7 for 6: The Season Recap

| On the final edition of 7 for 6, making sense of a the injury plague, the players who improved or regressed, and the final 2017 Draft Lottery odds |

The Injury Bug

Let’s get this out of the way. The injuries to players like Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons grabbed the headlines this season; Embiid’s dominance was underscored by his frustrating tendency to get hurt, and Ben Simmons was robbed of his rookie season before it even began. Even as the season finished and the team had little to play for, they couldn’t escape further bruises.

The team announced on Mar. 31st that Jahlil Okafor and Robert Covington would miss the remainder of the season. Covington suffered a partially torn meniscus. Okafor has played on and off down the stretch because of lingering knee soreness from, you guessed it, a surgically repaired meniscus.

For Okafor, it seems like a merciful end to a brutal season. He missed the first 11 games recovering from that surgically repaired knee, and he was done no favors by the log-jam at center for the most of the year. In Covington’s case, it ends his finest season as a pro (more on that below).

It’s essentially impossible to discuss the Sixers without recognizing their abundance of injuries. But what is the reason for it all? Is the team drafting fragile players? Is this a failure of the medical or training staff? Could it be karma for years of transparent tanking, or just a string of bad luck? It’s hard to say. Other teams experience injuries, but for it’s especially frustrating for the Sixers. The Process began as an attempt to land star players, but the (supposed) few they’ve managed to acquire have rarely seen the court.

An interesting case study moving forward will be how their three players, Covington, Embiid, and Okafor, recover from the same injury. The severity of the tear could vary from player to player, but their recover will ultimately be the responsibility of the team’s medical staff. A setback to Embiid or Covington could be perceived as an indictment on the team’s ability to treat a fairly common basketball injury.

Looking forward to next season, it certainly needs to be addressed. Be it through changing their training regiment or replacing members of the medical staff, something has to give.

2016-17 Recap

Although the Sixers ended up in the top five of the Lottery once again, they were a demonstrably better team than last year. On offense, on defense, on a basic watch-ability index, they were just better. And that says a lot. For a team that only won 10 games last year and was barely competitive outside of that, they made huge strides. The biggest example is how they performed in close games. They went 9-7 in games decided by three points or less, a huge swing compared to 0-6 in such games last year. Not only were they in that situation more, but they learned how to execute in late game situations.

Some were expecting this because of the influx of new talent. The team opened against Oklahoma City on national television, and the world finally saw a glimpse of Joel Embiid. And, damn, if it wasn’t all it lived up to be.

When Embiid played, the Sixers looked like a legitimate team for the first time in years. Buoyed by the acquisition Ersan Ilyasova in November, the team started to find its groove. They won four home games in a row and turned Wells Fargo Center into an electric atmosphere. Still, they struggled on the road. December was more of a struggle as they only won four games. But the last victory of the month, a 124-122 victory over the Nuggets in Denver, kicked off their best stretch of the season. They won 10 of their next 13 games, including wins over eventual playoff teams like the Clippers, Raptors, Bucks, and Blazers. Nerlens Noel finally found his rhythm on defense, and role players like Ilyasova and Covington gave the Sixers consistent secondary scoring.  It even appeared that they could make a run towards the playoffs.

But that good fortune couldn’t last forever. Embiid still only played sporadically. After missing a few games because of a knee injury he sustained versus Portland, he returned for a nationally televised game against Houston. The 32 point night from The Process would be his last game of the season. His bone bruise just wouldn’t heal, and it later surfaced that Embiid had a partially torn meniscus.

February showed how much the team missed the big man. They went 4-8 and their postseason window all but closed. With eyes focused on next season, the Sixers shifted their game towards a developmental style rather than concern themselves with winning. At the deadline, they shipped out Noel and Ilyasova, largely in an effort to clear the center position and give more playing time to Dario Saric. They managed to compete most nights down the stretch, but the talent simply wasn’t there. The losing stings, especially after how well they played early in the year, but it was not the worst thing to happen. As they slid down the standings their lottery odds steadily improved (more on that below). They’ll be able to land a solid player in this draft, possibly even two.

Looking forward to next season, it’s fair to ask what to expect from this team. What’s the next step? A .500 record? The playoffs? It could be possible, but I think two or three things would need to happen;

1) Healthy seasons from Embiid and Ben Simmons. They’re the two most talented players on the roster and the core of the team. Philadelphia will go as they go.

2) Simmons needs to be as impactful as Embiid was. Just as Embiid turned the team into a defensive force, Simmons needs to live up to the billing as a player that makes everyone around him better. His passing acumen should elevate players like Nik Stauskas, Covington, and Dario Saric who are all capable scorers, but not as much one-on-one as they’ve been forced to do. Simmons should help in almost every aspect; scoring, rebounding, and defense. If he lives up to the hype, it will dramatically change the team’s outlook.

And 3) A new acquisition, be it through the draft or free agency, needs to make an impact. In the draft, Markell Fultz looks like the best bet to make an immediate impact as a rookie, at least in terms of scoring. He might be out of reach for the Sixers, but if they can’t land a stud rookie, a free agent acquisition isn’t out of the question. The salary cap is estimated to rise to $101 million next year, and the Sixers will have over $50 million to work with.

If these things happen, we could see another year of big improvement.

The Final Lottery Update

The Lakers did the Sixers a big favor by falling to the third lottery spot. Their late season five game winning streak moved them down and increased the odds of their pick conveying to Philadelphia. It’s now over a 50% chance that the Lakers’ pick conveys to the Sixers.

But the Sixers, to their credit, also did their part to ensure a high draft pick. They lost their last eight games and locked themselves into the fourth best lottery odds. Combined with the possibility of swapping picks with the Kings, the Sixers have an over 40% chance of landing a top three pick in the draft.

I’ll be publishing a mock draft once the Lottery finalizes the draft order.

Who Improved?

As is expected when you nearly triple your win total, a lot of players improved their stats this year. For example,

  • Robert Covington

There might not be a better embodiment of The Process than Robert Covington. Signed from the D-League, he’s turned into one of the league’s best defenders. Naturally a small forward, he’s able to switch and guard the 2-4 spots. He leads the league in pass deflections and his 1.9 steals per game ranks fourth league-wide. His scoring comes and goes, but he never loses confidence and isn’t afraid to let it fly with the game on the line.

Covington has turned into a very solid all around player, and he’s still only due $1 million next year. It would definitely be in the Sixers’ best interest to extend their defensive stalwart because if he hits the open market, someone else absolutely will. Covington is versatile, and exactly the kind of glue player that excels around stars.

  • TJ McConnell

It was easy to be skeptical of TJ McConnell when he came out of Arizona two years ago. He went undrafted, and many dismissed him because of his size. But he carries himself like a winner, and it’s hard to argue with the results. Since he became a starter on Dec. 30th, the Sixers won 20 games. He’s a very crafty passer, and he’s developed strong chemistry with a numebr of players like Saric and Embiid. Even if the team drafts a star point guard, TJ has a place as the backup.

McConnell’s game has received some recognition this year, like former MVP Steve Nash, who loves watching the young guard who plays above his size. He’s a valuable player who may not be the most talented, but he works hard and makes the team better. Essentially, he checks off every box of the “Philly Tough Athlete” criteria. For that reason alone, the team should keep him around.

  • Richaun Holmes

When the season began, it was hard to discern a place in the lineup for Richaun Holmes. Yet as the season finished, he not only found himself with playing time, but he started 13 of the team’s last 15 games. Holmes solidified his already diverse skill set, and at the very least carved a bit of a name for himself league wide. He may get recognition for thunderous dunks and athletic prowess, but Holmes is a solid defender and versatile on offense.

Holmes made a noticeable statistical jump too. His average stat-line this year stood at 9.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block, and 1 steal per game. Those numbers jump to 13 points and 7 rebounds when he starts. It doesn’t jump out, but he improved his advanced stats too. His per-36 stats and per-100 possession numbers, defensive box plus minus, win shares, Player Efficiency Rating, and true shooting percentage all rose.

On a roster with Embiid, Holmes is an effective backup who can fill in as a starter if (in the Sixers’ case, when) the need arises. At this point, he’s already a better fit in the modern NBA than Jahlil Okafor. He’s a better athlete, defender, and spaces the floor better. If the team opts to move on from Okafor, Holmes should thrive as a two way backup as he continues to grow his game.

Who Regressed?

  • Jahlil Okafor

Big Jah had a rough year. After a solid rookie campaign was cut short due to knee surgery, it took Okafor a while to look fully healthy, and when he was on the court the limitations in his game were apparent. He still isn’t much of a defender (opponent’s offensive rating rose by five points when Okafor was on the court) and the team performed better in almost every offensive category without him.

Okafor has a lot of work to do if he wants to stay in the NBA, let alone in Philadelphia. His conditioning has been a problem for two seasons, and his porous defense from the most important defensive position in the league lessens the value of what offensive production he is able to give. It would be unreasonable to expect Okafor to change the way he plays. He lives in the post, and when he’s on his game, he’s actually quite effective scoring in the post. But moving forward there are two areas that he absolutely needs to improve; 1) his conditioning and 2) his passing.

At times Okafor’s defensive effort is bogged down by fatigue. He can block shots from time to time, so if he’s able to exert more energy on defense, it could go from bad to passable. And while Okafor prefers to score, he doesn’t space the floor much. Aside from a quasi-floater from 8-10 feet, he doesn’t shoot from mid-range very much. According to Basketball-Reference, he shot 69% (Nice!) within three feet of the basket this year, but that drops to just 46% from three to ten feet, and 38% from 10-16.

If Okafor gets the ball down low, opponents know what is coming. Send a help defender over and you’re likely to force a turnover. But if Okafor can learn to navigate out of double teams and force defenders to respect a mid-range jumper, it will open up chances for himself and his teammates.

Admittedly it’s easy to be critical of Okafor. He does deserve some credit for handling his situation well. He wasn’t dealt a good hand being drafted by a team with two starting-caliber centers ahead of him, but in two seasons Okafor hasn’t sulked or complained. However it is frustrating to see a player enter the league with such a polished aspect of his game struggle to improve in any discernible areas. It must’ve taken him years of work to refine his post game. Now, he needs to replicate that work ethic in other areas of the game.

  • Nik Stauskas

Nik Stauskas actually had a pretty good year, all things considered. He posted career highs in points, rebounds, assists, and field goal percentage. From time to time he showed flashes of potential that made him a lottery pick. Unfortunately for Nik, his jump might not have been big enough for the Sixers to keep him past next season. That is in large part to the emergence of Timothe Luwawu-Cabbarot. Since the All Star break, the French rookie averaged 11 points, 3 rebounds, and 1.5 assists in 26 minutes per game, numbers that are essentially comparable to Stauskas across the entire season. But Luwawu has the advantage of being a better defender at a younger age.

Even though Stauskas is under contract for next year, it’s hard to imagine him getting more playing time than Luwawu, especially if the Sixers draft a high upside two guard like Malik Monk or Josh Jackson. And that’s not ever taking solid veteran Gerald Henderson into the mix, who is also under contract through next year.

When Stauskas was acquired from the Kings in 2014, he was thought to be a project of sorts, but still had potential to grow. Despite a season of reasonable improvement, Stauskas didn’t stand out as the best shooting guard on the roster. At most he might have a slight edge in a 1A/1B scenario due to experience. It’s not so much a regression as it is being outpaced by a younger player in Luwawu, who could himself end up being replaced. Sauce Castillo could end up third or even fourth in the rotation.

Moving Saric?

Last week the Orlando Magic had a bit of a gaff; when the team signed Patricio Garino on Monday, the player’s agent snapped a picture for the occasion. Not unusual. But in the background of the picture was a whiteboard that seemed to display the Magic’s plan for the coming offseason.

It’s not a good look for Orlando, even if it’s just their tentative plans. How does this relate to Philadelphia? If you look closer at the board, you will see “Saric (For AG?).” The ‘AG’ is presumably Aaron Gordon.

It’s an interesting basis for a trade, especially considering that the Magic drafted Saric in 2014, only to trade him and a future pick to Philly for Elfrid Payton. The question is, would the Sixers make this deal? Probably not since Saric, fresh of his second Rookie of the Month Award, is in serious contention for Rookie of the Year with Milwaukee’s Malcolm Brogdon. But ignoring Saric’s accolades for a moment, they are very different players.

Saric is a creative offensive player who has improved in many ways during the season. His shot from the outside is still not great, but he’s a deft passer and has a strangely effective post-game, either facing up or backing opponents down. He certainly hustles on defense and on the glass, but his creativity on offense is what makes him shine. Although not a great athlete, he’s still an effective player.

Gordon, on the other hand, could probably jump to the moon if he wanted to. His athleticism allows him to guard multiple positions beat opponents with strength and speed. He’s fairly effective scoring near the basket, but doesn’t have an outside shot to speak of.

All of this being said, their stats are not far apart. Saric has a higher Usage Rate, which could explain his slightly lower efficiency and higher turnovers. It is important to note that this was Gordon’s third season, and he’s still younger than Saric who was a rookie.

Ultimately, I don’t see the Sixers making this move. They already (hopefully) have an uber-athlete in Ben Simmons who game is more expansive than Gordon’s. If Saric is relegated to the sixth man role once Simmons returns, it will come down to what they want from their first player off the bench. Saric gives them someone to run the offense through, albeit with a limited defensive ceiling. Gordon gives them a potentially great defender with a limited offensive arsenal. I’d bet on the team preferring Saric in that instance.

But for now, this is nothing but speculation. Saric himself didn’t seem fazed by the news.

“They [traded] me,” Saric said. “That’s life. … Sometimes you can have some option in life, you choose another one. They chose one way.”

Doesn’t Saric have such a way with words?

A Final Ben Simmons Update

Simmons has stayed in the news despite never taking the court this year. Last week a report surfaced that Ben Simmons had reportedly grown since being drafted and now stands at 7 ft. tall. Brett Brown was quick to deny to the report, but the news naturally made fans excited.  It’s another example of frustrating speculation, but there was some definitive news this week that should excite fans.

That’s right, Simmons foot is fully healed and he’s ready to play. It’s important to note; Simmons doesn’t have much reason to play in the Summer League.  The annual scrimmages in Las Vegas and Orlando are typically meant for players on the fringe of NBA rosters. Although Simmons will technically be a rookie next season, he has nothing to prove during Summer League. He didn’t look out of place in that setting last year, and risking further injury against players that will be giving a lot of effort in order to make a roster would be foolish.

But finally, after seven longs months, Ben Simmons is healthy. Things are finally looking up.

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