7 for 6: As Rumors Swirl, the Sixers Rise

| There’s chatter of a King coming to Philly, but the team is focused on making the playoffs, and they’ve brought back an old friend to help achieve that goal |

LeBron on his way?

There have been rumblings that LeBron James could sign with Philadelphia essentially since Ben Simmons stepped onto the court. Now, there are forces form Philadelphia courting the King as bets they can. Three billboards appeared in Cleveland this week urging LeBron to come to Philadelphia.

It’s fun to see someone from the city making an effort to court the King since the team can’t do it without violating the league’s tampering rules. And frankly, I like the idea of using a billboard. If it’s something that LeBron sees almost every day on his way to the arena? It’s a least putting the thought in his mind.

But this begs the question; could LeBron seriously consider coming to Philadelphia in the offseason? The Sixers are a good young team with budding superstars in Embiid and Simmons. They also have a slew of role players that are necessary to round out a true contender; Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and JJ Redick. It’s a perfect blueprint to fit with LeBron; the best team he was ever on (the 2012-13 Heat) consisted of two slashing ball handlers with superb playmaking and defense (LeBron and Dwyane Wade), along side a big man who protects the rim and spaces the floor (Chris Bosh) and a slew of shooters (Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, Shane Battier, Mike Miller).  From a basketball perspective, the Sixers have just about everything LeBron would want to work with.

But of course, that is working with the assumption that the Sixers can afford to keep LeBron and the rest of their roster. One downside to signing LeBron is how much cap space he will command. Also, LeBron might have more say over the roster around him than any other player in league history. He’s a businessman, and makes it his business to shape the team how he sees fit. If he doesn’t like another player or thinks they won’t help him win that season, they are liable to be moved. I hate to pile on Markelle Fultz, but if he’s not ready should LeBron arrive, he might be a canidate to be shipped out for immediate help.

Still, LeBron wouldn’t likely be forcing Simmons or Embiid out of town. With those three players, the Sixers would contend for the Eastern Conference every year. Plus, LeBron has made the finals for 7 straight seasons.  He’s got a good eye for talent.

And all of this is without mentioning that LeBron usually chooses to sign a 1 year deal with a 1 year player option every season. Investing in LeBron isn’t a long term project unless you successfully cater to his needs. The Sixers can do that, but they’ll have to think a lot about what goes into acquiring an all time great player.

Markelle Fultz

The # 1 overall pick just can’t escape negative press this year. Fultz was named as one of the many players involved in a large scale NCAA corruption scandal. The FBI is currently operating a probe into a company called AMS Sports, and their relationship with the nation’s collegiate sports governing body. AMS has reportedly been paying highly recruited basketball players during their time in college in coordination with the schools and some head coaches, a violation of the NCAA’s rules for amateur athletes.

Whether or not college athletes should be paid is another debate entirely, but it’s not surprinsg that Fultz and other players may have accepted money.  The NCAA routinely uncovers what it deems to be “improper benefits” by it’s own investigations. When the country’s highest branch of law enforcement is also investigating? There is surely more to come.

Luckily, there’s little reason to think that this will impact Fultz’s career going forward. One day, he may have to answer questions about his time at the University of Washington, but the FBI is most likely looking at bigger fish to fry; boosters, agents, and university officials with a wider scope of knowledge than Fultz is privy to.

Ersan is back!

After the Atlanta Hawks release Marco Belinelli a few weeks ago, the Sixers were quick to pounce and solidify their bench. Now, another Hawk has come to Philadelphia, this time for a second tenure. Ersan Ilyasova signed with the team after his contract was bought out. Ilyasova played in 53 games for Philadelphia last season and was their second highest scorer (14.8 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 1.8 assists on 44/35/76 shooting splits).

To make room for Ilyasova’s contract, the Sixers waived forward Trevor Booker. Booker was acquired in December via trade. In 33 games he averaged 4.7 points and 3.7 rebounds. Ilyasova is expected to take his minutes coming off the bench and presumably provide more scoring and floor spacing. In his first game with the Sixers, Ilyasova scored 6 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, and was able to draw a charge, one of his specialties. Hopefully his return can give the bench the scoring boost that they need.

Joel for DPOTY?

As Joel continues to dominate each night, it might be worth wondering if he is in contention for any major awards this year. I don’t think MVP is in the question unless the Sixers go on an absolute tear and win 50 games. But he could have a legit case for Defensive Player of the Year. His counting stats are impressive; 11.2 rebounds (12th best in the league), 1.8 blocks and .7 steals per game. Those aren’t really numbers that blow you away, but they don’t tell the entire story. He also comes up with huge plays in crucial situations, like last week in Chicago where his steal led to the winning free throws by Ben Simmons.

Some players may have better numbers than Embiid, but you could make the case that no team experiences such a large drop off than when Embiid comes out of the game. Embiid’s Net Rating is a solid 10 points (meaning they score about 10 points more than they allow per 100 possessions that Embiid plays).  He elevates the entire unit to an elite level. The Sixers team defense ranks fourth in the entire league. Opponenets convert about 58% of their shots within 5 feet of the basket (7th best in the league) and the Sixers have the best rebounding percentage in the NBA, grabbing nearly 53% of available boards.

Perhaps Embiid doesn’t have the raw numbers to win the award this year, but the impact that he has on Philadelphia is undeniable. The foundation is certainly in place for him to compete for this award every year if he can stay healthy.

Winning Ways

The Sixers continue to win and solidify a playoff spot. They pulled off a 7 game winning streak (their longest since January of 2009!) that started before the All Star break. That streak ended with a loss to Washington, but the Sixers have still climbed in the standings and are in a very solid position to make the playoffs. They’ve won 8 of 10 and are now sixth in the Eastern Conference, a solid 4.5 games ahead of Detroit, the team currently on the outside of the playoffs.

RoCo Struggling To Find His Shot

Robert Covington is probably glad that February is the shortest month of the year, because it was easily his worst month of the season. After a red hot start to the season, Covington hit just 29% of his three pointers last month. In fact, 3 point percentage and points per game has decreased every month.

What’s behind the cold streak? Well for one, it’s worth noting that Covington has always been a streaky shooter. He’s never been afraid to shoot, even when his shot is contested. It’s good for a player to have such confidence, but when those kinds of shots aren’t falling it’s not pretty. Especially for Covington who is somewhat limited in his offensive arsenal. The Athletic’s Mike O’Connor went in depth about the kinds of shots that Covington takes and some mechanical causes for this most recent slump.

Hack-a-Simmons Works…this time

Earlier in the season, the Wizards tried to exploit one of Ben Simmons’ major weaknesses; his free throws. For most of the fourth quarter, they intentionally fouled Simmons, even when he didn’t have the ball, and put him at the line. And in some ways, it worked. The Wizards trimmed the lead to three points, but couldn’t finish the comeback. The Sixers survived, and most importantly Simmons knocked down his free throws when it mattered.

The strategy re-surfaced last week, but this time it wasn’t deployed across an entire quarter. Instead, Miami Heat coach Eric Spoelstra had his team foul Simmons in a tie game with 23 seconds left. Rather than give Simmons a lot of chances and hope that his numbers average out, Spoelstra gave Simmons a single chance to be perfect. Simmons wasn’t.

He missed the first free throw, but made the second. Down by one, Dwyane Wade came down the court and hit the game winner.

Teams have not used this strategy much. I think it’s fascinating that Washington and Miami, the two teams to try it, used it in completely different contexts. Washington chose to slow the game down and chip away at a big lead; Spoelstra played the odds in a close game in order to get his team a chance to win (although Spoelstra did say after the game that fouling Simmons was a product of miscommunication between himself, Wade, and Goran Dragic).

It’s hard to draw conclusions from a small sample size, but it’s hard to deny that putting Simmons at the line is somewhat effective. Simmons is remarkably poised for a 21 year old, but he’s only a 57% shooter from the line, and putting him on the line in a close game is a worthwhile gamble. But in a different context, it can have a greater effect on the team at large, if only because of what it does to the Sixers’ offense. Brett Brown’s team is predicated on passing, pace, and movement. When they don’t even get to run a play or free style in the half court, other players fall out of a rhythm and teams can come back. I’m interested to see if more teams will try this strategy.

All stats are up to date as of March 2nd.

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