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November 17, 2017

Sixers Mailbag: Are the Sixers a threat to win a playoff series?

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Now that this Sixers season is really starting to get rolling, it's about time we started checking in with one another more often. Long before I was doing this for a living, one of my favorite past times was killing a Friday at school or work by reading through a mailbag from my favorite writers. We've had more than enough game action to start one of our own here, and assuming there are more topics to talk about, I'll continue to answer all your burning questions on a weekly or semi-weekly basis throughout the season.

If you didn't get the chance to submit a question today, feel free to ask away in the comment section, on Twitter, or shoot me an email so I can share some insight during the next go-round. Now, time for some questions.

There are a couple holdovers from the Doug Collins era that I considered here, primarily Thaddeus Young. Now that he wouldn't be relied on to be a key cog on the team, I think our old, awkwardly smooth friend would do quite well here. There's also an excellent case to be made for Nerlens Noel, who you'd assume would stop the bench units from bleeding points as they have all year. It just seems clear he would never mentally accept the understudy role here.

Staying with the spirit of the question, I'll turn to our old pal Jerami Grant. The Sixers have some standout players on defense, namely Robert Covington and Joel Embiid, but they do not have enough plus defenders to build a real defensive spine for the team. Brett Brown's lineups are an almost constant decision between shooting and defense, and even the guys you'd put in the latter category aren't necessarily "good" on defense so much as guys who try hard.

Grant still isn't a guy you can trust to make threes, but he would give the Sixers some increased lineup flexibility and some needed athleticism on the second unit. He remains an excellent weakside shot-blocker and a great athlete, and his better understanding of team defensive concepts would give him a leg up on most of the other guys on Philadelphia's second unit.

I would also selfishly like to see Grant as the roll man on a few pick-and-rolls with Ben Simmons, and while I understood the move to bring in a floor spacer next to Joel Embiid last year, I think the Sixers really need some more defensive-minded players on the roster. 

I don't think this is completely out of the question, but it all depends on the context of the move. As I've been harping on for months, the front office has a clear desire to chase max free agents this summer. It doesn't mean they're going to get one, but they're not going to compromise their chance at getting one by taking on extra salary past this season.

That inherently limits your options in who you're able to look at as an option at the trade deadline. The only guys they'd give any thought to are players on expiring contracts, who in many cases are used to either match salary for higher tier players or to pick up draft assets. If neither of those applies, you have to ask yourself what value that player would bring to the Sixers anyway. Robert Covington's impending salary bump also makes it harder for the Sixers to make a move of any kind at the deadline since incoming salary is a lot bigger factor in trades.

If we're talking strictly what type of player I'd go after, any young 3&D player would be in my crosshairs. The Sixers do not have a lot of versatile wing options behind Covington, and while they'll hope Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Furkan Korkmaz can get there one day, you can't have enough of those sort of players in the modern NBA. Bench scoring would also be high on the list, but assuming Markelle Fultz gets right and Jerryd Bayless' injury doesn't linger, I think the Sixers will be fine on that front once they're healthy.

Do I think the Sixers should explore trades that will make the team better? Absolutely, because that's how you should always run your franchise. I just don't think there are many options that make sense from both a short and long-term perspective.

I remain lukewarm on this one, but not for any reasons that we've seen on the court. The top-end talent on this Sixers team is absolutely legitimate, and they would not have stood toe-to-toe against teams like the Rockets, Celtics, and Wizards if that wasn't the case. They have the players to make teams sweat in the first round, even if they don't have the experience.

Where I'll stop short is betting on the good times to keep on rolling for a team with a lot of potential pitfalls. Fultz's return to the rotation will be great for the long-term, but performances like those we've seen from Embiid and Simmons in their rookie years are rare. Most rookies are massive negatives in their first season and trying to throw in Fultz on the fly as he sorts out his issues will bring the team back to earth a little bit.

We also have seen Simmons and Embiid experience very little adversity yet, either from a performance or health standpoint. The Sixers appear confident they have a firm plan to keep Embiid healthy, even if it angers fans when he sits out of a random Tuesday night game in Utah, but we still have a long season to go and no idea how he's going to hold up over an extended period of time. I'm more bullish on his health than most, I just won't throw caution out the window and assume he'll be ready to rock when playoff time hits.

But hell, if they have everybody available when the playoffs start next spring, I think they can put a real scare into a more experienced playoff team. Even with JJ Redick and Dario Saric struggling, the Sixers' current starting lineup has the best NETRTG of any five-man unit in the NBA this year. They have outpaced the best units of teams like the Rockets, Warriors, and Celtics, all of whom are playing high-level basketball this early in the season. If the Sixers start getting anything out of their bench, they will start beating teams comfortably instead of struggling to the finish line every night.

Matchups are important here too. The Sixers' inexperience in a playoff setting wouldn't be as pronounced against a team like the Milwaukee Bucks since they have their own growing pains to sort through. As bad as the Cavaliers look right now, I think a team like the Sixers would be much worse off playing a veteran-heavy team that is used to the way the playoffs are officiated.

The short version: when Embiid plays, they are capable of hanging around against just about anyone. Keep him healthy, and they have a shot. 

Everyone's mind will drift to LeBron James, and how could it not? He's one of the best players of all time and considering the relationship he has with Simmons through their agency, it's not totally farfetched.

Paul George is the guy I think you need to keep an eye on, however. I reported earlier this year the Sixers made a strong push to acquire him at the 2017 NBA trade deadline, and he is the top-tier player who fits in best with what Philadelphia wants to do. He's more accustomed to getting his offense as an off-ball player, a versatile defensive player, and an elite three-point shooter. You could not build a star player in a lab who fills the gaps around the Sixers' core better than George.

Is he going to leave Russell Westbrook and (to a lesser extent) Carmelo Anthony to sign on for that? It's difficult to say. The rumors of his interest in returning home to Los Angeles will persist until he signs a new deal next summer, and ultimately there might be nothing the Sixers can do to convince him to join up. As promising as the Sixers' youth movement is, you'd be asking him to leave the reigning league MVP to join a much more unknown crew. It's a better situation than the one the Lakers have for sure, but the calculus is more complicated than that.

If you want my opinion, I don't think they should just be settling for "the next best thing" if they can't go out there and haul in their big fish. Spending money because you feel like you have to is how you get locked into deals that look bad years later and force you to dump assets to clear the books. Avery Bradley isn't a bad secondary option, but Klay Thompson will be a free agent in 2019, and the league will have a much better idea of what the Sixers are at that point.

The other big factor here: where the Sixers end up selecting in this year's draft. If the Lakers pick conveys to them at No. 1 or anywhere past the No. 5 slot, they will have the flexibility to make lots of interesting offers to other teams. In a draft loaded with big men, the Sixers could end up using their draft capital to acquire a player who seems unobtainable at the moment. This far out, you simply prepare for any and every possibility.

Without being too harsh, some of this comes down to both guys being rather sub-par so far this year. Holmes came out and looked great in his first action against the Indiana Pacers, but he has fallen victim to a lot of the same bad habits that have plagued him in years past. He is still not a good defender, even if his highlight blocks make him look like one.

I actually think the contrast of the two backups is an interesting look into what people watch for in big men. Johnson has the advantage in defensive positioning and doing "the little things," while Holmes has the recovery speed and offensive verticality on his side. I've diagrammed this before, but Johnson has been able to create value just by setting effective screens and freeing up his teammates for open looks.

Unfortunately, you have to do more than that to earn minutes, and Johnson's ability to recover from any mistakes just isn't what it once was, which makes each misread more glaring in the eyes of people at home. 

Brown appears as though he wants to let Holmes and Johnson battle it out for the backup spot, which isn't the worst idea in the world. But when Johnson is a massive negative, as he was during a couple games on the trip out west, I think Brown has to be more proactive about giving Holmes a shot to earn more of the minutes. I will always lean toward giving the young guy more minutes if the quality of play is comparable, and that remains the case here.