More Sports:

April 19, 2019

Mailbag: Have the Sixers already transformed into villains?

Sixers NBA

Just a couple short years ago, Joel Embiid was an exciting young talent who the basketball world was excited to watch go to work. In these playoffs, he's the guy who leveled Jarrett Allen with an elbow to the jaw and has turned off a segment of the basketball universe with his theatrics. How did he and the Sixers get here?

That's the cost of winning, to some extent. The Sixers are no longer the plucky young team that's just happy to be here, they're a team with real-deal expectations that are expected to dispose of the up-and-comers of the world. With great power comes great responsibility, or something like that.

The Sixers seem to be coming into their own in these playoffs, so a lot of the chatter in this week's Sixers mailbag is about things other than the current series against Brooklyn. And that's quite alright with me — the people ask and I answer, so here are some thoughts on your questions from this week.

I think the Butler at point guard wrinkle is something the Sixers are going to stick with predominantly when the backups are on the floor, though this turned out to be a pretty prophetic question. We saw Butler play long stretches of Game 3 with the ball in his hands.

I don't know if you're going to see Brown turn over point guard duties over to Butler entirely, both because it's asking a lot of him and it can be challenging to get Simmons involved if he doesn't have the ball in his hands.

In any case, removing T.J. McConnell from the rotation gives the Sixers size and athleticism advantages all over the floor. Boban Marjanovic is still going to have a tough time defending Brooklyn in space, but the Sixers can send help defense and make rotations without feeling totally compromised at the end of the process. On offense, you simply have more shooting on the floor, which is a good thing no matter who is manning the post.

Having Butler initiate the offense is definitely something they can tinker with at times, and Brown allowed Butler to take the controls a lot in Game 3. Their success out of pick-and-roll sets showed what this team can do with all the assembled weaponry, and it's quite scary.

You can free Simmons to do some damage as a screener/roll man and put Butler into some looks he's comfortable in to provide variety in what you're running. I don't think that the labels are important, but the roles are, and Butler assuming backup point duties changes the complexion of the team.

Do they absolutely need him? I don't think so. The Sixers are a flawed and beatable team without Embiid protecting the rim, but they still have the Simmons-Butler-Harris trio, plus JJ Redick, and that should be enough to beat a team that was barely over .500 over the course of an 82-game season.

That being said, life is a hell of a lot easier when they have the big man. He's a stabilizing force on both ends of the floor — he puts out everyone else's fires on defense, and when the Sixers are spinning their wheels in the mud on offense, all they often need to do is lob it into Embiid on the block, where he will draw a foul or score on his man. No team can hold him down for 48 minutes, but the Nets are particularly poorly equipped to handle him on the interior.

The best thing for the team would be to win their next two games comprehensively, ending the series in five and earning some rest for Embiid during and after the games. Assuming the Raptors await in round two, the Sixers are going to need Embiid's absolute best.

The answer is very clearly Zhaire Smith, for me. Part of that is because we've seen exactly what the Jonathon Simmons experiment amounts to — none of the "veteran experience" traits you want from an older player, a lot of aimless excursions to the basket, and athleticism that is far from functional.

At least in the case of Smith, there's an unknown factor. That could cut either way, with Smith's inexperience a risk to put on the floor in a playoff game. But if Simmons is missing rotations and not helping on offense, there's really no argument to play him over the guy who is considerably more important to the future of the program.

I would imagine that either option is unlikely as long as James Ennis is healthy. A starting five of Simmons-Redick-Butler-Harris-Embiid and a bench of Ennis-Boban-Scott with a hint of Jonah Bolden already puts you at nine guys. Brown has already said he wants a shorter rotation, not a longer one, so I think both are on the outside looking in barring a health concern or a need to switch the team dynamic.

Let's call this a 5/10. On the one hand, it is a 10/10 not having to ask a million questions about a kid who isn't playing, knowing you're going to receive almost nothing concrete in return and catch heat from a portion of the fanbase for asking about him at all. It was a weird dynamic — the interest level was extremely high if you're judging on the questions I received on him vs. other topics, and the numbers on stories centered around him said all that needed to be said. But there is and was a sizable part of the fanbase that thought the media should just table all Fultz talk in perpetuity.

On the other hand, Markelle was a nice kid who I was pulling for as a person — these guys are human beings first and basketball players second, and I think that gets lost at times — and I think it would have been great if he had been able to turn things around and become the player everyone believed he could be when he was drafted.

I don't tend to comment on stories from other reporters if I don't have anything nice to say out of professional courtesy. No one gets everything right — it was sworn up and down to me by people I trust that Philly didn't have a lot of interest in Jimmy Butler in the fall, and look how that turned out.

But when a report is riddled with errors that conflict with previously reported details from reliable reporters, it's hard to take the content of your story seriously. I'll leave it at that.

I'll address the first question here. Kemba Walker is a guy who seems great in theory and is a very good player, but I think there's a chance he's more fun in theory than he is in practice for the Sixers.

For one, you would be investing a lot of money in a guy who has to defend point guards and has never had a whole lot of success doing so. Right now, the Sixers struggle to defend opposing point guards, but there is something to be said about being able to throw different solutions at the problem between Simmons and Butler. Walker doesn't have the size to switch onto different matchups, and if his leaky defense at the point proves not to be good enough, you don't have a lot of methods to fix the problem without benching or moving Walker.

(By the way, this is a playoff problem, maybe not a regular season one. You could hide Walker against a lot of teams, but this is a team whose sight line is higher than a midseason game against the Memphis Grizzlies.)

Offensively, yes, Walker would probably solve some problems. He's a more willing shooter than Butler, and on top of all the stylistic benefits, he's one of the most entertaining players to watch in the league. Fans would fall in love with him.

But while Walker is a bit younger than Butler, he turns 29 in May, and small-ish guards tend to age like milk. The hope would be that you could get high-level production out of him through his age-32 season, but that's not a given either. If the Sixers are going to shake up the top of their roster again, I think it needs to be for a clearer upgrade, a la Kevin Durant.

This is something I've thought about a lot recently. I don't know if they're quite in villain territory yet only because they haven't accomplished enough — you don't draw the ire of the league as a whole until you're good enough to pose a threat to every fanbase in the league. 

But they are very clearly on the path toward becoming villains, and I think they are going to be a team other people love to hate for a long time if they keep this group together.

Let's start with "The Process," which for some reason is still being debated today despite the Sixers being in the middle of their most successful period since the mid-'80s. There are people who will take any failure from Philly to grandstand about how they were built, making them divisive before we even get to the product on the court. 

(This very playoff series has been framed as a battle between two teams who skinned their cats different ways, with Brooklyn's no-pick rebuild being used as a straw man to counter Philadelphia's pick-heavy rebuild. Spoiler alert: no one ever said you needed to draft high in the lottery year after year to win 42 games and lose in the first round. And besides, their best player is a former No. 2 overall pick who the Nets acquired cheaply only because they were dealing with a clown car of a franchise in trade talks. Get off my lawn, and so forth.)

Consider how annoyed you would be by Embiid's (hilarious, in my opinion) trolling if you were a fan of one of the teams he has tortured over the last couple years. Consider how easy a target Simmons is, between the limitations in his game and the dating connections he has to a family a lot of people love to hate. Sprinkle in Butler's prickly personality and longstanding rivalries with some of the league's strongest fanbases, and you see where I'm going with this.

If not for the bromance between Tobias Harris and Boban Marjanovic, they might be even worse off with neutral fans.

It's a big-market franchise that plays on national TV all the time, so of course there's going to be a portion of NBA fans who just don't like their act. It doesn't help that some of their biggest roadblocks are beloved by neutrals — Giannis Antetokounmpo might be one of the most beloved players in the league, and he's shaping up to be the conference's best player over the long-term.

Ultimately, this is a good thing. It's much better to be good enough to be hated than too irrelevant for anyone to care about you. But they can't be true villians until they go deeper in the playoffs than the second round.

Far as I can tell, we are still waiting for it. Sad.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports