7 for 6: New Threads, Same Team

| TJ McConnell saved Christmas and the Sixers got new uniforms, but they continue to blow double digit leads and confuse with their injury updates. |

New Uniforms

Last week, Nike debuted “City Edition” uniforms for every team. Nike describes them as uniforms that “represent insights and emotion from the court to the upper deck to the cities’ streets, in pursuit of a unique way to capture each team and its city in a way that respects the past and present of the clubs while also positioning them for the future.”

The Sixers new gear is pretty sharp.

The connection with the city is the Declaration of Independence stylized lettering and color. Nike described the uniform as one that “celebrates American freedom with a parchment paper-inspired base color and script” of the original Declaration. The 76 logo on the shorts is a tribute to the bicentennial celebration in 1976, held in Philadelphia.

Overall, a pretty slick looking jersey. Going with the original numbers on the front and back prevents it from being a total stylistic overhaul, but it’s still a lot better than what some other teams got. The team will debut the new threads on Feb. 2nd versus Miami.

Big Stage, Bigger Win

The Sixers are of course, not just mannequins for uniforms. They also play a game in those uniforms. And on Christmas day, they gave their fans the best kind of present; a win. They beat the Knicks 105-98. Embiid led the way with 25 points, 16 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks. JJ Redick also poured in an efficient 24 points (6-10 FG, 4-8 3pt FG, 8-8 FT).

But the real reason the team won? Timothy. Jonh. McConnell.

McConnell was all over the court and made a bunch of timely plays in the 2nd half. He scored the Sixers final 8 points of the third quarter, and came up with a huge steal and dish to Ben Simmons for a transition dunk. He finisehd the game with 15 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals.

It’s nice to see McConnell have a game like this on a national stage. TJ has been excellent this year as a backup point guard. He’s arguably the most important player off the bench for a team that sorely needs it’s depth to perform better. His plays down the stretch showed everyone around the country the value that he has on this team.

Blown Leads

It’s encouraging that the Sixers don’t get blown out by 30 every night like they used to, but they’re still having trouble closing games. Last week, they squandered a few games. They lead by 22 against Toronto on Dec. 21st and by 18 against Portland on Dec. 28th, and somehow managed to lose both games (Embiid did not play versus Toronto, and DeMar Derozan scored 45 points). They did manage to win one close game, fending off a late comeback by Denver. The Sixers won 107-102, again without Embiid. It was only their 2nd win of the season without the big man.

“We’ve put ourselves in a position to win a lot of basketball games and we’ve had some games where we’ve held leads and we’ve had several games now where we’ve lost fourth-quarter leads,” Redick said after the game against Portland. “And that’s frustrating.”

Redick is right; they are getting these leads, just not holding onto them. For the purposes of winning and losing, 1 bad quarter can undo 3 great quarters. But what is this team about, if not the Process? Getting these leads means that they have to be doing something right; the key is discovering where it goes for that final quarter.

Obviously there’s a lot that goes into blowing these leads. Turnovers is an easy place to start. Embiid and Simmons, the two players who touch the ball the most, are top 10 in individual turnovers (Simmons is 7th with 4 per game, Embiid 5th with 4.2). As a team, they turn it over more than 18 times per game, most in the league. This has always been an issue under Brett Brown, and it’s not encouraging to see it continue with better players, inexperienced as they may be.

The Sixers also play at a high pace, which means shots early in the shot clock. When those shots are falling, it looks like an efficient and dangerous offense. When they’re not (typically in the 2nd half), they’re prone to surrendering leads. It’s a hard to balance to maintain when they use Embiid so much on post ups, a play that naturally grinds the offense to a halt. Perhaps if they can cut down on turnovers then the shooting will get better by virtue of having more opprotunities. Until they fix some of these issues, no lead will feel safe.

Fultz Return Soon?

There have been rumblings that Markelle Fultz could return to the court soon. He’s been traveling with the team and was even present alongside Embiid and Simmons during their post game interview in Phoenix.

On Tuesday, we got another update about his status.

I mean that…sounds…positive? There’s no mention of a setback, and being reintegrated into team practices is obviously good. But it doesn’t mention that he’s been cleared for 5-on-5, a hurdle that Embiid had to clear before returning at the start of this year. There isn’t even a timeline, like previous updates that said he would be re-evaluated in 2-3 weeks.

Still, I would try to take this news as positive. But I can’t blame other fans for seeing it as PR word salad, especially given this team’s history with injuries.

Simmons taking more Jumpers

Ben Simmons isn’t putting up the guady numbers that he was at the beginning of the year. He took less shots in December than he did in November. Part of me wondered if he wasn’t shooting as much because he is working on his jump shot. His lack of an outside game (only about a quarter of his shots have come from outside 10 feet, and that includes a few half court heaves) is somewhat concerning, and something that he’ll likely need to add to his game.

“To get to that next level, I need to start doing that,” said Simmons. “I think that’s the next step in being an elite player.”

That he is working on it is not a secret, but some people have speculated that Simmons will eventually shoot with his right hand. Perhaps Simmons wasn’t shooting as much because he wants to have his right handed form completely down before using it in a game. At least, I thought that was a possible scenario. Brett Brown has recently said that the team has instructed Simmons to shoot more.

Hopefully Simmons starts to shoot more, simply so we can get a sense for how far away he is from it being effective. With him so gun shy these past two months, it’s hard to tell exactly where he is in rebuilding his jumper.

Eastern Gauntlet

After a string of games against the Western Conference, the Sixers will face Eastern conference foes in 5 of their next 6. Intraconference games are certainly more impactful in the standings, so these games loom large. They’ll start a brief three game homestand against the Spurs, once again one of the league’s best, even without Kawhi Leonard for much of the start of this season. After that they have the Pistons, a quality team to start the year but have since dipped (they just lost Reggie Jackson for 6-8 weeks). The Pistons figure to be in contention with the Sixers for a possible playoff spot.

After that the Sixers face off against the Celtics in London on Jan. 11th and back in Boston on Jan. 18th. In between they’ll get the Raptors at home and try to avenge their two losses from late December. Milwaukee comes to town on Jan. 20th, and the Sixers will see Giannis Antetokounmpo for the first time. The Greek Freak is averaging 29 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.3 blocks per game in the finest season of his career.

Winning some games in this stretch will be huge. After falling back below .500, the Sixers climb back in the standings and replicate what they were doing earlier in the year.  Brett Brown speaks of NBA seasons in thirds; just after Christmas until the All Star Break is the next phase. Coming off two straight wins, these games are a good place to start making up ground.

All Stats are up to date as of Jan. 3rd

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