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May 09, 2022

Sixers mailbag: MVP voting, Duncan Robinson, shooting variance, and rotation options vs. Heat

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James-Harden-Joel-Embiid-Sixers-05082022-UST Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports

James Harden and Joel Embiid react to a Sixers made basket.

It has been long enough since I did a mailbag on the Sixers that you guys flooded my mentions with replies when I asked for questions on Monday. Point taken — I should probably check in with everybody more often during the postseason.

Here's what I was able to get to on Monday night's trip to Miami as we all gear up for a huge Game 5 on the road.

I think this is as simple as you could imagine. Erik Spoelstra does not want to put another defensive target on the floor against a team that now has multiple guys who can punish you if you hand them a soft matchup. And I don't think he was necessarily wrong to go this way, because when the Sixers have been able to attack Tyler Herro, they've had a truckload of success in this series. 

When Herro has guarded one of Tobias Harris, Tyrese Maxey or James Harden, those three players have shot a combined 14/25 from the field and added eight free throws on top of that, scoring a combined 37 points between them. As a team, the Sixers have scored 110 points on 81 possessions, roughly 1.36 points per possession. You can chalk some of that up to variance, as you would anything in a small sample, but he is food out there for their better offensive players, and the degree to which they are beating up on him is forcing other Heat players into tough situations in help, opening opportunities elsewhere on the floor.

Maybe the Heat decide they're okay with bringing in another questionable defender for the sake of juicing up the offense, and I think that would be defensible, but going from having one obvious target on the floor to two is not insignificant. Once the Raptors dropped an ailing Fred Van Vleet from the lineup, for example, it became a lot tougher for the Sixers to generate offense against a longer and tougher Raptors team.

If the Heat juggle the rotation to make sure only one of Herro or Duncan Robinson is on the floor at a time, that might allow them to gain the most while giving away the least. I lean toward Spoelstra finally bringing him into the series in Game 5, but I also thought that coming into Game 4, so I wouldn't be surprised to see Miami's head coach remain steady, hopeful his role players will simply play and shoot better at home.

I don't see any reason to mess with a starting (and closing) formula that has worked well in both the regular season and the playoffs. Paul Reed is fine in the role he is being asked to play, and I don't think putting the most foul-prone guy on the team on Jimmy Butler is a recipe for success. Butler would have him in hell trying to stay grounded, and that's not a mark against Reed.

The easy answer here is that if Daryl Morey didn't like Reed or Charles Bassey, he wouldn't have drafted them to begin with or continued to carry them on the roster if other, better options were available. And I do think the calculus changes next season when you presumably have a full season of Embiid and Harden leading the team and a good reason to lean on youth at backup center. The Sixers will presumably be looking to mix the roster up now that they have their tentpoles in place, and spending precious roster spots on backups for Embiid doesn't feel like the right play at this point.

Call this an educated feeling, but I think if Morey had his way, next season would feature a competition between Reed and Bassey for the minutes behind Embiid. Whether that's how it plays out is another story, but I think with Reed showing he can hang and Bassey having another year under his belt, perhaps there will be a bit more organizational trust in the young guys. Truth be told, I am still a little surprised Bassey didn't get a chance to show what he has down the stretch, as I think he might be the most natural option behind Embiid.

Haven't we basically reached this point already? Matisse Thybulle is obviously in the rotation in some capacity, but one thing I think Doc Rivers has been pretty good about in important games is yanking Thybulle quickly if it's clear he's not helping the team much. There was even a sequence in Game 4 where Thybulle checked in for one play, Rivers didn't like what he saw, and No. 22 immediately got yanked. That's as close to totally out of the rotation as he's probably going to get.

I don't think you can go into a game expecting to sit him entirely until/unless the Sixers upgrade the rotation in the offseason. The other guys coming off of the bench aren't trustworthy either, and while I'm a big Danny Green advocate rain or shine, his central importance to this team tells a story about the rest of the roster. They don't have enough guys to just abandon the idea of Thybulle, but he is certainly a situational player at this point.

This is getting way ahead of things to even think about, because the Sixers have a long way to go before they can even begin to think about the next round, but I think they'd almost have to prefer Milwaukee. You basically know you're going to have the Bucks sitting in drop coverage all series, which simplifies your gameplan and opens up opportunities for Harden and Maxey to get rolling. Insofar as there is a good foil for Giannis Antetokounmpo, it's Embiid, who is more valuable as a cross-match guy vs. Milwaukee than he is against Boston's wings. Rivers has managed to do plenty of good work against two excellent coaches in the first two rounds, but it should also be said that you wouldn't worry too much about a coaching mismatch playing the Bucks, either.

There are a lot of pitfalls in a Sixers-Celtics series, ranging from how they defend two high-level wings to Al Horford's history with Embiid to their defensive style that might prove harder to crack. Neither is "favorable" but there are probably fewer question marks if you play the Bucks, and you're also getting them with Khris Middleton presumably still trying to get up to speed.

I think the funny thing with Doc is that a lot of his "issues" (insofar as he has had any) in Philly have been self-inflicted. There have been opportunities for him to deflect or give more artful answers on thorny topics where he has instead chosen to spar with different people, which has in turn invited more criticism from the people who don't like him all that much in the first place. I think he can be overly defensive, but to be fair, I am often in agreement with him when he stresses the need for patience over a long season, which is not always well-received elsewhere. 

(I joked about this recently, but one of his biggest flaws in terms of media presence is constantly taking the bait when Howard Eskin shows up to cause a scene. He's smart enough to understand his whole deal.)

Broadly speaking, his interactions with all of us are fairly positive, and he has a good perspective on where basketball fits in on the world's importance scale. The occasional back-and-forth makes for good theater for the public, but there's a reason it becomes news when it happens — most of our talks are pretty standard-issue reporter/coach discussions.  

If basketball has been ruined, it is news to me! Seriously though, I don't find the use of numbers problematic unless it's someone who is only capable of making an argument using catch-all metrics. Stats are a tool that I think any good reporter should not just be aware of, but use to check themselves and their initial read on something. 

Here's an example. If I had a thought that a certain lineup combination was absolutely terrible for the Sixers, and then I checked lineup data and it said that group actually graded out positive, that's not a reason for me to reject the numbers, it's a reason for me to say, "Hmm, that's interesting" and see if I can figure out why the disconnect exists. Maybe that group had an unsustainably hot stretch shooting the ball, maybe they played a crappy opponent that inflated the numbers, or maybe my initial read/instinct was just flat-out wrong. In any of those cases, the important thing is to make sure I am not just saying, "Here's what the number is, that's all that matters."

Like anything else, numbers are tools. They can be helpful, they can point you in a direction you didn't expect to move in, and yes, sometimes they can mislead. The key is knowing they are not infallible but knowing them all the same.

Guys, I promise, advanced stats are not the reason Nikola Jokic won MVP. I would have voted for Embiid if I had a say, but we don't have to pretend he only lost because catch-all numbers favored the other guy. And look, he's the guy who still has more to play for, so try to enjoy the playoff run and not dwell on something that ultimately doesn't matter.

I don't think it's super complicated — Georges Niang is one of the best shooters they have and he understands both his place on the team and where to be on the floor. They need to have willing shooters surrounding their stars, and though he has some ugly cold spells, Niang will keep hoisting through slumps to the point that he will talk shit to an opponent if he makes his first three after six straight misses. I admire that level of confidence, and you need that to win in the playoffs.

The defense is obviously rough, and I've written about that all year. When push comes to shove, I just think Rivers looks at him as a guy with a critical skill who gels relatively well with the important pieces. They're not getting as much out of the 1-4 ball screens he was killing with playing next to Harden early on, but it's something they might be able to lean on in tough times.

The obvious answer here is to change how they're defending Butler when the Heat send ball screens to his man. The Sixers are handing over switches pretty easily, and they could probably avoid that by having Tobias Harris go under the screen to preserve the assignments and wall him off from the paint. Mind you, Harris has to avoid taking early fouls if that's going to be the strategy because Butler has made a killing in this series baiting guys into reaches and ill-conceived block attempts.

Another thought to chew on — are you better just continuing with the current switching strategy, forcing Butler to beat you predominantly as a scorer? If Butler's attacking doesn't open up passing lanes and open jumpers for teammates, you might just say you're content letting him pile up the points as long as everyone else can't/doesn't eat. 

I have been drunk at plenty of sporting events (none while there on professional business, obviously) but never so drunk that I would fall asleep. I'd like to think I have a few natural advantages to avoid this scenario:

  1. I'm on a night owl schedule, so the natural fatigue factor doesn't tend to be a problem during nighttime events
  2. I have both a high-ish alcohol tolerance and a good understanding of where "the line" is for me
  3. I have no interest in becoming a living meme that will outlive any of my professional or personal accomplishments

Fingers crossed, I suppose, but doing okay up to this point.

I did not just play "Elden Ring," I beat the entire game including the optional boss who may be my least favorite/most frustrating in the history of the "Soulsborne" games. I will see you in hell, Malenia.

Basketball has been too high on the priority list to write a review or even an impressions piece on that game, but it was a remarkable achievement. Every time I thought I was pushing up against the outer limits of the game world, it just kept expanding and expanding and expanding some more. FromSoft preserved the gameplay that I love, guided players through a massive world with a minimalist HUD, and managed to create what I imagine will be the runaway favorite for Game of the Year. Not for everybody, but for anyone it hit for, a stone-cold classic. 

Of course they can. If this was a foregone conclusion that Miami was going to win, there wouldn't be a whole lot of motivation for me to think about the series, cover the games, and analyze it from the inside out. In fact, I mentioned in the preview that if the Sixers had come in with a cleaner bill of health for the big guy, I would have picked them in six games. Even with Embiid missing a pair, they're in a position to potentially make that happen.

It has been a very even series where I feel both teams could convince themselves they don't need to change much. You don't get many of those, but we'll see if the home teams can continue standing their ground.

I feel like the thickness of the unibrow matters here. Also, if I can somehow be marketable enough to turn it into a brand like Anthony Davis, that seems like a better play than endless dandruff. Nobody wants to turn their head and have flakes flying everywhere.

I don't think this is much about the home crowd as it is all the benefits of playing in your home building and home city. Shooters, especially good shooters, are notoriously finicky, obsessing over sightlines and dead spots on the floor and a number of other things that the average person would just roll their eyes at. Then you have to think about the comforts of home like sleeping in your own bed, and even though NBA players stay in beautiful hotels with access to things nicer than most of our homes, it's still not the same as having your gameday routine in the city where you played 41 home games before the playoffs even started.

Of course, having Embiid impacts shot quality and a whole lot of other things. Trying to assign a percentage value to all the components is damn near impossible. 

I have heard nothing to suggest the mask is coming off soon, but obviously pretty early following the injury, hard to say whether this is going to be a full postseason thing or not, especially since we don't know how long the ride will last.

Video games are big time on the back burner (at least playing them is) until the playoffs are over and I have time to actually play them. If I'm not watching a game, I'm writing, if I'm not writing, I'm traveling somewhere, if I'm not traveling somewhere, I'm on the phone or networking or reading some of the many smart people around the league who help keep me informed of what I don't know. 

Hoping to play a bit of "Rogue Legacy 2" once the season ends, though. 

I'm not sure this is really the case — I think one of the big knocks against Chris Paul has been his inability to fully climb the mountain in the playoffs, where it's much harder for an undersized guard to leave a sizable game-to-game impact. He gets dinged a lot for a some of his high-profile failures, like a loss to the Thunder where he melted down late and the Clippers' loss to Harden's Rockets where they gave away the series to Josh Smith and Corey Brewer. The last few years have definitely been helpful for Paul in the sense that his arrival has immediately lifted up a couple of different franchises, with the Phoenix run obviously very successful so far.

And frankly, Paul's production in the playoffs is either right in line or better than his career numbers basically across the board. Even in losing efforts, he has had some absurd series, including his 2011 first-round performance against the Lakers that featured a couple of the best individual efforts I can remember watching in the playoffs. Harden has had huge moments and big series efforts, but one could argue his "signature" moment is all the way back in Oklahoma City, when he threw the haymaker to end the Conference Finals and push the Thunder past the Spurs. 

Snap take:

  1. "Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater"
  2. "MGSV: The Phantom Pain"
  3. "MGS 2: Sons of Liberty"
  4. "Metal Gear Solid"
  5. "Death Stranding"
  6. "Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots"

The original "Metal Gear Solid" trilogy accounts for, I don't know, maybe about 20 percent of my taste in both games and media in general. I can remember playing the demo version of MGS on a Pizza Hut giveaway disc that included "Gran Turismo," "Crash Bandicoot Warped," and "MediEvil" and that one opening piece of the game sustained me until I was finally able to get the full copy later. The sequel was about 15x weirder, is probably the reason I ended up with some niche film interests (e.g. liking David Lynch movies), and ended up being a surprisingly prescient story about misinformation, politics in the internet age and censorship.

The top spot comes down to a matter of preference — the more complete game ("Snake Eater") or the best pure gameplay loop. I think "The Phantom Pain" has taken deserved heat for being incomplete and messy as a result of internal issues at Konami, but for my money, it has some of the best, most flexible gameplay of any game ever made. Nowhere else can you call in a friendly support helicopter that will airdrop you emergency supplies while "Rebel Yell" by Billy Idol blares from the speakers and your support dog rushes in with a Bowie knife aimed at an enemy's neck as you hide behind an inflatable replica of a human being. "Snake Eater" topping that is a testament to its all-around brilliance. 

I love all of these games, for the record, so Tom asking me to essentially rank my favorite children was pretty rude.

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