December 24, 2017
The Sixers' long December slump has taken what looked to be a really fun Sixers season and forced everyone to reassess what they believe this team is capable of doing. Joel Embiid's return against the Raptors was a nice surprise on Saturday evening, but it didn't do a whole lot to stop Toronto from running away with the game in the second half of a 102-86 victory.
At 14-18, the Sixers are firmly outside of the playoff picture for the time being, and they don't get a lot of time to think things over and adjust the gameplan. 2017 closes with a road trip that will take them out west, and after a couple games back in Philadelphia, the Sixers leave for a long excursion to London for a matchup with the Boston Celtics on January 11.
It's inherently possible this gets worse — or at least stays bad — before it gets better. And it all starts on the offensive side of the ball, where the Sixers have fallen off a cliff after looking much improved to start the season.
Their offensive ineptitude lately stems primarily from everyone's (least) favorite topic of conversation: turnovers. Philadelphia leads the league in coughing the ball up with an average of 18.4 turnovers per game, a number that has soared to 20 per game in December. You can't score if you never have a chance to attempt a shot to begin with.
One of the common arguments used to complain about turnovers is to point the finger at Brett Brown, which I think only holds weight to the extent that he has them playing at a fast pace. But pace is not a catch-all excuse for some of the mistakes Sixers players are making. One turnover stood out in Philadelphia's loss over Toronto: Robert Covington created a four-on-one with good defense on one end of the floor, and then made one of the worst passes I can remember a Sixers player making all season.
When Dario Saric said the Sixers sometimes need to focus on making ugly, gritty plays to win games, I don't think he was referring to any passes Covington tries to make. He's a one-read passer at best. But there's something to be taken from Saric's musing about just making the simple plays, and dumping the ball off to Jerryd Bayless on his right would have qualified there. It wouldn't bring Sixers fans any solace to watch Bayless take a three, but a shot attempt is significantly better than throwing the ball aimlessly out of bounds.
General instability has not helped the Sixers either. The obvious point of contention is Philadelphia's lack of health, which has forced Brett Brown to juggle rotations a lot more than he'd like to. A lack of continuity would hurt any team, particularly one relying so heavily on young players to make an impact.
The new additions aren't faring much better at cutting down on turnovers. Trevor Booker gave the ball away on a really simple play late in the second quarter, in a display of how little time he's had to embed into the lineup.
Let's stay on Booker for a second, or at least on a subject related to his presence.
I'm a big proponent of Booker as a piece of the rotation. But with the way he has been used so far in Philadelphia, I think there's a case to be made that his inclusion has had a knock-on effect that is hurting the team as a whole.
The problem with playing Booker in any lineup without Embiid in it is the Sixers are effectively putting two non-shooters on the frontcourt before you assemble any other part of the lineup. If he was being used in the small-ball five role that Saric has been used in at times, I think it'd be a lot easier to build effective offensive lineups with him in it. But when you put Amir Johnson and Booker on the floor with Simmons, the floor spacing shrinks tremendously, and it drags the whole thing down before you even start running plays.
We're dealing with a small sample size of seven games here, but there are a lot of troubling signs when Booker and Simmons share the floor in particular. Statistically, the Sixers are worse at turning the ball over, defensive rebounding, defending, shooting, and in fact almost everything aside from offensive rebounding when Booker and Simmons share the court together. In that seven games worth of data, they have a 98.6 ORTG, a mark that would be the worst in the league, and a 108.1 DRTG, which would be 26th in the league, per NBA.com.
Even when the offense works, it doesn't look as though it'll have a high degree of sustainability. Booker knocked in a hook shot while sharing the floor with Johnson and Simmons in the second quarter, but the spacing here is absolutely atrocious.
This is a problem you can place on both management and the coaching staff. I can understand wanting to get a proven contributor on the team, and Brown only has one real way to help him build continuity given how light their practice slate is. Still, the potential downside has already shown up in the stats and on the video, and at a certain point, you have to consider the domino effect this has on the lineup.
Booker isn't playing a ton, so this is small potatoes compared to some of the other issues. But the margins in many of these Sixers losses are tiny, and simply optimizing lineups with better-fitting pieces could be the difference between a close loss and a crunch-time win.
And let's throw this in there for good measure: Richaun Holmes has to play more, period. He only came in during garbage time of the second Toronto game, and while I don't think Johnson was the problem for Philadelphia in Saturday's game, Holmes has earned a chance at a bigger role than that.
The Sixers continue to find themselves in position to knock down open shots, and they simply can't capitalize. There is no reason to think they should abandon the three-point line, as I pointed out earlier in the week, but I don't blame you if you're getting tired of seeing the same guys miss perimeter shots when they need them most.
It seems nearly impossible that Bayless is shooting 36.8 percent from three this season, because it feels as though he's 0/150 on shots from deep when they actually matter. His tendency to shrink in the final frame reared its head again on Saturday night, with a brick from the corner ending a brief stretch where the Sixers looked like they could claw back into the game late.
Those sort of misses can be just as deflating as a defensive sequence where you force a late-clock heave and it goes in anyway. The Sixers did everything right, only for one of their designated shooters to miss the shortest three-point shot in basketball. On a 10-2 run leading up to that moment, the Sixers gave up points on the next two Toronto possessions, and they never threatened again.
As good as the Sixers might one day be, they don't have the luxury of wasting opportunities like these. They simply do not have a high enough margin for error to miss the easy looks, and they will inevitably come back to haunt them. This is applicable on a micro and macro level because when you take a look at the Eastern Conference playoff picture, there aren't as many walkovers as there once were throughout the conference. Surprise starts from teams like the Knicks and Pacers have crowded the playoff picture, which adds a sense of urgency to every single game the Sixers play.
It's not helping the Sixers that the guys who are getting open looks are the players opposing teams want to feel free to launch against them. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot has grown accustomed to getting all sorts of open looks from deep, and he has been nowhere near good enough there. There is a part of you that's glad he still rises up confidently when the opportunities present themselves, but at some point, results have to come. 26.3 percent from deep isn't going to get it done.
This is an area where Markelle Fultz's absence hurts the most. Even if Fultz wasn't as a good a shooter as he looked to be in college, his ability to create separation and score in isolation would have added another layer to the offense. There is a degree of offensive versatility in the young guard the other Sixers just don't have.
There have been a lot of suggestions to make wholesale changes or to abandon the three when you're not hitting shots. I don't agree with this, both because it's hard to make sweeping changes midseason and because they don't have the personnel to score otherwise. Outside of Simmons and Embiid, they have what is mostly a collection of below-the-rim players who can't dribble.
But they have to shoot better, period. They're shooting a perfectly average 35 percent from three for the year as a team, but that number has dropped to 32.5 percent in December. Their offensive rebounding has come down a touch in December as well, from 12.8 a game in November to 11.1 this month, so they're also not creating enough extra possessions to offset their slump from deep.
If you're looking for good news, friend, this isn't the post for you. The looming return of Fultz is huge for the Sixers medium and long-term, but it is not going to be easy for Brown and Fultz's teammates to juggle early on.
Embiid immediately being one of the most impactful players in the NBA last season has warped Philadelphia's expectations for what a rookie is capable of, with Simmons doing the same to a lesser extent this year. Fultz is going to take time to find his place in the rotation, and his return is going to cause that same uncertainty in the lineup that injuries and inconsistency have wreaked without him.
We have no idea what Fultz is going to bring on offense after the early-season weirdness clouded the perception of the No. 1 overall pick, and defensively he's likely going to be a negative for at least the rest of this year. That's just life in the NBA for the average rookie, particularly one who is going to carry a pretty significant offensive burden from the first minute he's back in the mix.
Accounting for all that will be the biggest test Brown has faced so far this year. Will he play Fultz through struggles and play the long game, or will he turn to a "steadier" option in TJ McConnell or Bayless when times get tough? Regardless of the choice, every guard whose role is attached to Fultz's availability will see their minutes and use change, and it will make their lives more difficult.
If you're the type of person who wants to hold out hope, there were signs of some great synergy between Fultz and Simmons when we got to see both guys play together. Fultz will take the ball out of Simmons' hands and ease the pressure on him, allowing him to work more off-the-ball and in the paint, where he is at his most comfortable. Having another guy who can get his teammates easy buckets — and score his own — will be huge for the Sixers.
But doing that with any regularity will take time. It will take a collective effort to get the Sixers out of this collective rut, and anyone expecting a rookie guard to step in and be a savior should prepare for a lot of bumps and bruises along the way.