More Sports:

December 04, 2019

Assessing the Sixers at the quarter mark of the season

Sixers NBA
11_Brett_Brown_Sixers_Bench_76ersvsCeltics_KateFrese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Head coach Brett Brown talks to Sixers players on the bench.

If you can believe it, the Sixers are already over a quarter of the way through the 2019-20 NBA season, slowly marching toward their goal of a championship. The games have piled up fast and furious, with their opening night win over the Boston Celtics feeling like it happened in approximately 1993.

So what do we actually know about this team in early December? That depends on who you ask. The head coach is waiting until Christmas to make any bold proclamations about his team's offense, and there are certainly portions of the fanbase who stuck the fork in this team already, disappointed their young stars didn't come back with more noticeable improvements.

Let's take a look at some of the more important trends and developments from that early stretch, and I'll leave it up to you to determine which of these matter most.

Good: Joel Embiid is better vs. double teams than ever

Perhaps Embiid did not make a massive leap forward over the offseason, or add an extra trick in his bag to show he'd been working all summer. But his one major improvement is the most important step forward he could have taken on offense.

He has never been sharper while handling the ball on the low block. The team is spacing the floor well around Embiid, and he has minimized his fumbles by simplifying the game and making reads quickly.

In many cases, the ball is flying out of his hands before the help defense even arrives, putting opponents in a terrible position to try to stop the ensuing three-point attempts on kickouts. Brett Brown loves what he has seen from his star pupil, and believes the blueprint moving forward dates back to a style played by teams all over the league during his Spurs days.

"We called it open to dig to blitz," Brown said. "The guy at the nail was open, [Andrew] Bynum, [Tim] Duncan, they put it to the floor, and you probably went and got it, or with Amare [Stoudemire] you had to go on the catch, he was too quick. But it was coming from the top, and then it was like clockwork. Think of how many threes Bruce Bowen made in the corner, swing, swing, whack, three-ball corner. And so that's the thing going on now with Jo. Although it doesn't feature in, look at all the assists Joel has got, he has been the instigator of the first pass."

Bad: The turnover problem

Yes, the Sixers still rank near the top of the leaderboard in turnovers. It is a symptom of how they play. Sharing the basketball and taking care of the basketball doesn't always go hand in hand, and Brett Brown's teams prioritize ball movement over safety.

The head coach's No. 1 offensive concern right now is everything related to how they play in the post, and the turnovers often stem from there.

"Post feeds, as it relates to turnovers and recognitions of high lows, angle of pass and getting people off you. To sort of go back to fifth grade where you fake a pass to make a pass," Brown said. "What's the spacing behind it? Everything to do with, oh they're fronting the post, bam, immediate reaction to high-low's everything to do with the post."

The good news is the Sixers have cut back on the problem in recent weeks, dropping down to 26th in turnovers per game after pacing the league to begin the season. Time and time again, players have expressed a belief that time will heal some of the obvious wounds, and other turnovers the team will just have to live with. That seems to be backed up by their progress.

Brown believes there are fixable fundamentals in some spots — the league has been harsh on travel calls as a point of emphasis to begin the year — and they will live with some offensive foul calls in their quest to play bully ball. Not every turnover should be created equally.

Good: Their starting five has been absolutely elite

For the third consecutive season, Philadelphia's full starting five has been one of the best groupings in the entire league. Of five-man lineups that have played at least 100 minutes together, they are second-best by the numbers, and they're keeping good company:

(Stats current as of 12/02)

 MIL — Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, Wesley Matthews,
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez
 PHL — Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, 
Al Horford, Joel Embiid
MIA — Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson, Jimmy Butler
Meyers Leonard, Bam Adebayo
 HOU — Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Daniel House,
P.J. Tucker, Clint Capela
 UTA — Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Royce O'Neal,
Bojan Bogdanovic, Rudy Gobert

The defensive mark is not just the best rating within that select group, it is the best defensive mark for any five-man lineup that has played 100 or more minutes together this season. Bring the number down to 50 minutes, inviting more variance, and the Sixers are still the top defensive dog on the block. It is a great harbinger for the postseason when rotations will shrink and the success of the starting group will matter more than ever.

Are those numbers a bit inflated by the ass-kicking they laid on the Miami Heat? Certainly, and the Sixers have not exactly played a murderer's row of teams with their full starting five. The real tests on the schedule are ahead of them. This group can defend, though, and they've been able to do it even while missing multiple members of the starting lineup at a time. 

Bad: The offense is built around an aging style. Can it work in the playoffs?

The Sixers are leading the NBA in post-ups by a good margin. Brett Brown is not blind to that fact, nor is he running away from what he sees as the team's identity.

"What I would ask, not to be a smart ass," Brown said before Monday's game vs. Utah, "is when you look at the team, who are we? When you say who are the people that, oh he's a really good isolation, live ball guy? Or you say, he's a really good pick-and-roll player, or look at the abundance of guys they can have flying off pin-downs like JJ [Redick]? You start trying to shape the team according to the strengths of the team, and I believe I see the world correctly."

"You get Tobias [Harris] with a three-man, you get Al [Horford] with [Bojan] Bogdanovic, Joel Embiid is Joel Embiid. Ben Simmons is a 6-foot-10 point guard that probably has someone smaller on him. Might you get tricked because it's 20-almost-20 and you better find ways to hunt threes and it's deeper than a long two, bully ball thing. But you just can't make stuff up and click your heels and change your team."

Those are fair points. NBA teams have gone away from post-ups for a bunch of reasons, mostly because there aren't a lot of guys coming into the league built to play that way. The Sixers have quite a few players who can attack mismatches through post-ups.

But it's still a sub-optimal style. With smaller and quicker players on the floor, teams can swarm players from the weak side and create turnovers easier than they can with other play types, and it's a physically taxing style to play. Embiid is great at these, but his body also has to hold up deep into May and June for this team to win a title. And by the way, the Sixers aren't exactly dominating on non-Embiid post-ups. Ben Simmons is averaging a ghastly 0.61 points per possession on these plays, which represent 15.5 percent of his offensive possessions.

You could point out the problem for Philadelphia by just reading Brown's answer back to him. Who are the people you'd say are really good live-ball players? Who's a really good pick-and-roll guy? The Sixers are folding more of those sets into their offense using Harris and Richardson, but can they add enough, and are they efficient enough in those looks to score in the playoffs?

There is no Jimmy Butler to save them if Simmons can't initiate offense in the playoffs. Something must give before the regular season is over, whether it's Simmons shooting more corner threes or a deadline acquisition coming in to add some creative ability. An obvious answer does not exist.

Good: The Sixers are forcing more turnovers than ever

The Sixers had an assortment of problems on defense last season, none more infuriating than their tendency to get cooked by scoring guards. But there was a bigger problem lurking beneath the surface — they weren't making teams feel uncomfortable or forcing turnovers on defense, ranking 27th in opponent turnovers and 19th in steals per game.

This season, the Sixers sit second in steals per game and 15th in opponent turnovers, and it's the former number that really jumps out. It wasn't just that the Sixers ranked low in steals last season, they played a fairly passive brand of defense all over the floor. Gambles in passing lanes were at a minimum, and their approach in the pick-and-roll was roughly the same every time down the floor. 

Predictability is a double-edged sword. It's a way to minimize miscommunications and botched assignments, but it comes at the cost of other teams knowing what you'll do each time down the floor. With a more stable core in place this season, the Sixers have been able to experiment with different approaches vs. different ballhandlers, showing and blitzing against pick-and-rolls more than they have in years.

The Sixers are also toying with zone looks in short bursts, much to my own personal chagrin, building some different options into the defense they could need in specific matchups down the road. Add in a respected defensive assistant in Ime Udoka and the infusion of some defensive talent in the starting lineup and on the bench, and you have the recipe for a leap. They have struggled to score at times, but they can certainly get stops.

Bad: The Sixers don't have "The Look"  

This is a more nebulous claim than all that came before it. The Sixers are a team still finding their sea legs, and the head coach has admitted Christmas is when he'll really start to worry if they aren't cleaning some things up. The Sixers are currently on pace to win 58+ games, which would be their best regular season since Charles Barkley's rookie year.

Does this feel like a team that can win a title though? I would argue no. That was my assessment before any games were played, so I may be hanging onto prior evaluations too much, but they haven't done much to shake my fears about their team construction.

If you look at a team like the Milwaukee Bucks, that is what I expect a title threat to look like. When they play bad teams, they beat the absolute crap out of them, and they have an assortment of wins over good teams to boot. There is very little screwing around for that group, driven by the reigning MVP having another kickass season. They have the league's best defense and the second-best offense by the numbers.

The Sixers are nearly as good as advertised on defense, but their offense is basically the same as a pedestrian team like the Durant-less Brooklyn Nets. This haunts them nearly every game, whether it leads to a big comeback from a good team or forces them to climb out of a hole against a bad one. A well-oiled machine they are not.

There comes a point in every championship winner's title run where you first start to feel the belief that they can win it all. Not the wave of optimism generated by an offseason and a fresh start, the kind of hope inspired by tangible results. When you feel it, the "If they can just..." hypotheticals fade into the background, replaced by a belief they are destined to win it all.

Perhaps that day will arrive in the months to come. A statement win on Christmas would go a long way. Until then, there are too many ifs, ands, or buts. 

Good: They aren't the Eagles

And let's hope it stays that way.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports

Subscribe to Kyle's Sixers podcast "The New Slant" on Apple, Google, and Spotify