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December 08, 2018

Sixers mailbag: Can you build a title team around a center in the modern NBA?

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112318-JoelEmbiid-USAToday Eric Hartline/USA Today

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) watches the final seconds of loss against the Cleveland Cavaliers during the fourth quarter at Wells Fargo Center.

The Sixers did not exactly come flying out of the gate to start the season, and we collectively spent more time talking about their blown leads than the wins themselves. Then all of a sudden, you look up and it's December, and the Sixers are 18-9 and right where most people expected them to be.

It's a funny team to cover. The Sixers have for all intents and purposes been basically what we expected coming into the year — Jimmy Butler trade aside — but they still prompt national headlines every other day, and they generate debate at warp speed. That all circles back to the players at the center of their story, and perhaps the coach who is responsible for putting it all together.

So with the Sixers doing well in the short-term, we'll focus on the long-term to kick off today's mailbag.

My short answer here is yes, I believe you can build a title team around any style of player provided they are elite enough at what they do. Do I believe the Sixers can build a title team using most of the parts that are already on hand? That's a more complicated question.

In a perfect world, Embiid would be surrounded by players who can run pick-and-rolls, knock down open threes, cut intelligently away from the ball, and switch credibly on defense. The Sixers are a long way away from that right now.

The fit with Ben Simmons will define this era of Sixers basketball for Philadelphia, barring a trade. I'm not sure it's possible to emphasize the gap between the best styles of play for Embiid and Simmons; the former thrives in a slow setting, taking his time to break down a defense, the latter needs to run in order to avoid defenses setting up to begin with.

Everything about the pairing, save their talent, is counterintuitive on offense. Embiid has made comments in recent days about his role changing since Butler's arrival, but it's Simmons' skill set that complicates life for Embiid. He wants to get to the same spots as the center, and he's completely unwilling to shoot if he's not in those spots, unlike Embiid.

I still believe you try to see this thing through. The defensive pairing is elite, and if Embiid were to ever go down with a career-threatening injury, you could fairly easily pivot into building around Simmons. Over time, you have to assume Simmons' game will expand, and the partnership will get better and better. It doesn't have to be perfect to win and win frequently.

But it is, without a doubt, worth monitoring.

A starting caliber wing would be No. 1 on the list for me. I don't know if you're getting one of those, but anyone who can play a similar role to Wilson Chandler would help this team out a ton.

With a second Chandler-esque player, the Sixers could ask Mike Muscala to play a larger share of his minutes at backup five. There's a domino effect once that happens — you can sit Embiid longer with lineups built around Simmons/Butler and shooters, and you can beef up the defense on the second unit by putting another modern 3/4 type on the floor. This is an easy call for me.

This all depends on the fit. Chasing a star for the sake of selling a big move to the fanbase doesn't feel like a smart use of resources. The next "guy" needs to add another dimension to the team. Kemba Walker, for example, feels like he would almost be overkill for the Sixers at this point. There are only so many touches to go around.

Now, if you could convince Kevin Durant to come to Philly, that's a different story. To a lesser degree, if you can get a guy like Tobias Harris or Khris Middleton to join up, then I think you go after those opportunities. Search for stars and sub-stars who can defend multiple positions and play multiple offensive styles and see what you can find.

Another caveat: it is a bit easier to overpay role players than stars, so if the Sixers strike out on big fish they need to be very careful about how they distribute money. If you sign Walker and the fit sucks, he's still movable. If you throw a ton of money at role players and that doesn't work out, getting out of the deal is much tougher unless you want to pay a premium to do so.

I think Mirotic is close to the best version of that sort of player, and he'd be a nice fit alongside Embiid. But I don't know how much of a needle-mover he is, and if I'm throwing money at someone in free agency, I'd want to feel more confident in their ability to defend in a playoff series.

The Pelicans are roughly the same exact team with Mirotic on the floor as they are with him on the bench. They're half a point worse per 100 possessions when he isn't out there, which is pretty insignificant for someone who might make a pretty penny in the offseason.

I do like his offensive versatility, and on the right deal he would be a killer with Embiid. Feels like an overpay waiting to happen, though.

You're all my friends, in our own strange little way.

Question 1: I think it's some of column A, more of column B. He won't admit it, but he looked visibly fatigued against the Raptors on Wednesday. His shot profile is not the greatest, and if he cut down on taking ridiculous stepback jumpers from just inside the arc I think he and the team would be better off. When you rely on low-percentage shots, you will get low-percentage results.

As for question two, Bosh's health risk is too significant for anybody to sign him at this point, I think. Was a great, great player and would be incredible as a backup to Embiid here, but if he was actually able to play I can't imagine he'd be interested in that sort of role anyway.

I think Milwaukee is the right answer. We've already seen how much trouble Al Horford and Aron Baynes give Embiid, and I doubt I have to remind you of Simmons' disappearing act from last spring. The Raptors aren't a whole lot better — Jonas Valanciunas is a second-unit center who will make Embiid work, and Kawhi Leonard can be used to take either of Simmons or Butler out of the game.

The Bucks have changed under Mike Budenholzer, but I think there are holes to exploit there. All these teams, though, expose Philly's lack of athleticism beyond their top three. The Sixers really need to get some more athletes (or more accurately, defenders) in the rotation.

I wish I could tell you, or that I could ask this to Brett Brown after practice without him thinking I'm a complete jackass. But we see very little of practice. Guys are either heading to the weight room, showering, or getting shots up when we are allowed in, not actually playing.

I'm now imagining Marc Zumoff announcing a Sixers practice and losing his mind over turnover 18 of a scrimmage, though, so thanks for that.

When you're playing at an MVP level, it's hard for anyone to tell you to spend more time on the bench. So it goes.

Still, as I wrote on Friday, I think this has been one of the biggest failings from Brett Brown this season. The Sixers have to be far more proactive to protect their franchise center, regardless of how well he's playing.

While noting this is always subject to change, based on trades, development, etc., I think it looks like this from a playoff perspective:

  1. Toronto — This is clearly the best team in the East. I said it before the season, but without LeBron James in the conference to torture the Raptors, I thought far too many people were penciling in the Celtics as locks for the Finals. They have great high-end talent, great depth, and a killer homecourt advantage. Not to be trifled with.
  2. Boston — Yes, I still ultimately believe the Celtics are up here, slow start aside. No idea what Gordon Hayward is from this point forward and I think their role players are worse than they looked in the playoffs last season, but they will be a tough out again this year.
  3. Philadelphia and Milwaukee — Both have flaws, both have transcendent talents, both lack sturdy playoff resumes. Plenty of room to grow for each team, which should put both of Toronto and Boston on notice.

I don't think most of the other teams really matter, honestly. Indiana is good-ish and Victor Oladipo is awesome, but I don't think they're a serious threat. Once you get past them, ultimately most of these teams are forgettable.

With Butler, the Sixers are much closer to challenging Toronto and Boston than they were before, but they have to actually prove that's true. The game isn't played on paper.

Gotta be Markelle Fultz, dire as the situation seems right now. Pasecniks doesn't come up in a lot of Sixers conversations, and when he does it's as part of the question, "Why did they trade up to draft him over Josh Hart or Kyle Kuzma?"

I think Chandler has been mostly fine, if a little overextended. Ideally, he would be coming off of the bench and giving them a bit more scoring punch, making way for a better option in the starting five.

As far as fits go, though, I like him. He can take whatever matchups the Sixers don't want to expose Simmons to early on, like Blake Griffin in Friday night's game, and he can still do a credible job when he is asked to guard smaller players.

They should be trying to get more guys like Chandler, albeit younger versions.

And to close on a lighter note...

I may not have been rocking the shooting sleeve because I am not exactly Ray Allen, but best believe I was rockin' the Iverson kicks at all times.

Ball is life, homies.


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