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December 13, 2018

Sixers' struggles against Brooklyn Nets reflect big-picture concerns with their roster

I am not breaking any news when I tell you the Sixers have struggled with the Brooklyn Nets this season. They only split the away games in Brooklyn because Jimmy Butler hit a heroic shot in crunch time in the second meeting, and the 127-124 scoreline on Wednesday night flatters Philadelphia's performance more than it deserves.

The question worth asking, then, is why? How does an 11-18 Brooklyn team flummox the Sixers this much despite the gap in top-end talent? The Sixers don't have any answers themselves, and if they do, they're not sharing them with the world-at-large.

"I don't know, they seem to always get the better of us," said Joel Embiid after the loss. "We seem to make every guard look like a freaking Hall of Famer."

Indeed they have. Brooklyn's Spencer Dinwiddie had another monster night against the Sixers on Wednesday, dropping 39 points off the bench in 30 minutes. It was a career high for Dinwiddie, whose best mark before the game was a pair of 31-point performances. The last one came against the Sixers on November 25th.

I don't think the Nets problem is some giant mystery. I think it's pretty simple, really — it's a reflection of all the same problems they have against teams at the top of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

Philadelphia's guard problem isn't going away

It should have been clear after last year's series against the Celtics that the Sixers needed more guys I would compare to utility players in baseball. Wilson Chandler qualifies here — he can put the ball on the floor, he can shoot reasonably well, and he can credibly defend a couple positions on switches. He's not particularly great at anything, but he can at least be a link in a strong chain.

The Sixers have a glaring absence of more guys like Chandler. And this isn't exactly a new development, either. Robert Covington was the team's long good player on the wing for far too long, and the Sixers have yet to address an issue that is especially problematic in today's NBA.

This isn't the mid-80s, or even the late 2000s anymore. Shooters are often at all five spots in a lineup. Teams are built around the concept of spreading your defense out and forcing you to win matchups in space. That's a tall task even with Embiid on the backline as a safety net.

Look through the Sixers' rotation and you see a whole lot of guys who can't guard. JJ Redick has slipped as a team defender. Landry Shamet tries hard but gets bullied off his spots. Furkan Korkmaz could use a year's worth of protein shakes. T.J. McConnell is a one position defender whose limitations are exposed in certain matchups, as they were against Brooklyn's larger backcourt on Wednesday.

McConnell, by the way, was 8/10 from the field for 17 points against Brooklyn. On an average night, that's a great performance and one that will help push the Sixers toward a win. On Wednesday, that was good enough for the Sixers to be a -9 with McConnell on the floor.

Jimmy Butler's absence screws things up, no doubt. Don't confuse this version of the Sixers with the final product.

But even with the current top five playing crunch time, you're going to run into issues against all the teams you want to beat in the postseason. Simmons and Butler can only guard two in groupings like Irving/Brown/Hayward/Tatum, Bledsoe/Middleton/Antetokounmpo, or Lowry/Green/Leonard/Siakam. Even if you slide Simmons down to guard the likes of Irving or Lowry, you don't really have the size or athleticism to put a credible defender on whatever matchup he's vacating.

There are two options: go out and get someone who can defend guards, or get a wing who gives them another credible option to split defensive reps with Simmons and Butler. The third option is the status quo, and that isn't working for anyone.

A waste of resources on-hand

Problems now are a reflection of how the Sixers have been managed for years. The front office has prioritized moves that preserve cap space for the two big free-agency periods before extensions for their young stars clog the cap. That's all well and good, but they've also made a mess of what they had to work with.

I think Shake Milton is a fine player to use a two-way contract on. Big, decent athlete, good shooter? Sold. But the team's use of a two-way deal on Demetrius Jackson is completely inexplicable, and a good example of why they are where they are.

In a best-case scenario with everybody healthy, Jackson is the fourth point guard on the roster. It would take an insane chain of events for him to matter even a little bit, and the Sixers would be screwed at that point anyway. They have invested two No. 1 picks in a point guard and a 6'10" hybrid they turned into a point guard, and they still have McConnell on top of that. If Jackson were more of a hybrid player (or better at basketball, frankly), okay, but he has zero switchability as a defender and thus no value to this team.

You could pluck any number of guys out of the G-League who would be more useful to this team. Hell, forget versatility for this exercise, just pick somebody that can get on the effing floor.

The draft capital they've had to produce rotation players was wasteful in the Colangelo era, and looms larger now. Players taken immediately after picks they've made have thrived elsewhere, like Pascal Siakam, Josh Hart, Kyle Kuzma, or even lesser examples like Jordan Bell. Meanwhile, the Sixers possess the rights to a soon-to-be 23-year-old Latvian big man who has shot worse from the field each year as his role has grown overseas.

And even when one of those draft picks turns out to be a credible rotation piece, they seem to be unaware of what they're sitting on. Brett Brown admitted before Wednesday's game that Furkan Korkmaz's ascension in the rotation was a product of circumstance more than a reflection of anything new he showed behind the scenes. The coach praised the work ethic and preparation of Korkmaz, but clearly did not see a place for him in the rotation until his hand was forced.

Were this view divorced from the front office, you could pin this entirely on the coach. But the spine of the very group that drafted him is still in place, sans Colangelo, and they were content to decline Korkmaz's extremely cheap option for next season in order to scrape together more funds for next summer. With the Sixers unable to get to a full max anyway, what's more valuable, another couple million in space, or a rotation player who can shoot and handle for under three million dollars a year?

Korkmaz had a nice night as a starter on Wednesday, putting up 18 points and six assists in a solid effort. The sad thing is, it's hard to look at him playing well without mentioning the Sixers may have botched his situation already. And that makes it harder to believe they will nail the corresponding moves they need to make in order to best surround Embiid, Butler, and Simmons with talent.

How do you balance the needs (and wants) of their two young talents?

Put it this way — Jimmy Butler is not the guy Joel Embiid would be asked to create floor spacing for. It helps any player to have spacing, but if you asked Butler to shoot from a phone booth he could find a pocket of space to shoot from without an elbow grazing the pound sign.

Embiid was dominating the game in the first half. With 23 points and 13 rebounds at halftime, it looked like a night where Embiid would drag them to a win in spite of their poor bench.

But he barely had that chance in the second half. Embiid took just three shots in the second half, and the team's overall strategy did not seem to make a whole lot of sense, during or after the game.

Ben Simmons made an interesting comment to reporters in the locker room, though as a disclaimer, I was not there because the Sixers had the genius idea of making him available at the exact same time Brett Brown was speaking in the presser area:

Some took this as a shot at Embiid, but I have no way to interpret it without being there to hear tone, the line of questioning, etc. What I think is more relevant here is comparing it against how the actual game played out, because it was Simmons who was stepping on toes with his positioning throughout the game.

These are just a couple examples, but watch as Simmons tries to post up under the rim with Embiid already trying to establish position himself near or in the paint:

You can even see Simmons show some frustration in the first clip, waving his hand as he walks away after the foul call. Interpret that how you wish.

Taking initiative and fighting to be involved in the offense is a good thing. And on plays where Embiid struggled to establish position, Simmons read them well and took advantage of the space Brooklyn left open in the paint.

But I thought it was curious that the Sixers tried to force feed Simmons in the post in the games final minutes, given how well Embiid played. They had back-to-back turnovers on Korkmaz passes to Simmons in the closing minutes, and those possessions effectively ended the game. 

This dynamic is going to be a problem as long as Simmons is not an effective jumpshooter. If his only ability to tilt the game off-ball is to try to play as he did at LSU, the Sixers are in a tough spot. Go away from either Simmons or Embiid too much on offense, and they're liable to start drifting on defense.

Teams better than the Nets are going to exploit these ill-fitting parts. And so their inability to best a below-average team makes all the sense in the world. The bigger concern is that without a major trade, it's even more problematic against the teams at the top of the East.

I asked Brown after the game whether their Brooklyn struggles (specifically on defense) amplified the concerns they have against teams like Toronto and Boston, and his immediate response says it all.

"Yes, it does," said Brown. "Yes, it does."

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