7 for 6: Challenges Galore

Embiid criticized, responds

In his first three seasons, no one had as much fun playing basketball as Joel Embiid. He reveled in getting under the opponents skin and engaging with the crowd. And relative to the years before Embiid’s debut, the team has done a lot of winning. But after two straight 2nd round playoff exits with less than stellar performances by Embiid, fans and the national media have begun to wonder if Embiid’s antics are helpful or hurtful to the team. Two of the tone-setters for the national conversation have been Shaq and Charles Barkley. Earlier this week on Inside the NBA, both had strong words for Embiid

“He’s the toughest player in the league to match up with,” Barkley said of Embiid. “But we don’t talk about him the way we talk about Luka [Doncic], Giannis [Antetokounmpo], Anthony Davis, James [Harden]. We don’t ever say that about him.”

Shaq seemed to agree.

“We’re telling you [Embiid], ‘You can be great. You ain’t playing hard enough.’ Twenty-two [points] ain’t enough to get you to the next level.” O’Neal said. “Do you want to be great, or do you want to be good? If you want to be good, keep doing 22 points. You want to be great, give me 28, give me 30. You want to be great, watch Giannis; he wants to be great.”

Shaq is referencing that Embiid’s per game averages are down this year (he’s at 22.7 points per game compared to 27.5 last season), which is somewhat fair. To Embiid’s credit, he took the criticism in stride.

Embiid followed up those comments with one of his best games of the season; 38 points, 13 rebounds, 6 asissts, and the game clinching block in the final moments.

In the Zone

The Miami Heat returned to town again this week, and brought a unique defensive strategy this time. In the 2nd quarter they deployed a zone defense and stifled the Sixers, outscoring them 37 to 19 in the 2nd quarter. Miami held off a late comeback for a 108-104 victory.

“I feel like it put us on our heels, and I don’t think that we responded the way that I thought we would,” Brett Brown said after the game. “It was as much a mentality, mood swing, as it was anything.”

In theory zone makes a lot of sense as a way to defend the Sixers. Their offense runs through Embiid, who posts up and takes him time on the block. You can still score inside on a zone but the passing needs to be much quicker than the speed that the Sixers, and namely Embiid, move the ball. The other options are 3 pointers (which they shot poorly in this game, 12-39) and mid range shots (which, save for Embiid, no one on the roster is a dead-eye on).

A few days later, the Dallas Mavericks came to town and deployed the same strategy. It worked again, and the Mavs left town after a 117-98 win, and they did so with their best player, Luka Doncic.

The Sixers haven’t been caught off guard by this strategy so they’re aware of the possibility of it being deployed later in the season. They need to improve on countering it, especially if they matchup with the Heat in the postseason.

JJ Redick returns, speaks highly of his time in Philly

Redick returned to Philadelphia for the first time since leaving in free agency over the summer. When asked about the team, he was honest about still following the team from a distance.

“I’m enjoying seeing what they’re doing,” Redick said of the Sixers. “It’s weird to say this, but I’m enjoying their success — I really am. I will always pull for any Brett Brown-coached team and obviously love Joel and Ben and Tobias and all those other guys that I was with for the last few years.”

I don’t blame Redick for following the Sixers; they are much better than the Pelicans, who sit at 6-21.

Another interesting wrinkle; Redick could find himself on the trade market soon. The Pelicans have been a letdown so far. Even with the pending return of Zion Williamson, it’s hard to see their current roster pushing for a playoff birth. Recent reports have suggested that the Pelicans want to keep Redick, but he’s exactly the kind of movable asset that rebuilding teams can flip. Redick signed a short deal with New Orleans, only 2 seasons. He carries a cap hit of just under $14 million for the season, which means another high salary player, or combination of lesser salaries, would have to go back to New Orleans in any trade.

That’s not ideal for the Sixers. A combination of Josh Richardson and Mike Scott works financially, but it doesn’t make the Sixers necessarily better.

Norvell Pelle Debut

The recent absences of  Embiid and Al Horford led the Sixers to recall G-Leaguer Norvell Pelle. The forward posted modest stat lines in two games, but stood out with a few nice defensive plays

Pelle made his debut a few weeks ago, posting four blocks in 12 minutes versus Detroit. It’s unclear what future role he has in the NBA, but the flashes of excellence are positive signs. For now, he’s just trying to enjoy the moment.

“The crowd energy, by itself, is amazing. I love it. I feed off it every time,” he said after the win over New Orleans.

 

All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com

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