not every movie needs to be Citizen Kane. 

Okay, one last complaint: how are you going to reboot Mortal Kombat and not actually have a tournament take place within the movie? It's the whole point of the franchise!

This week's latest patch for Returnal temporarily the save function, so that's a pretty big knock against it until it gets fixed. Up until that catastrophe, however, I was having as much fun with Returnal as I've had with a game in a long time.

Returnal combines elements from a variety of genres that I hold near and dear to my heart, using the gated progression of Metroidvanias and the progression system/death tactics of a rogue-lite to complement a sci-fi horror setting and excellent third-person shooter/bullet hell mechanics. It has caught some flak for the difficulty that can be punishing at times, and I certainly have been on the wrong end of some beatdowns from the enemies, but it has never felt unfair and you certainly feel better prepared to attack the game as you learn the enemy attack patterns. That's where it invokes some of the comparisons to Dark Souls, though there's not much to enemy defense patterns which is an important distinction to make.

I've already beaten the final boss once and I'm looking forward to exploring the game more and trying to put together some extremely broken runs. I would kill for an eventual co-op addition to this game, though the enemies, difficulty, and level design would likely have to be re-balanced in order to make that happen. It probably isn't for everyone, but it has excellent design and will really hit for the people who are the target demo. 

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