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January 30, 2018

Sixers' loss to Bucks shows how ugly things can get without Joel Embiid

If I chose to forego recapping this game altogether and instead chose to post 18 consecutive GIFs of people building a house of bricks, you would experience the same thing everyone else did watching the Sixers play against the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday night.

Without Joel Embiid at their disposal, it was always going to be a tough night at the office for an undermanned Sixers squad. But this was an ugly 107-95 loss even considering the circumstances, and it starts with the guys who are trusted to make threes for the Sixers.

You need to look no further than the number 1/16 — the combined three-point makes vs. attempts for Robert Covington and Dario Saric on Monday night — to understand where the Sixers lost the game. Without Embiid in the lineup, their avenue to beat a Bucks team in the playoff hunt was to make up for his scoring with three-point shooting. They did the exact opposite, making only two of their 26 total attempts from deep. You are not going to win many NBA games shooting 7.7 percent from deep.

The misses were maddeningly inconsistent. Saric's problem seemed to be tied to playing in a back-to-back, with many of his three-point attempts hitting the front rim. He usually lives on above-the-break threes — 202 of his 525 total attempts have come from that area of the court — and it looked like he just didn't have the legs to get his shots where they needed to go.

Covington ran into a completely different set of problems, and at some point, we're going to need to have a real discussion about how he has played since he took a nasty spill in Cleveland in mid-December. Some nights it's shot selection, some nights it's just not having his best stuff and others it's a combination of a variety of factors.

Whatever the case is, the Sixers need him to come up with better offensive efforts. In Saric's case, you can live with cold shooting stretches because he has utility as an offensive player with his handle, his post-up game and his passing ability. Covington will always have his defensive base to fall back on, but the Sixers don't have enough firepower elsewhere to survive if he can't get it going from deep.

It's easy to say, "Well, he should stop shooting threes then!" It's a lot harder in practice to figure out a way to get him going when he isn't. He tried to compensate for the missed jumpers with secondary playmaking and earnest attempts to drive, but he's not fluid enough at either, and he turned the ball over several times as a result. You can't live without his defense on the wing, obviously, but something has to give.

We have long since surpassed broken record territory, but this is exactly why the Sixers drafted and continue to desperately need Markelle Fultz. It is hard to get that upset when limited offensive players play like limited offensive players, particularly when they're in the middle of shooting slumps. But it's more than fair to question the roster construction beyond Philadelphia's top players because they're nearly all boom-or-bust by nature.

Fultz was supposed to be the guy serving as the bridge between the bench and the starters, using his handle and (gulp) shooting ability to buoy the team with or without their stars in the lineup. Because the Sixers have a clear desire to chase max free agents in the summer, it put an immense amount of responsibility at the feet of the No. 1 pick, and everyone can see how that has played out to date.

It would not be wise for the Sixers to change course on that long-term plan now, nor do I get the sense they'd be willing to do anything drastic to bring in immediate help at the deadline. But if they end up missing the playoffs at the end of this season — a real possibility with how jumbled things are in the East — it will come down to how limited they are when they have to rely more on role players.

For a team that already has a couple super-talented players on the rise, planning for the chase of a max-level veteran makes a ton of sense. But for all the talk about the previous regime "kicking the can down the road" with their team-building strategy, they were also proactive in replenishing their stockpile of picks every so often. Now that Philadelphia's first big star is about to have his extension kick in next season alongside the raise for Covington, they are running out of time and ammo with which they can give themselves outs moving forward.

They have already sacrificed one big out to go and get Fultz in the first place, whether it comes in the form of the Lakers pick this year or the Kings pick next year going to the Boston Celtics. Fultz's story is far from over, but they paid a premium for a guy they thought was a slam dunk to be locked into their core for over a decade. Now they can barely put him in an open practice setting without his jump shot going viral in the span of an hour.

The Sixers had better hope their faith in the long-term plan and the players in place is well-founded. In the cases of Embiid and Ben Simmons, it'd be hard to argue otherwise. But with the former's health management part of their day-to-day life for the foreseeable future, it remains imperative for the Sixers to build a group equipped to weather the storm when the big guy has a night off.

Early foul trouble kills the Sixers for the second straight night

In Oklahoma City, it was Saric's foul trouble that doomed the Sixers. In the second night of their road back-to-back, it was Simmons' turn to spend too much time on the pine, and that was a death sentence for a team already missing their best player.

When Simmons was finally able to get into the flow of the game in the second half — he did not commit another foul after picking up his third with 7:16 left in the second quarter — he did a fine job of integrating himself into the game. If anything, I thought his teammates let him down with their shooting and finishing on the night, because he did more than enough to get them the ball in good spots.

James Young was brought in on a two-way deal to take and make open jumpers. But when Simmons hit him with a pass in the corner with the game slipping away in the fourth quarter, he seemed unprepared for it and the Sixers ended up having to reset the offense.

It's a little easier to track the missed shots than plays like these, but they're no less important. When you're playing with a guy who you know is going to get you the ball and you're in the best spot on the floor to shoot jumpers from, you have to be ready to rip. Too often, the Sixers have guys that aren't or the guys who end up prepared there make an extra pass that ends with a lot of overpassing for a result that isn't any better.

That said, this is where you see some of the difficulties of building around Simmons, at least when he doesn't have Embiid around to cover up the holes. He's talented enough to make it worth it, but his complete unwillingness to shoot a three even when the Sixers desperately need to put up points forces lesser players to try to shoulder that load. 

For example, look at the space Simmons has between he and his defender on the play here, and tell me you wouldn't be comfortable with him shooting it given the situation:

Within the normal flow of a game, I think it's perfectly fine for Simmons to prioritize attacking the rim and collapsing defenses in order to get better shooters looks on the perimeter. But when the rest of your guys clearly don't have it on a given night, there's no good excuse to hold back. Instead of firing that pass to Saric to shoot a contested three, take on the challenge and use the space in front of you to your advantage.

Becoming an adequate, even accurate shooter from deep is going to take time for Simmons. Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is far ahead of him on the development curve thanks to way more NBA minutes, still struggles to make threes consistently. But he is and always has been willing to take them, even if the results aren't always pretty. Nobody expects him to be Ray Allen, it just can't be an excuse for Simmons to avoid the attempts altogether.