January 09, 2019
It's hard to believe we are already here, but the Sixers have reached the official halfway point of the season. At 27-14, they are on pace for a 54-win season, which would represent another improvement after last year's torrid finish to reach 52 wins. The route they've taken to get here has been frustrating at times, but they're basically on schedule.
Before the Sixers enter the toughest part of their schedule — a 10-game stretch from mid-January through mid-February that features matchups with a handful of the league's best teams — it feels appropriate to look back at the first half that was. The Sixers have an MVP candidate, a pair of potential All-Stars behind him, and a cast of suspect characters beyond them that will probably decide the team's playoff fate.
A note on these grades/evaluations before we get started: these players are not being graded on the same scale, obviously. I have different standards for Joel Embiid than I do Mike Muscala, just as I do for Markelle Fultz and T.J. McConnell. You may disagree with that and may disagree with the grades in any case, and if you do, I suggest you decide on your own scale and we can compare notes later.
Embiid is a legit candidate for MVP this season, and his case will basically only be as strong as his team's record allows it to be. The Sixers dominate teams when he is on the floor, and his numbers are at career highs across the board.
Needs to improve: Three-point shooting. Brett Brown is not going to stop asking him to stretch out to the three-point line, and he should be better than 30.2 percent from deep. The big man has touch, and I believe his numbers will improve over time, if not this season.
This will irritate the people who are upset that Simmons didn't come back with a jump shot, and I hear you. But Simmons is getting to the line more, finishing better, and remains an all-around force for the Sixers. Defensively, he has been one of the only players propping up a limited group, even if I believe he has another level to hit.
Needs to improve: Shooting. Do I need to elaborate much more? Simmons' jumper is the key to unlocking another gear for this team.
Butler kicked in the door (in a good way) when he arrived in Philly, knocking down a pair of game-winners and showing why the team gave up two key players for him. But while Sixers fans (and Butler, and Brown) have tried to dismiss the reports about behind-the-scenes drama, the recent report is not a case of one isolated incident. All Butler had to do is keep a low profile for six months and the Sixers were going to lock him up for $190 million with no hesitation. Turns out, he and the team couldn't get through two of them without a national report circulating.
Needs to improve: Approach. Butler has been tremendous for Philly on the court. He needs to prove he has learned something from his first two flameouts in Chicago and Minnesota.
Redick started out slow (by his standards) from deep, but he dominated on mid-range jumpers while the three-point stroke came along. With Redick rolling in recent weeks, the Sixers look like they could get even scarier on offense down the stretch.
Needs to improve: Defense. Redick's margin for error as a defender is slim at this point in his career, and the Sixers need him to master their altered scheme before the playoffs come. He'll be hunted no matter what, the key is minimizing the damage and flexing his muscles on offense.
A nagging injury to start the season kept Chandler on the shelf, and he has been a low volume, middling-efficiency player in the 26 games he has appeared in. Chandler has had enough moments, including a big performance on Christmas, to suggest he can help when the playoffs come.
Needs to improve: Circumstances. Through no fault of his own, Chandler has been thrust into the starting lineup and into too many minutes. Philadelphia needs a stronger fifth starter so that they can use Chandler to beef up the bench, as originally intended. Don't discount the impact of having him around though — Philly's quartet of Embiid-Butler-Simmons-Redick is 12 points worse per 100 possessions when Chandler is removed from the group.
Muscala's ability to play competent minutes at both the four and five spots has been his biggest asset this season. With Amir Johnson sliding into oblivion, the Sixers badly needed another option to spell Embiid, and Muscala has done that on top of playing alongside him. Playing Muscala at center in bench lineups has added some floor spacing that has allowed Butler and Simmons to best do their thing.
Needs to improve: Shooting. Muscala is shooting just over 33 percent from three this season despite many of his attempts coming on wide-open looks. They need him to be a more reliable option there, regardless of what position he's playing.
Shamet has stepped right into a role as "mini JJ," mirroring what Redick does with the starting group. With the rookie shooting just under 40 percent from three on 4.6 attempts per game, he has been more than the Sixers could have hoped for when they selected him last June.
Needs to improve: Defense. Shamet still needs to put on weight and improve his strength so that he stops getting pushed off his spots. This probably won't happen this season, but he competes hard and puts in the time, so long-term he should be okay.
McConnell looked to be on the outside looking in before the season, but as he has in the past, he somehow found his way back to the rotation. Philadelphia's offense has hummed with McConnell on the floor — they're scoring 112.8 points per 100 (non-garbage time) possessions with him on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass, and they are better in free-throw-rate, turnover percentage, and effective field goal percentage with McConnell on the floor than off.
Needs to improve: Defense. This seems antithetical given McConnell's reputation, but the Sixers are in the 39th percentile in defensive efficiency with McConnell on the floor. With the league flooded with switchable wing types who can handle, a one-position defender like McConnell struggles to make an impact there. A three-point shot would help the Sixers a great deal, but defense will make or break his playoff contributions.
Father Time appears to have caught up to Johnson, whose lost step has been especially painful for a big man with a defensive calling card. His minutes have all but dried up, and probably aren't coming back as long as everyone else is healthy.
Needs to improve: Problem-solving. With Johnson relegated to the bench, the Sixers need his presence in the locker room (which is decidedly great) more than ever. Get out there and keep things under control, O.G.
You have to throw out a lot of the numbers to see Korkmaz's value this year — his gunning in garbage time has depressed his percentages across the board. But Cleaning the Glass, which throws out numbers from garbage time, has him shooting 37.7 percent from three. That feels like a more accurate representation of what he has offered Philly from deep when playing with their normal rotation.
Needs to improve: Defense. Apply everything said above about Landry Shamet to Korkmaz. Difference is, the Sixers probably won't have Korkmaz around beyond this year to see where he goes.
Bolden has been a weapon on defense when Brown has used him next to Embiid, offering the "violence at the rim" the Sixers have often missed. Getting more minutes is the key for Bolden, but he has impressed after being given a chance to join the rotation on their road trip out west.
Needs to improve: Shooting. Bolden hasn't been able to hit the broad side of a barn from deep so far (he's 3/21 on the season), and the Sixers really need him to get going if they want to continue playing him next to Embiid.
He has embraced his role as the new leader of the Frosty Freeze Out crew, and while he's not dominating as he has in the G-League, "Sniper Shake" has lived up to his Twitter handle, knocking down 46.7 percent of his looks from deep.
Needs to improve: Defense. Milton doesn't have the same problems as Shamet and Korkmaz, but his instincts aren't great there and he has looked a little out of his depth when inserted in the rotation. There have been a few flashes, too, so more time and studying could be the solution to his problems.
The guy played in garbage time in one game, so he sits out of this round.
Needs to improve: N/A.
I could have gone lower or higher, but this felt like a good compromise. Was he a victim of circumstance? Yes. Did he flash some serious skills in minutes where he got to run the show by himself? Certainly. But Fultz hasn't taken a three-point attempt (non-heave edition) since late October, stifled the starting lineup that otherwise crushed without him, and disappeared in somewhat dubious circumstances after being benched for McConnell, later being diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome.
Needs to improve: His shot. Everything for Fultz starts with the oft-scrutinized jumper, the key to unlocking his upside and his place within this Sixers team. We'll have to wait and see if this latest round of physical therapy is finally the fix he needs.
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