For better or worse, the NBA is forging ahead with its plan to restart the 2019-20 season at the end of the month in Orlando, Florida. As teams report to Walt Disney World for training camp, we will dive deep into the big-picture basketball questions left to be answered between now and October.
No team has benefited from the NBA’s break in action more than the Philadelphia 76ers.
On the same day in March that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, effectively shutting down the league during the stretch run of the regular season, the Sixers announced All-Star point guard Ben Simmons would miss at least another three weeks with the lower back injury that had already sidelined him since Feb. 22. At that point, there was a real chance Simmons would either miss the remainder of the season or be severely diminished in the playoffs. He is now presumed healthy.
Likewise, All-Star center Joel Embiid had just returned from a shoulder injury to play limited minutes in Philadelphia’s final game before the hiatus. His season had already been interrupted by ankle, hip, knee and hand injuries, and he has long struggled to maintain his fitness through a full playoff run. While he conceded recently, “I don’t know how I’m going to look basketball-wise,” he is at least well rested.
Al Horford has been battling balky knees over the last two seasons, and the 34-year-old said last week that the “the time off for me was beneficial” for the physical ailments that had hindered him this season.
At the very least, the 76ers are now on pace to start the playoffs with a fully healthy rotation. The only question now is whether the break did anything to help solve the on- and off-court issues that have left a title contender in sixth place in the Eastern Conference entering the final eight regular-season games.
Many teams are treating the restart in Orlando as an entirely new season, and that would be a wise approach for the Sixers, whose locker-room dynamics were tested with each loss. Simmons questioned the team’s effort. Horford questioned his role. Josh Richardson questioned the team’s accountability. Embiid questioned Simmons’ willingness to serve the greater good of the team by attempting outside shots. And coach Brett Brown seemed resigned to all of it adding up to “a bit of pre-mortem stuff.”
Sometimes, stepping away from it all can give a team the proper perspective it needs to avoid such sniping the next time around. Early indications suggest the absence has not made all hearts grow fonder.
“It’s just a matter of everybody buying in and being able to do their role,” Embiid said on a conference call on Tuesday. “The pairing with Al, I feel like, has been fine. At times, it could be better. But then again, everybody on the court has a job, and with that type of pairing, you need to have shooters around or you need to have guys who want to take that shot, especially when you have two inside presences. You’ve got to have guys who are willing to shoot and are going to shoot the ball. That’s what needs to happen.”
This is another not-so-veiled shot at Simmons, no question about it. And Embiid is not wrong. Many of Philadelphia’s issues can be traced to the primary playmaker’s inability and unwillingness to shoot. His defender sags, crowding the space Embiid and/or Horford have to operate in the post. Both bigs are often pushed to the perimeter, where they are each shooting below league-average, in order to create driving lanes and post-up opportunities for Simmons. All they ask is for him to do the same for them.
Except, Simmons has not answered the many calls for him to shoot, mostly out of a self-admitted lack of confidence, the root of his stated goal of not attempting 3-pointers until he can make them at an expert-level clip. As he told ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan for an April feature on this subject, “I could be one of those guys shooting 30 percent right now. But I’d rather be one of those guys shooting 40 percent.”
Don’t we all! But the Sixers do not just want him to be one of those guys shooting 30 percent right now, they need him to be, if only because the threat of a three is better than no threat at all. Simmons has attempted 23 triples in his three-year career, many of them end-of-quarter heaves, and he made his first two this season. He has suggested the work he put into his jump shot could be revealed in the playoffs, but we have heard that before. Simmons also said his primary focus over the past few months has been adding muscle, which Sixers personnel and fans should hope is a smokescreen for an improved jumper.
Philadelphia general manager Elton Brand did attempt to address the shooting woes in the rest of the rotation, making a deadline-day trade for Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III, both of whom were hitting at high marks with the Golden State Warriors, and adding Ryan Broekhoff off the waiver wire last month. The Sixers had already been relying on Furkan Korkmaz as a sixth man, and Brown was beginning to work Shake Milton heavily into the rotation, even starting him in place of Horford at the end of January.
Between them, they were shooting 39.2 percent on 938 attempts from long distance this season.
But Milton has a half-season of NBA experience. Same goes for defensive ace Matisse Thybulle, whose decent early shooting returns will be tested. Burks and Robinson had yet to find their rhythm in Philadelphia, and neither has been a consistent knockdown shooter in his career. And relying too heavily on Korkmaz and Broekhoff in the playoffs could prove akin to 2018, when the defensive limitations of J.J. Redick and Marco Belinelli expedited their exit in a five-game second-round series against the Celtics.
Mike Scott is another oft-reliable shooter off the bench, but he too comes with a defensive downgrade, because playing the stretch forward means either removing Embiid or Horford from the lineup. The 76ers have been a jigsaw puzzle that never fits quite right, because they were built with a manufacturing flaw.
The saving grace for the Sixers has still been its original starting five of Simmons, Embiid, Horford, Tobias Harris and Richardson, a quintet as massive and talented as any other in the league. It is an outfit often good enough defensively to overcome the obvious fit issues that have left Philadelphia 18th in offensive rating. That group has outscored opponents by almost double digits per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass, holding foes to four fewer points per 100 possessions than the NBA’s best defense.
The defense falls off a cliff when either Embiid or Simmons sit. There are only so many lineup combos Brown can concoct if he wants his best players on the floor in crunch time. Every one is a Catch-22, trading playmaking for spacing, experience for potential, defense for offense. The issues are inherent.
Yet, Philadelphia was still a Kawhi Leonard miracle away from unseating the eventual champion Toronto Raptors and reaching the Eastern Conference finals last season. Jimmy Butler’s playmaking had a lot to do with that, but Embiid loomed larger. In 237 minutes with Embiid on the floor in their second-round series, the Sixers outscored the Raptors by 90 points. Toronto won the 99 minutes with Embiid on the bench by 109 points. It made for an almost incomprehensible 71.1 per-100 possessions on/off swing.
Were it not for an illness that limited Embiid throughout the series, the 76ers may well have prevailed.
Quite simply, Embiid has the ability to be the most dominant player in every series on both ends of the floor. Think Hakeem Olajuwon in 1994-95, when he led a sixth seed to the title. If only Embiid could stay healthy, conditioned and engaged enough to be on the court for 40-plus minutes per game. His effort is often the equivalent of Simmons’ confidence, and unlocking both is the key to championship contention.
Should they fail in either regard, significant changes could be on the horizon, even if Brand is not yet willing to turn either of his still-developing young stars into pieces that better fit the puzzle around the other. The question then is how much value everyone else on the roster holds. So, while the Sixers may have benefited from the break more than any other team, they may also have more riding on its restart.
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