| As the team learns the importance of keeping their top players healthy, it’s becoming clear that the lack of depth is a serious problem |
Measuring Stick Games
The Sixers are doing well, but the perception of the team can change on a dime when they match up with one of the league’s best. Case in point; a 113-102 loss to Toronto last week. It wasn’t quite as ugly as their Oct. 30th loss in up north; the latest contest was a one point game through three quarters, and Jimmy Butler (38 points, 10 rebounds) nearly matched an incredible performance from Kawhi Leonard (36 points, 9 rebounds, 5 steals).
But ultimately, the Sixers lost because their to best players struggled. Joel Embiid had arguably his worst game of the season 10 points on 5-17 shooting, 4 turnovers, and 5 fouls. He certainly didn’t mince words after the game.
Joel Embiid was pretty direct on tonight's performance: "The past few games, I've been so trash."
Ben Simmons had just 8 points, and 7 turnovers. He has really struggled to play against the Raptors so far in his career. In 6 games, Simmons averages 13 points, 6 rebounds, 7 assists, but a dreadful 6 turnovers per game. He’s been bullied and abused by Kawhi Leonard this year, one of the league’s best defenders.
If the Sixers want to advance in the playoffs, they must learn how to beat teams like the Raptors, Bucks, and Celtics. Most importantly, their best players have to avoid down games like this. Simmons will almost certainly have to develop an outside shot to avoid being completely taken out of games by teams with good defenders.
Embiid however, has a different concern.
After the loss to Toronto, Brett Brown had a choice to make. Embiid had not missed a game to that point (a good thing, for the most part). But his career high 34 minutes per game has really taken their toll. Brown ultimately decided to rest Embiid vs Detroit on Dec. 7th.
“I feel that if there’s any responsibility that we have as an organization is to preserve our player’s health,” Brown said of the decision. “It was clear to us and Joel that he was fatigued over the past few games, especially. ”
Frankly a game off might have been overdue. The concept of resting star players is a relatively new thing in the NBA, but it has caught on after the San Antonio Spurs did it so unapologetically. It’s probably a big reason that Jimmy Butler didn’t want to stay in Minnesota. After being freed of Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau (who famously ran his best players into the ground) in 2015, Butler was traded from Chicago to…a team coached by Thibodeau. Much was made of Butler’s clashes with teammates in Minnesota, but I think an underrated aspect of his departure was recognizing that stars shouldn’t have to play such big minutes in the regular season. He was supportive of Embiid being rested.
Properly resting their best players is something that the Sixers will have to learn. They haven’t had a team, or individual players, this good since the concept of resting stars became commonplace.
To the Sixers credit, they fought back and earned a win against the Pistons without Embiid. Butler led the way with 38 points, and the Sixers got support from Mike Muscala (18 points on 4-9 from three) and TJ McConnell (10 points and 5 assists). It might not have been a test quite as important as the Raptors game, but still a good sign to see the team step up in the absence of their best player.
A few days later against those same Pistons, the Sixers lost Jimmy Butler to a groin injury. He didn’t return to the game and missed the next two as well, but the team performed an MRI and no significant damage was revealed. But the Sixers dropped two straight with him out of the lineup, including a 127-124 loss to Brooklyn in which they badly missed Butler’s defense.
Those two losses without Butler were frustrating, but not without small positives. They Sixers needed a scoring boost without their stars and got it in the form of a career high 18 points from Furkan Korkmaz.
In the very next game, he again scored 18 points and also snagged three steals.
The Sixers declined to pick up Korkmaz’s option for next season, so his future in Philadelphia is far from certain. Admittedly, he wasn’t part of the rotation until the team acquired Butler, so the team must not have been too impressed by his development. There was a deadline for that option, but it would have been nice if the Sixers could have seen games like this before making that decsion. If Korkmaz has more games like this, he won’t be lacking for suitors in the offseason.
Downsides to Korkmaz’s performance
If anything, Korkmaz’s bittersweet situation raises a larger concern; the Sixers have not drafted very well outside of their lottery picks. Here are their results from the past three drafts:
2016: Ben Simmons (1st), Timothe Luwawu-Cabbarot (24th), and Korkmaz (26th)
Simmons was a no-brainer. TLC has since been traded, and struggles to break the rotation in Oklahoma City. Korkmaz has shown flashes
2017: Markelle Fultz (1st), Jonah Bolden (36th), Juwan Evans (39th), Sterling Brown (46th), and Mathias Lessort (50th)
Yikes. Fultz’s issues are well documented, and he surely wouldn’t go first in a re-draft. Bolden is still very raw, and spends most of his time this season in the G-League. Evans was traded to the Clippers, waived, and then picked up by Phoenix. He’s played in one NBA game. Sterling Brown is part of Milwaukee’s bench rotation, but he’s most well known for being harassed by the Milwaukee Police Department. Lessort is still in Europe, and hasn’t been very impressive.
2018: Mikal Bridges (10th, later traded for Zhaire Smith), Landry Shamet (26th), Khyri Thomas (38th), Isaac Bonga (39th), Ray Spalding (56th) and Kostast Antetokounmpo (60th)
Smith has not played due to a foot injury. Bridges is getting minutes on a bottom dwelling Phoenix team. He likely wouldn’t start in Philly, but at least he’d be another capable body for the rotation.
Shamet is by far their best non-lottery pick in the last three years. The Sixers drafted Willy Hernangomez in 2015, but traded him later that night. The year before, they used the selection of Elfrid Payton to trade for Dario Saric (a a pick later used to trade up for Fultz). They also picked Jerami Grant that year, who is actually very useful player for Oklahoma City.
All of this paints a picture of a team that has not drafted well in later rounds. Granted, the NBA draft is only two rounds long, but getting a useful player outside of the consensus top prospects is hugely important. Bolstering their depth in the coming years through late round selections will be crucial in putting the team over the top.
A Fultz Diagnosis
After consulting with numerous specialists, Markelle Fultz has been diagnoses with Thoratic Outlet Syndrome. He’ll miss the next three to six weeks, and then be re-evaluated.
“People were saying it was a mental problem and it is not,” Raymond Brothers, Fultz’s agent, said last week. “There’s no way you’re the No. 1 pick in the world and all of a sudden you aren’t able to consistently raise your arms to shoot a basketball. Something is physically wrong. Now we have the answer to that problem.”
Now, a couple thoughts here. Of course Fultz and Brothers have incentive to prove that this problem is a physical one. A physical problem can be fixed. A mental problem would follow Fultz for most of his career and cloud the perception of him as a player (which…yeah. Thank goodness that hasn’t happened). My confusion from this diagnosis is this; why does this syndrome only affect Fultz’s jumpshot? He was dunking and rebounding and doing just about everything there is to do on a basketball court, without an issue like his jumpshot.
When the Sixers traded Robert Covington last month, they didn’t just lose a first team all-NBA defender. They lost the guy on their team that pumps up the crowd when a free frosty is on the line! If an opposing player misses both of their free throws in the 2nd half, every fan in attendance can get a free frosty from Wendy’s the next day. Covington was always the one to pump up the crowd and a big part in that promotion being so well liked among fans.
Without Covington, that responsibility has shifted to another player. Rookie guard Shake Milton has taken up the challenge. But he is not without critics;
T.J. McConnell says with Covington gone, it’s “next man up mentality” with Shake Milton taking over Frosty Freeze Out duties. But he’s a critic — says Shake’s performance was a little underwhelming tonight
Earlier this week, every playoff team from last season debuted new uniforms. The “Earned” edition is the fourth uniform for the Sixers, and they’ll debut it on Christmas day against the Celtics. These are very similar to the city edition uniforms that debuted last month. But overall I think they look much cleaner. Hopefully they look just as good on the court.