7 for 6: The All Star Break

|The Sixers have made strides this year, but not without controversy. This week on 7 for 6 we look at the good and the bad heading into All Star Weekend.|

Joel Embiid

I was at Wells Fargo Center on January 20th when the Sixers defeated the Portland Trailblazers. The end result – Robert Covington hitting a game winning three pointer in the final seconds – had fans leaving the building happy, but not without concern. With 7 minutes left in the third quarter, Joel Embiid drove to the basket and threw down a dunk, which brought us all to our feet. We remained standing, but not to cheer.

Embiid landed awkwardly and fell to the ground, rolling and grabbing his left knee. As soon as he had brought a chorus of cheers, his collapse brought a hush that in  some ways felt louder. “Oh no, not again,” I thought in unison with the other 19,000 in attendance.

He eventually walked off, but didn’t return to that game. Not surprising, and ultimately not worrying since they won the game and it turns out Embiid had suffered a bone bruise. The swelling had apparently subsided enough for Embiid to play on national TV against Houston on January 27th.

But he hasn’t seen the court since. A bone bruise can take 2-3 weeks to heal, so missed games were to be expected. But the team gave no formal timeline or expected date for his return. Just when fans began to really wonder what was happening, news finally arrived. Last Saturday, fans learned that Embiid had suffered a minor tear in his meniscus. He is not expected to require surgery, although he won’t be participating in the All Star Weekend festivities. Embiid was scheduled to be a part of the Rising Stars Challenge and Skills Competition. Brett Brown expects him to be back this year.

But of course, this couldn’t just be a simple injury. The night before this injury was revealed, Embiid was invited on stage at a Meek Mill concert and promptly danced around the stage.

Any injury to the Sixers big man is concerning. But the way this happened was bound to draw some ire. If he’s healthy enough to dance around stage, why hasn’t he been able to play? For the most part, that concern is overblown. Embiid was basically walking around. Dancing for a few minutes on stage is not as physically intense as playing basketball for 28 minutes. When I saw this, I didn’t think of how careless Embiid was being or if he had managed to hurt himself further. I was glad to see The Process in good spirits and having fun like he always seems to.

And something does get lost when we spend time debating whether or not Embiid was being reckless; a meniscus tear is a relatively minor knee injury compared to, say, an ACL tear. There are varying levels of severity for a torn meniscus, and Embiid’s has been classified as a minor one. It largely depends on where exactly the tear occurred. If it’s an area with a lot of blood flow, it could heal on it’s own relatively quickly. If it’s in an area with little blood flow, it could be a longer recovery. Considering the Sixers don’t expect it to require surgery, they sound content on letting it heal on it’s own.

Was the timing of this new injury less than ideal? Of course. But will it ruin Embiid’s wonderful rookie season? At this juncture it doesn’t appear that way. For now, Embiid is listed as day-to-day. The Process has taught us to be patient. The least we can do it is hold him to that standard.

Where is Jah?

Embiid isn’t the only center to have a tough week. Amidst trade rumors, Okafor didn’t play Saturday against Miami and didn’t travel with the team to Charlotte. Reports had the Sixers engaged in talks with the Pelicans, Bulls, Nuggets, and Trail Blazers. It appeared to be a basic certainty that he was going to be traded, even to Okafor himself.

But nothing happened. He rejoined the team in Boston for their last game before the break. Okafor has been put in a curious situation, but isn’t confused about his place at this time.

“I’m grateful of Coach (Brett Brown) and [the] organization that was up front with me. I know it’s rare for teams to do that,” Okafor told ESPN’s Jeff Goodman.

Despite his troubles Big Jah has handled himself with class. He hasn’t sulked or complained to the media like Nerlens Noel did in December. And the team is clearly thankful for how he’s gone about these trade rumors. Brett Brown especially seems to understand.

“Jahlil Okafor’s situation is transparent,” Brown said after the team’s shootaround Monday. “He’s in the middle of being discussed in trade scenarios. That’s the reason he isn’t here. It isn’t completely structured. His life is right now up in the air a little bit. We’re mindful of that, we’re respectful of that. We’ll progress as it unfolds. He’s still is ours until somebody tells us he isn’t.”

He could still be traded before Feb. 23rd’s 3:00PM trade deadline, or later in the off season. We’ll keep an eye on this situation and break down a trade should it ever materialize.

Bryan Colangelo’s No Good Very Bad Week

It hasn’t been a great week for Bryan Colangelo. To underscore the Okafor debacle, Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer reported that Okafor’s benching was meant to drum up trade interest, but it didn’t seem to work.  Just two days before the news of Embiid’s meniscus tear broke, Bryan Colangelo made a radio appearance to discuss the team.

“It’s certainly something we wrestle with all the time,” Colangelo said. “When we talk about uncertainty as far as timing, it’s not because there’s any strategy; it’s not because there’s a nationally televised game that people think we’re sensitive to. We’re sensitive to, once again, the health and the long-term performance ability of these players, and that’s the most important thing.”

Colangelo has come under fire lately for a lack of transparency towards fans in regards to the injuries of key players like Embiid and Ben Simmons. For Embiid, a relatively minor bone bruise turned into a torn meniscus. Ben Simmons, meanwhile, is approaching the five month mark of a supposed 6 to 8 week injury and hasn’t even begun to practice 5-on-5 with his team yet. The Sixers don’t appear to have any sort of timetable for his debut.

Derek Bodner put it best: “Each and every one of these debates only exist because of how they were handled.”

The past week has given Colangelo’s critics a lot of ammunition. The lack of transparency  is troubling in a lot of ways. While Sam Hinkie was equally reclusive during his tenure, fans were endeared to his way of thinking and could look past his outward faults in favor of his shrewd trading acumen and ability to find diamonds in the rough. Colangelo was brought in not just to continue Hinkie’s role but to correct the lack of transparency and public availability. He’s been passable in the former, but no so much the latter.

Trying to look at this in a positive light; Colangelo and the rest of the front office can learn from these blunders and handle them better in the future. We can only hope that they posses the same patience and willingness to grow that fans and players have shown.

Saric Shines

Of course, life hasn’t been all bad for Sixers fans lately. You wouldn’t know it by following the news, but some players are healthy and actually playing! Dario Saric, who has played in every game this season, has been on fire lately. He was nominated for Eastern Conference Player of the Week for Feb. 5th to the 12th. And he might have had his best overall game of the year Monday against Charlotte.

In this game, Saric displayed just how expansive his game can be. He’s found a shooting rhythm, his passes are decisive and crisp, he’s rebounding and pushing the ball on the fast break, and he’s showing improvement on the defensive end despite his athletic limitations. Those last two points (rebounding and defense) were probably the two largest concerns about Saric’s game before he came to the NBA. But one thing has become clear; this dude hustles. Defense and rebounding are two skills that aren’t entirely defined by skill; persistence and effort can mask deficiencies and even bring a player to a level that most wouldn’t expect. Effort is never an issue for Saric. Halfway through his rookie season, the effort is being supplemented with the skill and technique that Saric has absorbed like a sponge this season.

“Of course, it’s easier now after two, three months,” Saric told reporters after the win over the Hornets. “You can find the holes in their defense, you learn how to play defense, you learn some plays, you learn how to position yourself in defense and offense, and you learn that it’s easier to play and to find the open look.”

In Saric’s last five games, he’s averaging 20.6 points, 7.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1.2 steals per game on 52% shooting and 36% from three. It’s a shame that the All Star Break arrives as he’s playing his best ball of his young career. Even Brett Brown couldn’t have foreseen Saric playing so well at this juncture.

“Not so long ago, we would have been talking about ‘Dario hit the rookie wall,’” Brett Brown said. “We should all remember that conversation. He obviously hasn’t. He’s come out of that lull that most people experience in an NBA season and just jumped into it. I think he’s growing into himself and playing with a great confidence. I feel like that last few weeks we’ve really seen him blossom.”

Nerlens Anchors the Defense

With Embiid on the bench and Okafor only playing sparingly, Nerlens Noel has taken over as the starting center. In the 11 games without Embiid, Noel is averaging 10.5 points, 2.1 steals and .9 blocks per contest on 62.5% shooting. Those numbers don’t really jump off the page, but Noel has never had a flashy or particularly sexy game. But he knows his role. He blocks shots, uses his quick hands to swipe steals better than most centers, and doesn’t demand the ball a whole lot. He’s perfectly content with put-backs and alley oops. And on nights when his teammates are scoring well, Noel makes a big impact in a simple role.

How much longer will Noel be a Sixer? It’s hard to say. Embiid deserves to start if he’s healthy, but if we’ve learned anything in the past three years, that is one big ‘if’. Noel is good enough to start and he’s due to get paid a dumptruck full of money this offseason, so the Sixers may hesitate to pay such a high price for a backup center, talented as he may be. As long as Embiid is sidelined, Noel will be happy to play each night and raise his value around the league. And we should all enjoy it too. Who knows how much longer we’ll be able to watch?

State of the Team

With the major news taken care of, we can finally take a look at where the Sixers stand at the All Star Break. About 2/3 of the way through this season, the Sixers have already doubled their win total from last season and their 23 wins are the most since the 2012-13 season.

So what has changed? Well for one, their games are simply much closer than last season. The team’s average point differential is -5.6 this season, and while that’s still negative, it’s only about half of their league worst -10.2 differential last year. It’s not a huge turnaround, but it definitely suggests that Philadelphia isn’t getting blown out anymore. They’re playing games down to the wire, and even pulling off a few last second victories, like T.J. McConnell’s second such shot that came last week against Orlando.

McConnell, by the way, has been just been terrific as the starting point guard. Since taking over as a full time starter on Dec. 30th, McConnell has the 7th most assists, and the 11th most steals. And he has two game winning shots in the final seconds (the other coming on Jan. 11th versus the Knicks). He’s improved tremendously as a passer and has a great feel for running an offense. He still doesn’t have much shooting range, but he is still very effective at what he does.

Beyond their simple scoring margin the Sixers have shown marked improvement in a lot of areas. They’re scoring 3.7 more points per game compared to last year, and they rank in top 10 in both blocks and steals. The defense has more closely resembled that unit from 2014 (which ranked 12th in defensive rating) than last year’s squad. This year they ranked 15th, up from 25th last year

On offense, the most notable improvement is their their assist % (meaning the percentage of field goals that result from assists) is up from 12th to 3rd. Even their True Shooting percentage has risen from 51% to 53% (a six spot difference in the standings). The addition of Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, and even veterans like Gerald Henderson and Ersan Ilyasova can’t be understated. There’s just more talent on the team this year, and we’ve seen the results. Joel Embiid is averaging 20 points per game, the first Sixers to do so since Allen Iverson. They have two players averaging at least 5 assists per game (McConnell and Sergio Rodriguez) compared to one such player last year (Ish Smith.)

And they’ve done all of this without #1 overall pick Ben Simmons.

For a while, it really felt as if this team could make a run at the playoffs. Right now, it’s still an outside chance. The Sixers are currently 5.5 games behind the Pistons for 8th spot in the East. They could make up that ground, but the absence of Embiid and Simmons will likely hold them back.

But there’s something to be said about the playoffs even being a possibility this year. Brett Brown has done a tremendous job coaching and I think he’s certainly earned himself another season. If nothing else, he’s dramatically improved the Sixers in late game situations. But more importantly, he’s held this team together through three seasons of a slow and, at times, painful rebuild. Now that he finally has some good players, his system has flourished and we’re finally seeing the rewards of Brown’s knack for player development that he brought from San Antonio.

Perhaps the best example of Brown’s player development is Robert Covington. The 26 year old small forward is tied for 3rd in the league with 1.9 steals per game and also blocks a shot nearly every game. He’s also second on the team in rebounding behind Embiid. While his scoring has dipped compared to the last two seasons, he’s a valuable piece on a fairly good defensive team. It’s worth noting that he did leave Wednesday’s game against Boston after falling out of bounds and hitting his head. He will have the All Star Break to rest, but hopefully it’s not a serious injury.

Looking at the Draft

Of course, the Sixers aren’t only focused on the playoffs. This year’s draft could potentially be a hugely important one for Philly. They will have the Lakers first round pick if it falls outside the top 3 of the Draft Lottery. At the moment, the Lakers are solidly in the bottom three teams, so they own nearly a 50% chance of keeping their pick. The Sixers also have the right to swap picks with Sacramento if the Kings’ pick lands in the top 10 (if it’s outside the top 10 the pick goes to Chicago). The Kings are sitting at 11th.

If the season ends like this, the draft may not be the jackpot the Sixers had envisioned. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be able to get a solid player. Most mock drafts have them picking in the top 5, so they should still be getting a player in the top half of the lottery.

As for who the Sixers will target, it is pretty clear that the team needs back court help. T.J. McConnell has been a great story but he is already 24 and has a somewhat limited ceiling. His role is likely the backup point guard (albeit a very good one). Shooting guard isn’t a hugely pressing need either. Nik Stauksas has made a leap, Gerald Henderson will be under contract, and Timothe Luwawu-Cabbarot has seen more playing time lately. Point guard seems to be the weakest spot on the roster.

The Sixers are still hoping to win the lottery select Markell Fultz, the PG from Washington. Fultz can do it all; drive to the basket, shoot from the outside, pass the ball, defend, and he’s athletic enough to switch on defense and simply outclass other players. He’d be a perfect fit in Philadelphia, playing as a scoring guard next to Ben Simmons in a point-forward role.

Another option is Lonzo Ball, a guard from UCLA. He’s a long, wiry guard who reminds some scouts of Jason Kidd. the knock on Ball is his awkward shooting motion (although it wasn’t a problem last week against Oregon). Ball is a high upside, but possibly high risk player. Fultz is safer, but I’d imagine the Sixers would be happy with either.

If the Sixers can’t get either of those two players, there are certainly other options. Although I wouldn’t dismiss the idea of trading up to get Fultz or Ball. They could use the Lakers’ pick should it defer to the next season or even package Jahlil Okafor with some draft picks. Regardless of their strategy, this year’s draft will be an important stage in The Process. I’ll be writing more about prospects when the draft order becomes more clear.

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