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March 15, 2022

Sixers' loss to Denver Nuggets showcases important underlying issues

The Sixers showed the same weaknesses they have all season in Monday's loss to Denver.

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The Sixers' national TV battle with the Denver Nuggets lived up to the pregame hype, providing Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic each with a platform to make their case for the MVP award. In the end, the two likely played to an individual stalemate, but the Nuggets ultimately left town with the all-important win. It was that fact, not any individual battles, that loomed over the postgame festivities for Philadelphia.

"We lost," Embiid said when given an opportunity to state his case as the best big in the league. "That's what I care about. I care about the wins. It's up to you guys to have these conversations...I don't really care about that, I want to win. We're thinking about championships, and at this point, we got to be better."

As new as all of this is for Embiid, James Harden, and the rest of the supporting cast, the big man is correct. With 15 games left to play, the Sixers are only temporarily in possession of a basketball identity each night, swinging wildly back and forth between offensive juggernaut and lost at sea. Some of those problems predate Harden's debut in Philadelphia, and some extend from Harden's arrival, a byproduct of shaking up your roster down the home stretch of this season.

Monday night, those problems led to a pretty crushing defeat for the Sixers, a loss following their push to a 19-point lead in the first half. So what gives?

The transition defense problem

The Sixers presented a unified front on one issue in particular, and the problem with their transition defense is that it hasn't been good in any iteration of this team since Doc Rivers took over. They were bottom of the barrel last year despite having an elite defense overall, and they're bad again this year to the point that Kevin Durant pointed it out following Brooklyn's win last week. This is not exactly a secret.

Denver doesn't have the sort of dynamic, transition-leading guard many teams like many teams who excel on the break, but they don't need to. Nikola Jokic's passing brilliance is just as deadly (perhaps even more deadly) as part of the fast break, and he will eat teams alive for falling asleep after a missed shot or turnover. The Sixers don't give up the most transition points per game in raw volume, but they're damn close to bottom of the league in effectiveness, ranking in front of just the Knicks and Hawks in points per possession allowed on the break.

Pick a guy on the roster, and they probably were responsible for two points given up in transition on Monday night. What really must drive Philly's coaches nuts is that there are a lot of possessions where players who were directly responsible for a miss or a turnover are the exact players disengaged once the opponent goes the other way, compounding their own mistakes with defense that's just as bad or worse. Even their attempts to play defense can be destructive, as was the case when Matisse Thybulle gave a half-hearted attempt to get in Jokic's face, giving Denver a guaranteed numbers advantage against Tyrese Maxey:

"We got to get our ass back on defense, man," James Harden said Monday evening. "Shot go up, or there's dribble penetration, whatever the case may be, I think two or three guys, whoever isn't offensive rebounding, has to get back. It's really hurt us. Last night [against Orlando] it almost hurt us, and tonight it hurt us, so that's a point of emphasis and we got to continue to build on that."

"Maybe we should not crash the boards and we should just all get back on defense," Embiid added after the game. "But that's not really the reason why I think. Me, all of us, we've just been lazy and teams are taking advantage of that. That has to be, at least the next 10 games, that has to be the focus of we just got to start being better on that. [Kevin Durant] mentioned it last game. You saw it tonight. Orlando took a lot of advantage. It's good for us, we know what the problem is so we just got to fix it."

Their two stars are not exempt from blame, as many were happy to point out after Harden's own assessment made the rounds on social media Monday night. With Embiid in foul trouble late in the first half, Harden held a shooting pose on a miss and then watched as Will Barton ran right past him on the break, soaring in for a dunk to cut the lead to single digits:

I'm not sure what to say about this beyond what Embiid had to offer. They've been lazy, and they've been lazy across multiple iterations of the team. I don't have any expectation this is going to get better by the playoffs. 

Who is going to play backup center?

Doc Rivers was asked after Monday's win what he has seen from DeAndre Jordan since the veteran big joined the team.

"He's been great, overall," Rivers offered after the game. "I thought today he struggled a little bit, but he's still the one roller on our team. He gets downhill, he sprints the floor, and that's so important for our team. He's been really good, he's really bought into what we're trying to do."

I would agree with exactly one piece of that quote, the part about Jordan struggling in Monday's game. It would be unfair to expect Rivers to bury Jordan publicly, particularly given their history and Rivers' role in bringing Jordan here in the first place. But I'm not sure how you square his play so far with the assessment laid out above.

Early in the game, Jordan did at least a semi-competent job against Jokic, combining with Embiid to keep Denver's MVP from rolling early. Unfortunately for Jordan and the Sixers, they continued to play basketball after the first quarter. It would be bad enough if Jordan's physical decline put him in tough spots as a defender. Jordan's propensity to turn his mind off mid-possession makes that decline more impactful because he doesn't even have a chance on some of these plays. I'm not sure how you lose track of the opponent's best player and a contender for MVP on any given possession, but Jordan managed it in a tight game during the second half:

Years ago, Jordan would have been able to make up for mistakes like this with elite finishing on the other end, showing off the rolling ability Rivers mentioned after the game. He was 1-for-6 from the floor against the Nuggets, missing a series of layups and dunks around the basket. A Jordan who can't finish is a Jordan who brings very little to the table. 

Jordan is also "the one roller" if you don't count Charles Bassey, who has been buried in the G-League for a while now after showing promise in limited run early this season. The crazy part is that Bassey's best performance from that early season run actually came against Denver in November, with Bassey giving them great minutes off of the bench in an unexpected win, working well as a screen-and-roll threat on top of blocking a few shots at the other end. I'm only slightly more enthusiastic than Rivers is about the prospect of a rookie center being your backup to Embiid on a team that wants to win a title this season, but the veteran options have looked dire. Unless he has been unspeakably bad in practice, you owe it to yourselves to give him a look, even if it's a quick one. I don't suspect you're learning much about him while he shoots 64 percent from the field and blocks five shots a game in the G-League. 

Inability to exploit the bench

We can spare Georges Niang from this assessment because more often than not, he has looked good in his role as a screener, shooter, and general thorn in the side of opponents next to Embiid and Harden. A bad shooting night against the Nuggets can just be a bad shooting night. Concerned as I am about Niang defending switches in the playoffs, he at least brings a bankable skill to the table. 

Everybody else? Good grief. Who is going to stand up and be counted on in the playoffs? The answer may be no one. 

That being said, it's a little tough to point the finger at a bunch of role players for looking like, well, role players. The draw of a multi-star team is that you should be able to punish opposing teams who are light on top-end might when their star hits the bench. Philadelphia had Embiid on the floor to open the fourth quarter, over 11 minutes of Tyrese Maxey minutes, and the final eight minutes of the game with Embiid and Harden on the floor. It did not stop Bones Hyland and DeMarcus Cousins from going ballistic from deep in the fourth, providing their portion of Denver's 48 bench points.

It's hard to use the excuse of "it takes time to find chemistry" when players who have been together for a while are making execution errors against basic offensive sets. Hyland and Cousins didn't do anything particularly special to get freed up in the fourth, with Embiid and Tyrese Maxey both struggling to meet their responsibility in pick-and-pops and pick-and-rolls. You can see Embiid annoyed on this play when Maxey runs away from Hyland to chase Cousins into the paint with Embiid already in a position to dissuade the entry:

Embiid made a big mistake himself (which he copped to after the game) when he left Hyland late in the clock with just under two minutes to play, leading to Denver's seventh and final three of the quarter. The vast majority of those attempts were lightly guarded at best and faced no resistance at their worst, with Denver working their way into a rhythm taking glorified practice shots.

It has not been clear lately whether the Sixers collectively understand the personnel they're playing. Danny Green, who is supposed to be one of the savvy vets to stabilize things off of the bench, made an attempt to shrink the floor around Cousins that neither bothered the guy with the ball or left him in a position to contest an Austin Rivers three. Rivers is almost exactly average from three, but if you're going to let him tee off with shots like this, forget about it.

There may be a game, a series, or even an entire run where a change to the starting lineup is warranted. Matisse Thybulle was mostly good on Monday night, but he has had some ghastly, offense-killing performances by simply being on the floor this season, and that could pop up at an inopportune time for Philadelphia. With Green a step off of the pace for most of the year and everybody else (save Niang) different degrees of bad, it's hard to know who they might be able to call on in a pinch later this spring.

The Sixers are falling through the floor when they don't have both stars on the floor at the same time, and that shouldn't be the case even if we concede that the bench stinks. Since returning from the All-Star break, they are outscoring teams by 18 points per 100 possessions with Embiid and Harden on the floor together. With just Embiid, they're losing those minutes by 10.2 points per 100, and with just Harden they're losing them by 5.3 per 100. There are some wonky performances in a small sample that skew those stats — the Nets game and the back-to-back against Miami stand out — but it does match the overall clunkiness we've seen when they can't center things around their star duo.

This is the area where there's probably the most hope for Philly to fix this season, simply because you'd think the individual talent of Embiid and Harden might push them forward even if everything else goes wrong. If they can't, we'll have plenty of evidence to look back on as evidence that it wasn't going to happen this year in the first place. 

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