November 12, 2022
Waking up each day covering the Sixers this year feels relatively similar. Their losses are met with nuclear anger from a fanbase that has long been promised a title contender, with resurgent seasons from the Eagles and Phillies adding fuel to the fire. Many people have checked out of the basketball experience entirely, but those who remain are charged up, in search of retribution or at least a sliver of improvement from the local basketball team.
I thought we should go through some of the recent concerns plaguing the team and spotlight which ones actually matter.
The 2022-23 Sixers are not winning anything of consequence if James Harden is out of the lineup. They might put together some good regular season stretches as they did before he arrived last year, but they don't have the creative juice to do much of anything if Harden isn't healthy come playoff time. Tyrese Maxey has been bad without Harden alongside him this year, but he has been quite alright without him in the past. Shooting slumps happen for everybody.
This has been a big discussion point for some reporters and fans on social media, but I simply do not care much about this.
News flash: the Sixers are going to run their offense through Joel Embiid, James Harden, and Tyrese Maxey for the vast majority of the game. When healthy, one of those three (and often 2/3) will be on the floor at all times, controlling every possession. A traditional sixth man really doesn't have a lot of utility or value within that context.
Without Harden, yes, I would agree they don't have good enough guard play, but few teams are losing a guy like Harden while still having proper reinforcements at guard.
There's really only one offseason acquisition I think you could say is a rousing success for the Sixers so far. De'Anthony Melton has had his hiccups, but at least he has consistently given Philadelphia something on the defensive end.
The big concern is P.J. Tucker, on the most expensive contract of the group and in the most prominent role out of the new arrivals. On the offensive end, I don't think there's much more you should expect out of the guy — he's making nearly 46 percent of his threes on low shot volume, matching his offensive rebound average from last year in Miami, and setting some absolutely brutal screens on guys. But the other side has been something close to a disaster relative to expectations. Tucker looking a bit slow in space may not be reason to panic just yet, but he has combined that with some of the worst decision-making I've seen from him in his career. He's not the only guy who has done something as foolish as help away from a shooter in the strong-side corner, but he's the guy who was brought here because he doesn't do silly things like that. Watching Tucker slow down physically and make bad mental mistakes is frankly bizarre if you've spent any amount of time watching him play.
The Sixers do not seem inclined to adjust his role, which leaves them in a weird spot defending most teams. Neither of their forwards is built to handle quicker wings at this point, and those responsibilities certainly can't be passed off to the likes of James Harden and Tyrese Maxey. The shame of all of this is that Tobias Harris has actually become the guy on offense most people wanted him to be, a volume shooter making nearly 42 percent of his threes. Harris and Tucker in specialized roles on offense actually makes perfect sense around the Embiid/Harden/Maxey trio, opening the floor for their more dangerous players to attack in space. But it's hard to get it all to work on defense, both because of team speed and the unfamiliarity factor.
Danuel House Jr. had an even rougher start to his Sixers tenure, leading to calls for the return of Matisse Thybulle to the lineup. After a summer filled with praise for Thybulle's unseen work, we've witnessed the same old story on offense, Thybulle shooting worse (and less often) than ever while playing the same boom-or-bust defense that can leave you in awe right before he commits the single-dumbest foul you think you've ever seen. Go further down the bench, and you have guys who at this point are really best served as potential salary-matching pieces in trades.
I'd like to see this play out over time before naming it the most important problem, but it's also only in the moderate category because this is something they can change if push comes to shove. They might not move out their depth pieces for anything thrilling in return, but role players on small-ish deals can basically always be moved if you make enough phone calls.
On top of that, the Sixers could easily just decide that Tucker doesn't warrant a closing spot and slide Melton in with the top group. That wouldn't feel good after inking Tucker to a sizable deal in the offseason, but there are worse outcomes than elevating a young, athletic guy into the lineup and asking a vet to play an important bench role after you paid him more than any team ever has previously.
The thing no one really discusses that is arguably more important: Philadelphia starts from a place where you basically know two defensive liabilities will be on the floor for every important minute they play. Harden and Maxey have very different problems, the former comically apathetic and the latter susceptible to being attacked by basically anyone with a size and strength advantage. Working around both problems concurrently requires laser precision from everybody else. Perhaps the offense will be good enough to step around it. I'm not entirely convinced.
To the big man's credit, the Sixers have looked like a better unit on defense recently, primarily because the guy tasked with leading them decided to start taking his responsibilities seriously. And let's try to make this as clear as possible — Embiid-centric things might be "problems," but he's still far and away their best player and the primary reason they are relevant.
With that said, it's his central role in the team that makes it harder to divorce his errors, his limitations, and his issues from their overall product. If the Sixers turn the ball over too much, it's often because he's turning the ball over too much. If their defense is uninspired, it's often because he is playing lethargic defense. As Embiid goes, so go the Sixers. Though his lows are not as frequent as they used to be during the regular season, they still have a noticeable impact on the group.
You simply can't dismiss Embiid's impact during the tough times if he's (rightfully) labeled the driving force during their best times. He is too good at basketball and too smart to do some of the things he does on the floor. Watching him try to dribble through three guys in transition while flanked by multiple ball-handlers with a better shot to make a play is infuriating. It's maddening precisely because of how easy it is for him to make the simple play and improve their chances to score. The reason so many people doubted his ability to pair with James Harden in a pick-and-roll heavy attack is due in part to the lack of ball-handlers he has played with, but also because he was not an especially willing roller prior to Harden's arrival, creating additional doubt that he was capable because of how little we saw him in those actions.
Viewing things through his eyes, it's not all that shocking that Embiid still has many of the same quirks he did in his early days. He has earned every last dollar coming his way from the Sixers and Under Armour and everybody else throwing sponsorship dollars at him. But those reinforcements of belief can harden a man's perspective. "If who I've been and what I've done to get here have been enough," the thinking goes, "the onus to change is on the people around me."
Frankly, it has only been recently that the team has made efforts to build around Embiid specifically, and with so many of their previous moves connected to Ben Simmons' presence, Embiid is entitled (to a certain extent) to desire more shifting and maneuvering around him to best suit his talents. That doesn't excuse him from his duties as the leader of a franchise, or make his limitations any less impactful in his/their pursuit of a championship. Apex Embiid is as good as any player in the NBA, one of a select few guys who can control a game at both ends of the floor and dismantle a team's strategy while hardly moving. He is a player capable of winning a game with rebounding, rim protection, and communication even if he is 0/15 from the field. But it has been an all-or-nothing affair too often, hot shooting and hellacious defense or sloth-like efforts on cold shooting nights.
I'm not looking to saddle Embiid with all the ills of an organization that has struggled to get out of its own way over the years. But we are now in Year 7 for Embiid, the ninth season since he was drafted. There have been some good teams, even very good teams, put together here with him as the face of the group basically always. There have absolutely been times when the group has failed him more than the other way around. But when there are still holdover problems from past versions of this team, we are past the point of putting the responsibility all on somebody else, acting as if Saint Embiid is blameless in the exercise. You can't blame Brett Brown because Embiid currently has more turnovers than assists.
Embiid's game has grown by leaps and bounds, a testament to the work he has put in as he has risen from an unpolished gem to a genuine superstar. But the longer we go with him falling victim to self-inflicted wounds, the more doubt builds about whether he has what it takes to be the guy he must be to lead this franchise to a title.
The premise of this team has long been that Embiid's maturation is what will eventually push them out of the second-round muck and toward their shiny goal. That may still indeed be the case. But there's also a reality where Embiid, like many other big-name stars who came before him, ultimately lives on as a reference point below the history-altering stars of his era. The choices he makes every day and every year moving forward will ultimately help determine that. Nobody has a bigger say in their future than he does.
Let's get a couple of broad ideas out of the way first:
We are all seeing the same things play out on the floor, however. Do I think Doc Rivers deserves all the blame for the rough start in Philly? Absolutely not. Are some of their issues a direct reflection of the job he's doing? Yes.
A play that stood out to me in real time, which was thankfully clipped by Steph Noh of the Sporting News, was this abomination late in the second quarter against Atlanta on Thursday:
Off a made FT, the Sixers:— Steph Noh (@StephNoh) November 11, 2022
-Don't cross halfcourt until 17 on the clock
-Ball doesn't break the 3-point line until 2 on the clock
-Tucker & asst. coach yelling that the play's not being run right
-Maxey & House disappear off the broadcast
-Sixers still give up a transition dunk. pic.twitter.com/RQVo5jfo3n
Part of what jumps out here is what Rivers isn't doing relative to assistant Sam Cassell, who is a picture of energy in comparison. With the play clearly falling apart and two different people he's responsible for losing their minds over it, Rivers is just sort of there, staring at it all as if a passenger in the experience.
This is just one play, and a coach's demeanor does not have to mean anything. In fact, it often means less than nothing, particularly in the regular season. Rivers can't go out and run a set himself or just scream his head off every play without the entire team tuning him out. Navigating an 82-game season plus the playoffs requires knowing when to ring an alarm and when to let your guys work through growing pains without dressing somebody down. Letting a guy like Tucker or Cassell be forceful for you is an actual strategy, sort of a basketball "good cop, bad cop" dynamic.
That said, we have established by watching this group play that this isn't going to be a hands-off exercise for whoever is leading the team. It's a group that's going to require tinkering, experimentation, and frankly, some hard decisions based on how guys bounce back (or don't) in the months to come. If P.J. Tucker starts looking more like the guy they thought they were getting? No sweat. But preparation has to be done now in case that return to form never comes, and they're saddled with an aging player who is marching toward the end. Not doing so is how you end up in a situation where the team drafts guys who can't get much run in Philly and then immediately produce given an opportunity elsewhere.
Charles Bassey is the second player in NBA history to have 14 rebounds, 4 blocks and 4 assists in less than 20 minutes played and the first player in league history to do it off the bench 👏 pic.twitter.com/i6qku6YVKX— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) November 12, 2022
If we're of the opinion that they need a proactive coach willing to mix it up and try new things, that clearly does not fit Rivers' description. His teams look fantastic when Plan A works, and we've even seen that in small bursts this season. Philadelphia targeted very specific weaknesses in the Phoenix Suns earlier this week, pushing them toward a victory with a combination of the gameplan, execution, and the returning talent of Embiid. But generally, the original plan is as far as they get, and that bleeds into how they do things as simple as setting up the rotation. Rivers wants to bet on known quantities. It has been his downfall at other stops, and it has contributed to Philadelphia falling short in the last couple of years. Rolling the ball out and letting the Harden/Embiid combo figure it out offensively is probably a fine enough strategy. Right now, they need more than that.
Here's another reason I put this at the top of the heap — barring a true free fall, I am not convinced the Sixers are going to move on from Rivers. In fact, conversations I've had with people about the state of the team suggest they view this as a group problem to be solved, rather than an issue to pin on Rivers. The front office is aware the offseason acquisitions (save for Melton) have underwhelmed, and that Rivers only owns his share of the responsibility. There are secondary, self-serving reasons for that too, but ultimately what matters is that this group appears prepared to stay with what they have unless things get even uglier.
Since I believe Rivers is here for the long haul until hearing otherwise, we're not just judging him for what he's doing right now, but what we expect him to do and how prepared we can expect the team to be for the playoffs. I don't need to put his resume in big, neon letters for anyone here to remember the heartbreak and failure he has overseen at this point.
I think Rivers has good qualities that can be overlooked, and I think the Phillies going on an absurd run after firing Joe Girardi has blinded most people to the fact that most midseason coaching changes don't come anywhere close to that standard. Hell, let's look at a similar example from Daryl Morey's own history: Houston fired Kevin McHale 11 games into the 2015-16 season after going on a Western Conference Finals run a year prior. They finished an even 41-41 and barely made the playoffs, kicked out of the club by the Golden State Warriors in the first round.
But you can't ignore what's in front of you. I think we can all agree this group needs help. We will see if they get it.
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