December 29, 2017
When Robert Covington checked out of the Sixers' 114-110 loss to the Portland Trailblazers with 4:05 remaining in the third quarter, the Sixers were in possession of an 18-point lead. Even for a team with a penchant for blowing advantages, this one seemed pretty easy to hold. Against a Portland team with no Damian Lillard, there was no real excuse to walk out of Moda Center without a win.
Yet there they went, trudging to the exit with their tails between their legs just over 16 minutes of game time later. There is not a player on the roster who could call themselves blameless in the collapse besides Covington, who never returned after that third-quarter sub due to a finger injury on his left hand. Perhaps that should say it all about the loss in Portland and their propensity to collapse in general: the Sixers do not have enough good players on their current roster.
In some ways, this is a calculated decision by the Philadelphia front office. They have stressed privately that their decisions this past offseason were made with future flexibility in mind. They want to chase the big whales, the movers and shakers of the NBA, who can change the outlook of a franchise at a moment's notice. If Sam Hinkie was afforded some time to let his plan come together — even if it was not enough — his successor deserves some too, despite how different the path forward may be.
But that choice to put their chips in a future basket comes at a very real cost. The focus on signing veterans to short, expensive contracts limited the market of players the Sixers could shop for, and all we can do in the interim is judge the players who they did go out and acquire. Against Portland, the veteran players acquired by Colangelo over the last two seasons did very little to push them toward a win. What's worse, their very presence on the court appears to be harmful to the young stars doing their best to drag an undermanned squad to wins.
A more recent addition, Trevor Booker was brought to Philadelphia with the idea of bolstering the rotation in mind. And while Booker has been mostly fine in a vacuum, he has complicated life a great deal for the team's more important pieces. He is not anyone's idea of a knockdown shooter, but he has at least been willing to attempt shots outside the paint in the past. That part of his game has vanished in Philadelphia.
The inclination to feed Embiid is one thing, but if Booker shows no willingness to even think about shooting while open at the free-throw line, he has no business playing at the four on a modern NBA team. Play him as a smaller five if you need to get him on the court, but he does not bring enough else to the table to justify putting another non-shooter on the floor when the Sixers desperately need as much shooting as they can get.
Without picking on Booker too much — he works hard when he plays and is not a guy who should be a target for scorn, in my eyes — it's painfully easy to see how simply putting him on the court can junk up the spacing. Brown tends to give him the hook very quickly in these lineups, but he has featured in a few setups with both Amir Johnson and Ben Simmons on the floor simultaneously. They are a disaster, and all that ends up happening is Booker marauding into the space Simmons needs to exploit.
Perhaps this is a case study on Simmons being a difficult player to build around to some extent. Booker is an eminently useful player who is never a liability from raw effort point-of-view. That excuse might hold more water if the other veteran pickups were doing something to justify their places in the rotation, and they've done anything but.
Jerryd Bayless is a nightly punchline for his inability to come up big when it matters. He added to that legend against Portland, screwing up even when it looked like he may have done something right. Bayless hit a three as the shot clock expired early in the fourth quarter, but replay showed his slow release came after the buzzer had sounded. The erased miss would have been the only offensive production he came up with all night; across 20 minutes of action, he scored zero points on a single missed shot, and finished up as a -20 on the scorer's sheet.
As of late, Amir Johnson hasn't been a whole lot better. As crys for Richaun Holmes continue to ring louder and louder with each passing game, the veteran getting minutes ahead of him does little to stem the tide as opponents battle their way back into the game. The numbers and the eye test show he's better than Holmes on defense by a fair distance, but the Sixers are not actively benefitting from that decision to prioritize the steadier defensive option.
And so night after night, the Sixers essentially ask their starting lineup to carry them to victory. They have often been good enough to do so, but they can only play so many minutes together during a game. The team's leaders have to play a healthy share of their minutes with the incongruent or incompetent bench players behind them on the depth chart, and there doesn't appear to be a single combination beyond the starting five that can build any sort of momentum.
You can only pull out the, "They're missing Markelle Fultz!" card so many times. True though that may be — he was and is meant to serve a massive role in the rotation — a rookie guard isn't the difference between respectability and routine collapses. There are deeper problems within this Sixers roster that aren't a product of scapular muscle imbalance. These go far beyond the vet pickups, for what it's worth. Younger or more versatile options off the bench have either not been ready or good enough for the role (Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot), hurt (Justin Anderson), or some combination of both (Furkan Korkmaz).
The holdovers from the previous regime aren't blameless either. T.J. McConnell is a fan favorite and a tremendous player to watch when he's on his game, but he has baffling sequences like any of the other guys on the roster. He only tends to shoot off the dribble if he can get to certain comfort zones on the court. When he can't do so, he often dribbles himself into a tizzy, and his ball retention isn't exactly top-notch.
(Side note: this is yet another play where Booker's involvement in the play does nothing except for drag more defenders into the path of one of his teammates.)
The Sixers have nobody they can trust to keep things tip-top if their stars go through struggles, or even if they have to hit the bench at the same time. There's no one they can count on to get buckets on their own, no one who is a defensive stopper, no one who can consistently create quality shots for their teammates. They are the living embodiment of a moment in Office Space, when two neutral parties take a gander at the workflow and come to a realization.
Embiid did not have his best outing in Portland, to say the least. He was late on rotations, coughed the ball up as he is wont to do, and didn't force the issue enough against Jusuf Nurkic, who was carrying five fouls for most of the final quarter. Those games were going to happen, because as good as he is Embiid is still green around the gills. Just as with Simmons, there are ebbs and flows to his performances.
But those games happen, and the Sixers need to be able to count on their depth to pick them up at times. Unfortunately, the Sixers are ill-equipped to lose any contributor in the rotation, because they are paper-thin and brimming with players who fill very specific roles. When thrust into bigger or more varied roles, as someone like Bayless has with Fultz on the shelf, they have floundered time and time again.
The 10,000-foot view of this franchise is still spectacular. As Simmons, Embiid, and eventually Fultz pile up minutes, the Sixers will likely have one of the most exciting cores in all of basketball.
That doesn't change the state of the roster right here, right now. The Sixers can use whatever catchy slogan they want, "Welcome to the moment!" or otherwise, and it won't turn a collection of limited role players into real contributors. Maybe the Sixers aren't as bad as they've looked in the month of December, but until they get better, more reliable players on the roster, I wouldn't expect the blown leads to cease.