7 for 6: Working Through a Slump

| With the losses (some more exciting than others) piling up, the Sixers are back below .500. What’s going wrong, and how can they stop their skid? |

Some Thrilling Games

Amidst 7 losses in 8 games, the Sixers were involved in two really exciting games.

First, coming off four straight losses, they faced Minnesota on Dec. 12th.  Although Minnesota controlled much of the game, they struggled to score enough to pull away. They shot just 40% on the night, including 5/29 from deep. The Sixers stayed within striking distance  and managed to force overtime.  Embiid led the way with 28 points and a career high 8 assists, including some timely ones to Ben Simmons and Dario Saric. He finished the Wolves off with a three pointer in overtime. All in all, he played a career high 38 minutes.

“We needed this,” Embiid said. “We lost four games, so we needed this pretty bad. I was excited to come back. My goal is always to bring a lot of energy, obviously use my skill, but at the end of the day, just playing hard.”

Three days later, they found themselves in another close game. The Thunder controlled most of the game and led by 11 points with just over 5 minutes left. The Sixers erased that deficit to tie the game and force overtime. Again

And then, things became exciting.

The teams exchanged blows for 3 overtime sessions, including some highlights on both ends.

All in all, it was one of the better games of the NBA season. By the end, everyone was gassed, but still had enough energy to talk some trash. It was a tough loss, especially considering the physical toll that it took on so many players. Here are the minutes for all of the starters

Embiid: 48: 39 (a newcareer high)

Simmons: 51:33

Redick: 50:31

Saric: 49:20

Covington: 48:36

Clearly a lot of playing time. So much so that Embiid sat out the next two games, even though there was three days off in between. Before the season began, you’d be shocked to hear of Embiid playing over 40 minutes in a single game. It’s encouraging that he’s gotten himself in the shape to do so, but I doubt it’s something that the Sixers want every single night.

Injury Bug Bites

No matter what the Sixers do, there will always be injury concerns surrounding them. Considering the luck (or lack thereof) they’ve had in that regard during the past few seasons, it’s a factor that will always linger in the back of minds when one tries to evaluate the potential of the team. So far this year, they’ve been able to avoid anything catastrophic. That’s progress in some ways. But they haven’t been totally imune to some injuries.

Joel Embiid understandably falls under the most focus when he’s listed on the injury report. That’s why when he was suddenly held out of Sunday’s game against New Orleans, Philly fans held their breath. He missed a few games last week, including games against Cleveland, New Orleans, and Chicago. To make matters worse, there were a few moments in the game against the Thunder where Embiid grabbed his lower back. Hopefully it’s just tightness, because the last thing this team needs is Embiid going down with another serious injury.

Robert Covington, arguable the 2nd or 3rd most important player on the team, was also felled by a back injury last week. He crashed into the stands against Cleveland and missed games against New Orleans and Minnesota. Even JJ Redick was forced to leave the game against Sacramento with a hamstring injury.

It’s not just starters with sore backs from carrying the team.  The newly acquired Trevor Booker sprained his ankle against the Thunder. Justin Anderson is still out with shin splints. He’ll be evaluated at the end of December.

Bench Scoring

Those exicitng games aside, the Sixers are in a big slump right now. They’ve lost 7 of their last 8. What’s the reason? One area of concern is their bench. The Sixers bench only scores 27 points per game, fifth worst in the league. Lately, it’s been noticeable.

Richaun Holmes is the only one producing off the bench. He’s scored in double digits in the 5 of the last 7 games.

When you look at the rest of their roster, the Sixers lack a true volume scorer off the bench; Jerryd Bayless has been solid this year (38% from 3) but frankly his shot comes and goes. The addition of Trevor Booker was thought to rectify this in some ways, but he missed two games with a sprained ankle. Booker and Amir Johnson are valuable energy players, but neither are reliable sources of points. TJ McConnell is a pass first player, and somewhat limited by his size. He doesn’t take many threes despite hitting them consistently this season (10/18 so far). Justin Anderson has been out since November.  Nik Stauskas and Jahlil Okafor are gone.

The clearest avenue to fixing this would be Markelle Fultz coming back with a fixed shot and playing well. However, his skillset would ideally help the starters more than the reserves; both as a floor spacer and a ball handler in the pick and roll. Regardless of where he plays, Fultz returning and playing at a high level might still be a longshot. He’s likely to be rusty right away.

Outside of Fultz, the simplest solution might be for the players they have simply performing better. We’ve seen all of these players make contributions before; they just need to get back to it.

Luwawu Cabbarot’s Sophomore Slump

After Joel Embiid went down with an injury last year, there wasn’t a lot to celebrate. However, one bright spot down the stretch was the play of a rookie guard from France. Timothe Luwawu Cabbarot started the team’s final 18 games, and put up the following numbers.

12.9 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1 steal per game.

Not hugely impressive numbers, but they were much better than his stats before that point (51 games at 12 minutes per night, 4.2 points, 1.6 assists, .7 assists and .3 blocks). It was an impressive stretch that showed how much Luwawu Cabbarot had improved over the course of his first season.

Luwawu offers a lot when he’s playing well; he’s long and athletic enough to guard multiple positions and switch on defense. Naturally, he was expected to take on a larger role in the rotation. It’s important for the Sixers to get production out of their shooting guard spot; in a pass happy offense, they are often the beneficiaries of those passes. 65% of the team’s shots are jumpers. We’ve seen the positive effects that JJ Redick has had on the starters.

With Nik Stauskas gone, that backup role is entriely Luwawu-Cabbarot’s. Minutes wise, he’s taken on that responsibility, bu his play hasn’t taken a step forward in a way that the team would like. His per 36 numbers are alomst identical to last season with slightly worse shooting percentages. The totals aren’t drastically different, but that’s the issue; Luwawu-Cabbarot hasn’t built upon his play from the end of last year. It’s obviously far too early in his career to say that he’s plateaued, but a big leap doesn’t appear to be in the cards this year.

So what’s the solution? One beneficiary, should Luwawu see his minutes drop, could be Furkan Korkmaz. But that might not be an option for a while, unfortunately. Korkmaz suffered a foot injury with the 87ers on Dec. 15th. He’s out indefinitely.

When Korkmaz can return to the court, he might be worth a look in some more minutes. The rookie hasn’t played much this year besides some late minutes in blowouts. He’s mostly bounced back and forth between Philly and the Deleware 87ers. He has a natural shooting stroke and is a surprisingly good vertical athlete. He has a lot of work to do on defense, especially moving laterally and in his general IQ, but if the Sixers need scoring, it might behoove them to give Korkmaz a shot.

So Korkmaz won’t be coming for a while, if at all this season, so one final avenue to fix this would be through a trade. Adding depth has to be a priority for this team moving forward. Who could they land? I can’t imagine that they’d want to make a massive deal; ideally it’s a low cost player who is either expiring or easily trade-able after this year.

Joel Embiid, The Villain?

There was a fantastic piece by Ramona Shelburne on Joel Embiid that ran last week. In the story that was a really interesting quote by the Sixers’ big man.

“People love you at the beginning,” Embiid explains. “But at some point they’re gonna start hating you. LeBron. Russell Westbrook. All the superstars. Even Steph. He’s so likable. He does nothing wrong, but some people still hate him. It just comes with the nature of it. I’ve seen it.”

Embiid certainly has a point. The best players are always hated on for some reason. Justified or not, it’s something that NBA superstars have to deal with. For Embiid, the question is when will that turn happen? Has it already begun? It seems like he throws shade at a different player on social media every week. Karl-Anthony Towns was the victim this week.

It’s hard to know when stuff like this is in good fun or when it’s taken the wrong way. One day, Embiid will undoubtedly cross that line. It’s just who he is. For now, at least you can say that he’s self aware; he knows that a change in perception is coming. And it seems like he’s ready for it.

Joel Embiid, The Passer

Of course none of these shenanigans would mean much if Embiid wasn’t so good on the court. He has dominated opponents this season by using a wide array of post moves and counters. He’s got sensational footwork and grace for someone his size. But lately, I’ve been really impressed with his passing. Last week he had three straight games with at least 6 assists.

This is a crucial skill for Embiid to develop. The team loves to feed him the ball down low. Naturally, when that happens so frequently and with such efficiency, it invites other teams to double Embiid when he has the ball. Recognizing this and passing to vacated spaces will truly take Embiid’s, and the team’s, offense to the next level.

Finish The Year Strong

The Sixers may be in a slump, but finishing the year strong could do wonders for their confidence. That may be easier said than done; they’re got some tough games ahead of them. Coming up, they’ll play a home and home series with Toronto, one of the best teams in the East. Then they’ll square off with the New York Knicks on Christmas Day (12 pm start). Finally, they’ll finish a five game road trip out west versus Portland, Denver, and Phoenix on New Years Eve.

*All Stats are up to date as of Dec. 20th*

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