In this installment of 7 for 6: Sauce Castillo heats up, Saric and Ilyasova fight for a role, and the impending return (and possible trade) of Nerlens Noel.
1: Saric The Sixth Man
When the season started, Dario Saric found himself in the starting lineup due to the absence of Ben Simmons. It wasn’t the most efficient start for the Croatian. He shot just 32% from the field in his first six games. The Sixers have been patient, giving Dario nearly 27 minutes per game, but it’s clear early on that he isn’t a great fit in the starting lineup, at least right now. After the first six games, the rationale behind trading for Ersan Ilyasova has become clear. Saric has been more efficient coming off the bench. His usage rate, offensive rating, defensive rating, rebound percentage, and true shooting percentage are all higher when coming off the bench. Granted it’s a small sample size of just two games to this point, but Saric seems more comfortable when he is able to initiate offense more in a reserve role. This is a good role for Saric to feel comfortable in because Ben Simmons will definitely be a starter if not this year but the next.
Not only does Saric’s role off the bench help his own efficiency, but inserting Ilyasova into the starting role has positive effects as well. Although his advanced stats don’t see a massive spike, Ilyasova has a better true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage as a starter and he’s scoring three points per game more.
Again, this is a small sample size and it’s hard to make legitimate inferences so early. Ilyasova obviously has much more professional experience than Saric, so this could be a case of Saric simply adjusting to a new league. Despite their differing efficiencies at the moment, the two are very similar players; stretch fours who can shoot from outside, get their teammates involved by passing and most likely won’t blow you away with their athleticism. But it will be an interesting dynamic to follow throughout the season and see who emerges as the best option in the starting lineup.
2: Stauskas is finally showing what he’s got
Nik Stausakas hasn’t exactly had an easy tenure in Philadelphia. In his first two seasons, he averaged just 6.5 points per game on just 38% shooting from the field. Many thought that he would be cut before the season even started. But Sauce Castillo has been a true spark off the bench this year. This year he’s averaging 9.3 points on 51% shooting (including 40% from three point range). He’s been a strong shooter and really worked to drive to basket off the dribble. The aggressiveness with which he attacks the basket now is huge. Coming out of college, Stauskas wasn’t just seen as Kyle Korver-lite. At Michigan he used his size and athleticism to attack the basket, finish at the rim or draw defenders and pass to open teammates. In his first two years in the league, he didn’t do that. This year, he’s shooting 67% at the rim. That is the kind of effieciency that the Sixers need from Stauskas.
Although the rest of his statistics have remained the same relative to the rest of his career, his scoring is a much welcomed aspect off the bench. He has scored at least 14 points in each of the Sixers’ two wins this year. If he can maintain this level of play, he might not have to worry about being cut this time next year.
3: Philadelphia still has a lot of trouble defending wings and guards
Here are some of the stat lines by Guards and Wings against the Sixers this season
Russell Westbrook: 32 points, 9 assists, 12 rebounds, (11/21 FG, 1/2 3pt-FG)
Kemba Walker: 22 points, 7 assists, 4 rebounds, (7/14 FG, 2/5 3pt-FG)
LeBron James: 25 points, 14 assists, 8 rebounds (9/23 FG 1/5 3pt-FG)
Paul George: 28 points, 3 assists, 8 rebounds (13/23 FG, 2/7 3pt-FG)
James Harden: 33 points, 9 assists, 7 rebounds (12/20 FG, 4/8 3pt-FG)
Andrew Wiggins: 35 points, 4 assists, 10 rebounds (14/20 FG, 3/6 3pt-FG)
At a glance, these appear to be a list of stars that the Sixers have no chance of guarding anyway. Players like LeBron and Westbrook are established triple-double machines while Harden and Wiggins are both playing some of the best basketball of their careers. Sometimes it’s just hard to stop players that good, especially with the quality of players that the Sixers have available. Robert Covington and Sergio Rodriguez, two players who often find themselves trying to guard these opponents, both have negative Defensive Box Plus/Minus ratings for their careers (Covington is actually positive this year, thanks to the amount of steals he is able to collect, but his athleticism limits his ceiling in other defensive aspecrs). Even Jerryd Bayless, who could return soon after a wrist injury, isn’t a shutdown defender by any stretch. The return of Ben Simmons could provide a boost. He has the athleticism and wingspan to handle wings better than anyone else on the roster. And although his defense wasn’t heralded coming out of college, he has the IQ to improve on that end. At the very least, the return of Simmons and Bayless would give the Sixers more bodies to throw at opponents. Whether or not they can be effective right away remains to be seen.
More than anything, these stats underscore the Sixers’ need for a difference making guard. It should be the team’s top priority moving forward in any trade, free agent signing, or draft pick.
4: The return of Noel could boost the defense in a major way
Speaking of defense, it’s not just perimeter players that are giving the Sixers fits this year. While giving up the fifth most points in the entire NBA, Philly is allowing their opponents to shoot 63% on shots less than six feet from the basket, a number that ranks 25th in the NBA. Even with the shot blocking prowess that Joel Embiid has shown off, the Sixers don’t have any other rim protection on their roster. This goes beyond blocked shots, by the way (which the Sixers rank 7th in). Jahlil Okafor isn’t much of a low post defender, and neither is Dario Saric or even Richaun Holmes.
Nerlens Noel could return to the team soon, and his rim protection could be a huge boost to the defense as a whole. For his career, he has a Defensive Box Plus/Minus of 4 and averages nearly two steals and two blocks per 36 minutes. With Embiid playing at a high level to start this year, it’s easy to forget just how good a defensive player Nerlens Noel is. He might no bring much on offense, but he could improve their porous rim protection.
5: Trade possibilities open up
I would imagine that the Sixers want Noel back. Not just to improve their immediate roster, but to prop up Noel’s value across the league should they decide to trade the springy center. And right now, all signs point towards that exact scenario. Rumors have swirled around the Sixers logjam at center all year, including a recent report that the Toronto Raptors are interested in Noel. Toronto would reportedly like to move either Terrence Ross or Patrick Patterson.
Ross would be a good fit. A high flying guard turned small forward, Ross is a career 42% shooter (38% from three) and currently averages 10 points per game for the Raptors. He isn’t a stud, but could thrive with more usage on Philadelphia.
Should the Sixers decide to deal with Toronto, Ross would absolutely improve the roster. But if I were Bryan Colangelo, I’d be asking for Normal Powell. The 23 year old shooting guard is a better three point shooter than Ross (41% for his career) and a slightly better defender. Basically, Ross is a known commodity in the NBA. He’s a streaky shooter who won’t move the needle much on defense. But Powell is younger and could become a better all around player.
The Sixers have backed themselves into a corner with their roster. Teams around the league know Philadlephia needs to move one of their centers and likely won’t give up too much for Noel knowing that he is due for a big contract next season. But that doesn’t mean the Sixers should take pennies on the dollar for whoever they decide to move. We can only hope that they are able to acquire a young player who can grow with this team and take advantage of opprotunities not afforded to them on their current team.
6: There might be no winning with Joel Embiid (if the Sixers stick to their ways)
To their credit, the Sixers told us this was coming. Joel Embiid wouldn’t be playing all 82 games this year. He would sit on one of the two games in back to back sets and likely be on a minutes restriction. None of this should be news to Sixers fans. And yet, fans have still been upset when Embiid rests (like he did against the Wizards on Wednesday). It’s a fair stance to take; after years of a mediocre product, fans are upset when they buy tickets only to miss out on seeing the best player. But it’s important to remember that this is the first basketball Embiid has played in over two years. On top of that, he hasn’t even played a full college season, let alone a full NBA season. The Sixers are thinking long term with their young center; keep him healthy, get him used to the rigors of the NBA, and collect the fruits of their labor in due time when Embiid is able to handle more minutes. With this stance will undoubtedly come some backlash against the team from fans who feel abandoned. With a player like Embiid, the wins will come in due time. But to be patient in this moment, in this city, with these fans, means that sometimes there is no winning in the safe approach.
7: Through experience comes knowledge
The Sixers lose a lot of games. That is nothing new. But the Sixers have also won two games in November. That is something new. (Seriously. The Sixers hadn’t won a game in November since 2013 before last week’s win against the Pacers). The team is still young and learning how to win games. It can be discouraging to see the losses pile up, but there is something to give Sixers fans hope. Both of the Sixers’ wins have come in close fashion. They were able to beat the Pacers in overtime, just two days after losing to the same team in overtime and held off the Wizards five days later. Philadlephia has had a lot of problems finishing close games and the losses have mounted because of it. But the best way to learn how to win is to be involved in those close games. After so many crushing losses, it appears that the Sixers have finally learned, in some small way, how to win games. Progress, like The Process, is incremental.