7 for 6: A Far From Perfect Start

| As the Sixers struggle to replicate their success from last season, they’ve been taught some humbling lessons on their place in the NBA’s hierarchy |

Rivalry? Not So Much

The Sixers opened their season against the Boston Celtics. The NBA billed it as an exciting rivalry for opening night. It was far from exciting; the Celtics pulled away for a 105-87 victory. Joel Embiid, the lone Sixer to have a decent game, also scoffed at the notion that the matchup was a rivalry in the first place.

Embiid is right, at least in a recent sense. While the Celtics and Sixers have produced some noteworthy games in the past, Boston has won 19 of the last 22 meetings. JJ Redick echoed similar thoughts, going as far to say that it won’t be a rivalry until the Sixers defeat the Celtics in the playoffs.

The two teams won’t play again until Christmas day. Philadelphia has a long way to go between now and then.

Fultz Still Earning Trust

Markelle Fultz is still in the starting lineup, despite his relative inefficiency. His shooting is still bit shaky, but he’s been a functional NBA player which is a far cry from last season.  His raw stats aren’t eye popping by any means; 8.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 1.2 steals in 25 minutes per game. There have been plenty of flashes though.

Brett Brown doesn’t seem to trust Fultz in late game situations, however. He’s only playing 6 minutes per game in the fourth quarter, as opposed to 8 for JJ Redick. TJ McConnell and Redick have usurped the final five minutes. Redick makes sense; his shooting has literally won games so far. The lineups with Redick in place of Fultz are also more efficient on both ends of the floor.

McConnell’s presence closing games is somewhat understandable; stakes are higher in late situations of tight games, and you want someone on the floor who plays smart and within the structure. Everyone on the court should be on the same page. That’s how it should work in theory, at least. But as Kyle Neubek of PhillyVoice broke down, TJ deserved some blame for their overtime loss to Detroit.

Fultz is capable of doing the things that McConnell does, but he’s still learning the finer details. I guess Brown wants Fultz to take his lumps in the first five minutes of games and stagger his usage throughout the game. But at a certain point, won’t Fultz have to adapt to late game situations as well? Wouldn’t you rather he make mistakes in October so that he doesn’t in May or June? Don’t you want your #1 overall pick to be playable in crunch time?

Reggie Miller made a good point during the broadcast of the game against Chicago; he doesn’t need to score to have an effect on the game. He has still been an active rebounded and passer. The scoring will (hopefully) come with time. For now, Fultz just needs to be on the floor so he can get as much experience as possible. That includes late game situations.

Embiid Finds Another Level

Fultz may be the Sixers’ most high variance player game-to-game. Their most consistent has easily been Joel Embiid. He has found another level of success as a player. His efficiency is up and he’s carrying the team to a degree we’ve never seen before. He was the first 76er since Charles Barkley in 2006 to score 30+ points in four consecutive games. Through 6 games he’s averaging 29.2 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 2.3 blocks per game. All of those categories except blocks would be career highs.

And of course, he’s found time to talk some trash.

The optics of this spat in particular aren’t great; the Sixers lost that game to Detroit and Embiid was formally warned by the league about his flopping on that foul that got Drummond ejected. Embiid’s brashness can be endearing but it could lose its shine quickly, especially if he insists on doing it during and after losing efforts.

Saric Struggles Early

Dario Saric loves basketball. The only thing he might love more is playing basketball for his home country of Croatia. The downside to that, however, is showing in the early stages of this season. Saric hasn’t been as effective and it’s likely because of fatigue of playing all summer.

The leap that Dario took in his three point shooting last year was a huge part of the Sixers’ overall improvement. He shot 39% last year, but right now he’s only hitting 27%.

To his credit, Saric has recognized that playing over the summer adds up:

“Absolutely, I think I would be a better player if I didn’t play five, six years on the international team every night,” Saric said of his slow start. “I think I would be a better player but at the end of the day, everything is about winning and you want to win with your national team, too.”

The leap that Dario took in his three point shooting last year was a huge part of the Sixers’ overall improvement. He shot 39% last year, but right now he’s only hitting 27%.

Minor Injuries Add Up

The Sixers haven’t had any major injuries yet (knocks on wood so hard it explodes). But minor injuries have had a tangible negative impact. Ben Simmons left early against the Magic, and missed the next game against the Pistons with back tightness. They sorely missed his defense as Blake Griffin scored 50 points, including the game winning 3 point play. Wilson Chandler still hasn’t played, and they’re clearly missing his versatility on defense. Jerryd Bayless’ injury has forced rookie Landry Shamet into the bench rotation. While his shot looks smooth, he’s nowhere near a plus defender yet.

“We need help,” said Brown last week after a loss to Milwaukee. “We need other people stepping up, and playing more as a team and getting Mike [Muscala] and Wilson [Chandler] back in this.”

Muscala has only played three games and is still finding a place within the offense. It remains to be seen just how effective he can be, but he’s averaged more playing time than Amir Johnson so the team clearly likes what he brings to the team.

Team Defense Lacking; A Concern, or Sign of a Trend?

Minor injuries have had their biggest impact on the team’s defense. The Sixers were built on an identity of defense last year. They were a top five team based on Opponent’s Points Per 100 Possessions. They were also top 10 in stats like Steals and Blocks per game. This year, they’ve been middle of the pack at best. Teams are averaging 114 per game against Philadelphia, 9 more than last season.

It’s concerning, but also might be indicative of a league wide trend.  Last season, only 6 teams averaged over 110 points per game. 21 teams are clearing that amount so far this season. It’s admittedly a small sample size, but something to keep an eye on this season.  If it’s truly a year of higher scoring, the Sixers must improve their defense soon.

Future Draft Pick Lowers in Value

At this past summer’s NBA draft, the Sixers made a trade with the Phoenix Suns that landed them Zhaire Smith. Smith is out with an injury, but they also received a first round pick belonging to Miami in the deal. It’s a pick for 2021, and for a while that pick held a lot of value because it was potentially the first year in which high school seniors would be eligible for the draft. That changed last week, when the league reportedly sent out a memo stating that 2022 would be the earliest year that this change would happen.

In an immediate sense it doesn’t change the Sixers’ plans. They won’t be able to make that pick for another three drafts, but it does shrink the pool of players that they could choose from. If they wanted to move the pick in a trade, it now has less value. Still, it’s an unprotected pick, and Miami’s future prospects are not great especially after a potential trade for Jimmy Butler has seemingly fallen through.

All stats are up to date as of Monday, Oct. 29th.

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