7 thoughts on the Sixers after their first 6 games
After six games, Philadelphia is winless (again). But that hasn’t deterred any excitement behind the debut of Joel “the Process” Embiid and the rest of this year’s squad. Here are my seven observations so far this season.
1: Brett Brown isn’t very good at coaching late in games
For the most part, Brett Brown has gotten a pass during his first three years as head coach of the Sixers. With so little talent on the roster, it was hard to peg any of the Sixers’ futility on Brown alone. It was simply too difficult to asses Brown as a head coach if he didn’t have players on the team who could execute his scheme.
This year, it’s a lot harder to make that excuse. The team has added Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, Gerald Henderson, and other quality players to make shots late in the game. The Sixers may not have any dead-eyes that strike fear in opponents as the clock winds down, but they’ve been in close games late and had opportunities to finish. Unfortunately, Brett Brown hasn’t really set them up to succeed in that context and it’s hard to discern any sort of scheme out of his sets.
Let’s look at an example from Saturday’s game against Cleveland.
With 7.3 seconds left, the Sixers trailed 102-101 and were inbounding the ball from the sideline. The first option was Joel Embiid, who was covered. Ersan Ilyasova popped out from a screen set at the top of the key for Sergio Rodriguez, but LeBron James correctly switched to Ersan and left everyone covered. The Sixers had to call a timeout to avoid a 5 second call.
Out of the timeout, what do they do? They ran the same exact play. And the Cavs defended it again. The only reason this wasn’t a disaster was that Robert Covington had the presence of mind to get close to the sideline so the Sixers could inbound the ball.
Even the last play itself wasn’t terrible. They tried to isolate Embiid in the post, but he was covered so Henderson took it to the rim and, uh, attempted a shot, but to no avail. While the attempt wasn’t awful (and Henderson might’ve been fouled) there are a few things wrong with it.
1: They shyed away from Embiid very quickly. He was covered, but made no second move to try and get open. Getting your best player the last shot should be a priority, especially for Philadelphia.
2: The rest of the team made no effort to run a play after going to Embiid failed. The only real motion was Ilyasova moving to the paint, but if anything he only pulled LeBron towards the rim who made Henderson’s attempt harder than it should’ve been.
Those two points can mostly be directed at the players, but Brown needs to prepare them better for late game situations. As for the playcall, it’s pretty basic coaching strategy that if a team successfully defends a play, especially an inbounding play, you shouldn’t run that same play on the next possession. It was a real head-scratcher from Brown. It’s not just the players on Philadelphia who need to get better; Brown needds to be more creative with his late game play calls and do a better job of getting his bets players the ball.
2: Joel Embiid shooting threes is absolutely going to be a thing
When Brett Brown said before this season that Embiid wouldn’t have any restrictions as to what they would let him do on the court, he wasn’t kidding. Joel has made 6 of his 9 three point attempts this year, including a 4-4 effort against Cleveland. His form is solid, and he isn’t shy about putting up those shots. For someone nicknamed “The Process”, it hasn’t taken long for Embiid to make an impact (this year, at least). He’s easily been the Sixers’ best player. He’s averaging 17 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 2.6 blocks per game on .603 shooting percentage. For two years, fans have heard about how talented Embiid is but it was hard to seriously imagine him jacking up threes and busting out an occasional dream shake in his first serious game action in two years. Although it hasn’t happened much yet, it will be interesting to see how Embiid does with better shooting around him. If he can learn to navigate and pass out of double teams, the Sixers could have a potent offense on their hands. Embiid hasn’t displayed a great affinity for passing yet, but his lone college year at Kansas started similarly with little playmaking acumen. Should he develop that part of his game, it could be hugely beneficial. Teams already respect his out-shooting prowess, so if Embiid can distribute better, the ceiling just might keep growing like Joel himself.
3: The Sixers appear to have gotten great value for Jerami Grant
I don’t think anyone ever disliked Jerami Grant during his tenure with Philadelphia. Coach Brown and the players were saddened by news of the trade and had nothing but kind words for their newly departed teammate. With that being said, Grant wasn’t a good fit, and Ersan Ilyasova absolutely is. In just three games thus far, he’s averaging 15 points and shooting .412% from three point range. While some may not be fans of Bryan Colangelo, this trade appears to be a good one. Ilyasova has fit right in and provided shooting and spacing exactly as advertised. While he may be relied on a bit too much at the moment, his impact could grow when Ben Simmons finally returns from the lineup. And, considering the Sixers also received a conditional 1st round pick from the deal, Colangelo was able to improve the immediate roster without sacrificing the forward thinking asset-stockpile that Sixers fans have grown so accustomed to.
4: I was wrong about TJ McConnell
In my post breaking down the Sixers final roster, I proclaimed that McConnell was a better fit to start at point guard in the absence of Jerryd Bayless. After six games, it’s clear that Sergio Rodriguez is the far better choice. Not only does he shoot better (.488 True Shooting % compared to McConnell’s .386) but he’s a better facilitator (7.7 assists per game compared to McConnell’s 4.8). Neither are very good defenders (Rodriguez has a Defensive Box plus/minus of -1.8 while McConnell’s is -1.2) but it’s clear how much better Rodriguez on offense. A lot of this could have to do with the fact that Sergio is 30 years old and McConnell is just 24, but the margin is there. When Bayless returns, McConnell could be pressed for playing time, or even a roster spot after this year. Sergio is only on a 1-year contract, so this could be a spring-board year onto a team closer to contention. But TJ has shown the team what he can do, and it’s not great. When Bayless returns, TJ will clearly be third in the pecking order.
5: Ups and Downs for Dario Saric
In the season opener against the Thunder, Joel Embiid was the brightest spot for the Sixers. This was partly because Embid was so good, but also overshadowed how poor Saric was in his NBA debut. In 27 minutes, the Homie only managed 5 points on 2-12 shooting (0-4 from 3), 7 rebounds, and 2 assists. Hardly the spacing, efficient game that many expected from Saric.
But since then, he’s gotten better, mostly noticeably shooting the ball. Last Tuesday against the Magic, he scored 21 points and made all three of his three point attempts. His rebounding has also been solid for a player not perceived as a bruiser in the paint. He’s averaging 5 per game and 7 per 36 minutes. He’s pulled down 7 rebounds in a game three times already.
It was easy to enter this season with the thought that Saric would make an immediate impact and that Joel Embiid would struggle out of the gate. As it turns out, the opposite is true. Saric is clearly still in an adjustment period coming from Europe while Embiid has apparently spent the last two years perfecting his moves. It’s understandable that Saric is struggling right now. But he has shown flashes of what he can do and fans should be patient with the young Croatian.
6: Okafor is not 100%
Aside from dunking of Gobert two possessions in a row, Okafor hasn’t been as impressive as he was last year. I’d venture to guess that he is still recovering from his torn meniscus that ended his rookie season early. Considering that the Sixers will keep Okafor and Embiid on minutes restrictions until at least Christmas, assuming that Okafor is not completely healthy is a safe bet.
That’s an explanation for why his minutes and down and he’s not too efficient, but it might not explain his defense which is still pretty bad. Okafor doesn’t appear to have improved much on that end. In fact, this could be the beginning of Okafor’s role coming off the bench and working against bench units mostly for offense (which ultimately is the bets role for him, I’d say). But it will be hard to discern until he’s healthy and Nerlens Noel returns to game action.
If you’d have told me that Joel Embiid was going to be the healthiest Sixers’ center this year, I would’ve thought you were crazy.
7: Robert Covington needs to pick it up
The start of this year has not been good to Bob Covington. He had just 20 points in his first 5 games, and only made 5 three pointers on 30 attempts. He’s been known to go cold in the past, but it’s frustrating to see that right in the beginning of the season with more talent around him than ever before. With the departure of Jerami Grant, the small forward role belongs to Covington for the time being (until Simmons comes back and likely takes his or Saric’s spot as a starter). The Sixers need him to score from beyond the arc and help on defense.
In his most recent game, he finally got into a rhythm. Against Utah, he scored 12 points and hit 3/4 three pointers. He also pulled down 8 rebounds and collected 3 steals and 2 blocks. That stat-line is much closer to what we expect from Covington. If his shooting returns to form, it benefits Covington, as well as the rest of the team.