February 01, 2018
Youth gives the Sixers a built-in excuse for a lot of their biggest issues as a team. Turning the ball over too much? A young team adjusting to life in the NBA. Blown leads? Something that kills most teams built around inexperienced players. Down the list you go, and it's easy to say, "Yeah, that's just what young teams do."
But it's not a catch-all, and it's not an explanation for problems and mistakes made by the more senior members of the team. There are plenty of mistakes you can't blame on youth, and they were behind Philadelphia's 116-108 loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday night.
The sequence that sums it all up took place not in the guts of the game, but at the close of the first quarter. Philadelphia was cruising, looking like they would ride a hot start from Ben Simmons to a comfortable victory, and then they went on to shoot themselves in the foot repeatedly.
It all began with this mystifying sequence with 1:30 left in the first and the Sixers up by eight points. They ended up getting out of it when Brooklyn botched the execution of a fast break, but whether you want to point to the bad pass by TJ McConnell or Trevor Booker being too wrapped up in directing traffic to actually receive a pass, it was brutal play.
After pushing the lead to nine with the ensuing Redick free throws, a cruise-control game seemed likely. What would these Nets — playing the second night of a back-to-back and absent a major team strength to point to — have to offer against a better Sixers team?
On Wednesday night, it was shooting (Brooklyn shot over 40 percent from three), but what sticks with you as a Sixers observer are the self-inflicted wounds. With less than 30 seconds left in the first quarter, Booker found himself switched onto Nets guard D'Angelo Russell, not an ideal scenario for him. But instead of sagging off a bit to compensate for the speed mismatch or just trusting his length to get the job done, Booker absolutely barreled into Russell and gave him a trifecta of free throws.
It's one thing to mistakenly hit a guy on the elbow with a contest or pick up a cheap foul on a 50/50 play, but this is just outright stupidity. There's no defending a play like this, especially from a guy who was brought in specifically to provide stable, heady play for your bench.
The first quarter shenanigans did not stop there. After JJ Redick missed a jumper with the clock winding down, Brooklyn pushed the ball the other way, and instead of sinking and allowing Brooklyn to take an end-of-quarter heave, TJ McConnell (and in fairness, Justin Anderson) tried to blitz Spencer Dinwiddie at mid-court, sending him to the free-throw line in the process.
These guys play at too high a level of basketball to do something this silly. What is the worst thing that can happen if you concede space to Dinwiddie at mid-court with a few seconds on the clock? Are you really worried he's going to pull up and shoot from there, or even that he's going to shoot a running floater from 30 feet and possibly make an end-clock shot? There's just no logic to blitzing that hard when you can stick to the defensive principles that have carried you otherwise: protect the rim and the three-point line, and live with anything else.
It's hard to know who to point to on plays like these. The immediate refrain is always "poor coaching" but that's overly simplistic and frankly a little condescending that professional basketball players can't figure this stuff out without a coach telling them what to do. A 30-year old veteran who has played for four NBA teams needs to be told not to demolish a jump shooter? A backup point guard whose calling card is smarts and effort needs to be explained you shouldn't foul with less than five seconds on the clock and a guard pushing the ball in transition? Please.
This is not to say Brett Brown should dodge any accountability for mistakes such as these, and Philadelphia's lack of attentiveness in games like this one are in part a reflection on the head coach. There have been too many lackadaisical efforts against mediocre and bad teams from the Sixers this season. Sixers players wear that blame right along with him, but getting your guys up for big games is easy. Making sure they have their eye on the prize in a late-January game against the Nets is where you really make your money.
To their credit — so much as you can give them any after another poor performance this week — the Sixers came out and copped to the poor play after the game. Joel Embiid was one of the only guys who came out and made an impact against Brooklyn, pouring in 29 points and 14 rebounds in an effort to drag them across the finish line, but even he admitted the defense wasn't good enough.
"That's a game we got to win," said Embiid. "Maybe we're too cocky, [maybe] we're going in to the game thinking it's going to be easy. Got to give them a lot of credit, they played hard and make a lot of threes, shoot a lot of threes, but we didn't guard them well today. We got to do a better job next time."
Even if the Nets shot unsustainably well, the Sixers shouldn't be giving enough space to allow the third-worst shooting team in the NBA to kill it from deep. Within the last week they showed they were capable of just overwhelming a team on the defensive end in San Antonio. Five days later, they reverted to undisciplined, uninspired defense and it cost them against a team that will never give you an easy out.
Yeah, the Sixers are a young team, and they deserve some rope when their youth shines through in mistakes. But this was a bad loss no matter how you slice it, and the Sixers are going to see their playoff dreams go up in smoke if they keep giving away winnable games on their schedule.
At the risk of beating a dead horse after pursuing this angle for most of the last few weeks, Booker's presence in the lineup has been a major issue for the Sixers. I could use all sorts of lineup stats and advanced numbers to make the case, but we don't even need to go that far.
Embiid has been playing all of his minutes alongside a five, but the primary issue is playing him alongside Embiid. Lineups with Booker and Amir Johnson are a total eyesore and doomed to fail from the start, but nobody is expecting either guy to carry the offense even in ideal scenarios. If they hold down the fort and play good defense together, so be it.
Booker playing next to Embiid, on the other hand, is increasingly becoming a problem for the Sixers. Brown seems intent on getting Booker onto the floor, and while Embiid's shooting ability at the five allows more flexibility for non-shooting players, that's sort of the opposite way I would approach roster and lineup construction. You want to amplify the strengths your best players provide you, not dampen them or plug guys in simply because you can get away with it.
Teams are simply not respecting Booker enough to get away with playing him next to Embiid. Teams will generally shade coverage and overhelp when Embiid is posting up, but Brooklyn didn't even bother caring about Booker on the perimeter when Embiid was posting up. Making matters worse, he barreled into the very area Embiid was working to get to and ended up picking up an offensive foul in the process.
If Booker beyond the arc isn't going to be defended past the FT line, he can't play next to Embiid (let alone if he's going to sprint toward the rim in the middle of a post-up) pic.twitter.com/5uRXr4RBex— Kyle Neubeck (@KyleNeubeck) February 1, 2018
Booker in the right role is a certified ass-kicker, and the exact sort of blue-collar player Philadelphia responds to. But it is increasingly clear he has no business being on the court alongside Embiid, especially when Ben Simmons' presence complicates things from floor spacing perspective as it is. I don't know if you can just sit his butt on the bench altogether, but there has to be a better path forward than this.
And just to be absolutely clear: this is a management and coaching problem, not a Booker problem. He's not a great fit for what they do and their personnel, and even if he adapted his play he would still struggle to be the guy the Sixers need him to be as a power forward.
The lack of Bayless minutes on Wednesday night was viewed from afar as a continuation of the health issues plaguing him in recent weeks. That turned out not to be the case, as Philly.com's Keith Pompey caught up with him after the game and revealed it had nothing to do with availability.
Jerryd Bayless in an one-on-one interview about not playing tonight: "That's Brett's decision. I don't know. It's unfortunate, but it's his decision."— Keith Pompey (@PompeyOnSixers) February 1, 2018
You will not catch many Philadelphians busting out their capes for Bayless, but he is at least a reasonable cog who could offset the Booker-related problems. Playing him at one of the guard spots gives you a semi-reliable vet there, and allows you a little more flexibility sliding guys up to the floor spot. If he can eat some decent minutes, you can get away with sliding guys up in the rotation and playing a more wing-heavy lineup than the Sixers have currently.
Of course, that also relies on getting production out of your wing players, and the Sixers got almost none on Wednesday night. Robert Covington continued his cold streak after taking a hard spill in the first half, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot reacted poorly to his bench return and Justin Anderson provided a whole lot of nothing in the 18 minutes he was able to get.
Perhaps this says it all about Philadelphia's roster, which has a complete lack of flexibility when things aren't going right. Your bench is a guy who can dribble but is reluctant to shoot or score, athletic wings with shaky jumpers and inconsistent defense and bigger guys who don't space the floor and fit poorly with your cornerstone pieces. It's a huge problem.
And that's why, despite a rumored price tag that I think is prohibitive, I get the interest in Tyreke Evans. He at least does a couple things well, and would give you a badly needed boost to your bench lineups. It's still about cost in the end, but Philadelphia's bench badly needs help, particularly with the funk McConnell is in at the moment.
If there's any solace to take from a loss, it's the performance of Philadelphia's top players. Embiid and Simmons playing well won't bring them any closer to a playoff berth, but it's great to see all the same.
Simmons came out with a vengeance against Brooklyn, absolutely bullying Brooklyn's Dinwiddie early before Nets coach Kenny Atkinson ordered a switch. He showed the sort of killer mentality you want a guy his size to have, and you'd hope he continues to attack smaller matchups in the future.
Great as Simmons' numbers are this year, you often end games thinking they could be much better. He tosses so many passes to guys who end up getting fouled or missing shots that could (or should) be assists, and for people who measure the game solely through the box score, it leaves you thinking he's not doing as much damage as he should passing the ball.
But forget the passing for a minute and focus on the free throws. Simmons' inability to get to the line tends to be explained through terms like "passiveness" or the idea that he doesn't want to shoot free throws. But how does that track for a guy who makes most of, if not all of his living in the paint?
It really doesn't, if you watch the film. During this Embiid post-up, watch how Dinwiddie is allowed to guard Simmons, and keep in mind that it is Quincy Acy who gets called for the foul while trying to deal with Embiid.
If guys are going to be allowed to hook him when he's off-ball and throw him out of bounds, it's not reasonable to expect Simmons to draw fouls from contact on drives. He is not the sort of guy who tries to sell calls, and it works against him doubly while dealing with the usual rookie hurdle of respect from the officials.
Even without it, he did plenty to impact the game against Brooklyn. Simmons scored 18 first-half points, and his attempts to get other guys going in the second half didn't end up getting the job done. Embiid assumed the scoring load in the fourth quarter, and Simmons was tasked with doing the little things in the process. It should be no surprise, then, that the defense tightened up in those final moments of the ballgame.
If the Sixers end up pursuing help at the deadline, it will be because of nights like these. Their two stars did plenty to impact the game, but they did not get much elsewhere and it cost Philadelphia a win.