7 for 6: A Season of Peaks and Valleys

| After a shaky trade deadline, the Sixers’ return to the court was a relief, but not without some hiccups. How is the team doing as their best players watch from the sidelines? |

The Process has been Postponed

When it rains, it pours. The Sixers announced on Wednesday that Joel Embiid will miss the remainder of the season. An MRI revealed that his torn meniscus was more pronounced than previously thought. Embiid has not played since Jan. 27th versus Houston.

This is obviously a frustrating development for Sixers fans. The team’s two cornerstone players, Embiid and Ben Simmons, have both been shut down within a week’s time. It’s been a troubling week for a number of reasons.

In an immediate sense, it ends what was turning into a terrific rookie season for Embiid. The 22 year old was putting up historic numbers; no player in league history has ever averaged 20+ points, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks all while playing less than 26 minutes per game. When Embiid was on the court, the Sixers were better in every facet. He was running away with the Rookie of the Year award, and could still win it considering how much better his numbers are compared to fellow rookies. Embiid’s averages of 20 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks lead all rookies. His teammate, Dario Saric, is the only other first year player averaging over 10 points per game. Only playing in 31 games played may lose him votes, but it’s hard to argue that in a vacuum, Embiid was the most impactful rookie this year.

Unfortunately, there is obviously long term concern that stems from this latest injury. A meniscus tear is relatively minor compared to most knee injuries, but the fact remains that Embiid has played 31 games since being drafted in 2014 because of a myriad of injuries. Perhaps these injuries are growing pains, but they very well could be a sign that Embiid’s body cannot handle the stress of an 82 game season. Truthfully, we won’t know for certain until Embiid is fully grown.

While this latest news has thrown some fans into a panic, Embiid’s faith hasn’t been shaken.

At this point, all you can ask for is positivity.

Okafor on Defense

What remains of the Sixers front court doesn’t inspire much confidence. Jahlil Okafor, now thrust into the role of starting center, is in the midst of an ups and down stretch since the trade deadline. After a season high 28 points against the Knicks on Feb. 25th, including the go ahead basket with seconds remaining, Okafor has struggled. Against the Warriors, foul troubled limited his minutes. Against Miami, he reportedly played defense, despite visual evidence of the contrary.

That clip made rounds across the internet this week. In response to his critics, Okafor gave a mixed answer.

“It doesn’t get to me,” Okafor told Philly.com’s Keith Pompey. “As a team, we were poor defensively. Obviously, I know about the clip that everybody is talking about. The persona of me not caring defensively is false…And I understand visually it looks bad, because I was fatigued. I played the entire first quarter, and I was tired… My job was to not allow either one of them [Dragic or Whiteside] to get behind me, and of course, McGruder runs and gets the offensive. I’m accounted for that, too. That’s my fault as well, supposedly. That’s what everybody is trying to make it out to be.”

For an answer that is, at certain points, meant to accept responsibility, Okafor gave a number of excuses. Saying that he was tired and that the team’s defense as a whole was poor displays a certain lack of self awareness. If Okafor had merely said ‘I get why everyone is upset. It’s a bad look on my part. I’m trying to get better,’ people likely would have moved on. Instead, he blames fatigue. Well, Okafor has been in the league for nearly two seasons. Being in shape to play an entire quarter isn’t an unreasonable request.

In defense of Okafor’s point that the team defense needs to improve, the team did just trade away Noel, arguably the best defender on the team and one of the best league-wide.  It stands to reason that the team’s defensive numbers would suffer because of that. But in response to a specific clip of particularly poor individual effort, which has been a routine criticism of Okafor’s game during his time here, the argument that the team must help out doesn’t hold much weight.

Okafor will never be much of a rim protector. He just doesn’t posses those instincts, nor the athleticism to make up for those shortcomings. But that doesn’t stop similar players from being effective. Some players carve out entire careers based around maximum effort and just out-hustling opponents. Nearly two years into his career, Okafor doesn’t seem interested in playing defense which is, you know, half of the sport. There is a reason that many peg his ceiling as a less-effective Enes Kanter; he can get buckets, sure. But with such anemic defense and rebounding from the position that requires it most, it’s questionable that Big Jah will ever live up to even the lowest expectations set for the former #3 overall pick. He could learn a thing or two from his teammate, Dario Saric, who manages to be effective on defense and the glass almost entirely through effort and hustle. Whether or not he’s able to exert such effort may determine how long Okafor has a job in the NBA.

Shade from TJ?

Okafor’s comments didn’t sit well with fans. And before Friday’s win over the Knicks, one player hinted that it didn’t sit well with teammates either.

TJ McConnell, known and admired by fans for his hustle, told reporters that “If you don’t play hard, you’re not going to be liked here.”

It’s impossible to know if McConnell was talking specifically about Okafor. And what the Sixers point guard said isn’t a groundbreaking statement. Philadelphia is notorious for it’s high expectations for it’s athletes.

But even if McConnell wasn’t talking directly about Big Jah, his comments echo the most common criticism directed towards Okafor; his lack of effort on defense. It has to be frustrating as a teammate to watch Okafor perform like he did against Miami, only to follow it up by deflecting the blame.

Under Brett Brown the Sixers have become a fairly tight-knit group. But this is one of those rare times when players seem to clash. If it continues, what upside remains for keeping Okafor will be outweighed by the downsides. If he keeps making comments like these that don’t seem to sit well with teammates, the Sixers might not be so committed to getting high value in a trade.

Holmes Takes on a Bigger Role

At this stage the only big man left on the roster without controversy surrounding him is Richaun Holmes. After trading away Nerlens Noel, Embiid’s season ending prematurely, and Okafor’s defensive woes, the second year center has begun to see an increase in minutes.

“In college, when I first got there, I was a backup. So it’s all about the grind. Keep working, keep trying to move up, keep working every second and it will pay off,” Holmes told reporters after last week’s victory of the Wizards. So far, that mantra has paid off.

Holmes, a second round pick in 2015, is arguably the most versatile center on the roster after Joel Embiid. While somewhat undersized for a center (he’s only listed as 6’10”), it doesn’t stop him from being effective. His springy athleticism supplements his already good defensive instincts and rebounding. And his offense isn’t half bad either. He’s great at rolling to the basket on screens, he can shoot from anywhere on the court and while his efficiency isn’t the best, he is confident in his abilities and doesn’t try to do too much.

The future of every center on the roster is in question. The team could still move on from Jahlil Okafor, and Embiid has legitimate health concerns. For that reason alone, Holmes needs to be kept. Even if he never becomes a starter in this league, he has potential to be a versatile backup.

Saric Finds his Groove

In the absence of Embiid, Dario Saric continues to shine. On Thursday, the Croatian Sensation was named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for February. Over that month, Saric averaged 17 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 2.8 assists on 44% shooting in 30 minutes per night. He also posted four straight double-doubles from Feb. 13th to the 25th. His full arsenal was on full display Friday against the Knicks. Saric had 21-10-4, including two timely assists in the fourth quarter.

Saric has been great ever since he took over as a starter. The combination of Ersan Ilyasova being traded and Ben Simmons’ season ending before it even began, Saric has full reign over the starting power forward spot. And he’s managed to work his way into the Rookie of the Year discussion. Embiid was (and still may be) the front-runner, but some may hold his 31 games played against him. If Saric can continue this high level of play for the final 20+ games, it will be hard to ignore his candidacy.

The New Guy

The Nerlens Noel trade last week was, to put it lightly, not well received. Many fans were fixated on the protected first round pick (which is very likely to become two second round picks) while ignoring Justin Anderson, the player who came to Philly in return. Admittedly, Anderson at this moment is not the stud that fans would have hoped for, but he’s show impressive flashes of what he brings to the table. Anderson’s best game of his entire career came on Friday night when he tied a career best with 19 points, including the go ahead basket with 24 seconds left.

The biggest knock on Anderson as a player is his shooting (the 23 year old has only shot 41% in his young career). But when his shot is falling like it did against New York, Anderson can be a menace. He’s a good all around defender, hounding opponents one-on-one and rotating to block shots at the rim.  Anderson and Robert Covington combined to force Carmelo into a 5/18 shooting performance.

“When we look at players and we talk about, ‘Do they fit how we want to play?’ We talk about, first and always, defense. ‘Do we feel like that guy can guard?’ And I feel like he can,” Brown said of Anderson after the game. “I think that there was a toughness in him, a physicality with his body and his mind that equal the type of spirit that we want from our young players in relation to willing, wanting to play defense first…I thought tonight he really helped us defensively with another ‘Melo defender, and I thought that his physicality bothered Carmelo from time to time. He sure helped us get a win tonight.”

Even Carmelo himself had to give the young man some credit.

“He showed some fight today. He battled, he competed and I respect that. You have to respect that. I rather somebody do that than not showing any fight out there,” Anthony said.

This was arguably Anderson’s best game as a professional. If he can bring performances like this every night, the Sixers may have found an invaluable roster piece going forward.

Draft Picks Update

Finally this week we are checking in with other teams around the league as it relates to the Sixers’ draft position.

The Lakers are in free fall and having traded Lou Williams away, and they don’t show many signs of getting better. LA is well on their way to keeping their pick (if it doesn’t convey to the Sixers this year, it will become an unprotected first next season). Sacramento has struggled since trading DeMarcus Cousins, but is still 2.5 games behind the Sixers in the Lottery standings (Philadelphia wants Sacramento to be picking higher because the Sixers own the right to swap first round picks with the Kings this year). If things continue at this pace, the Sixers will only have one lottery pick. It could still be a very talented player, but possibly not the treasure trove the team had hoped for.

Of course, these standings could all change. We’ll keep updating these odds every week until the end of the season.

 

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