It’s a little more than halfway through the season for the Philadelphia 76ers and currently, they’re at 31-17, which is good enough for fourth place in the Eastern Conference and sixth overall in the NBA. In the midst of a tough twelve game span, the Sixers are 2-1 in the first three games as they just ran through a depleted Rockets team on Monday night. So, what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong for the Sixers, so far this season?
Right: Joel Embiid is a beast.
Joel Embiid has taken his game to a different level this season. In his first season and a half, everyone saw glimpses of what the big man could do, but it was marred by injuries, games off, and him getting himself into good basketball shape. This year has been different.
Embiid is currently running a stat line of 27.1/13.2/3.6 (scoring, rebounds, & assists) to go along with his two blocks per game. Embiid still likes to take three-pointers, but he’s hitting at 30%, which isn’t bad for a center. He’s averaging almost ten foul shots per game and hitting at an 80% rate, and that’s really making him stand out. The guy is a beast and he’s virtually impossible to stop in the low post and on the defensive end, he provides the basket security that the team needs if there is penetration from opposing teams. Could Embiid improve? Sure he could. He could limit his turnovers but, the level he’s at now is pretty much in line with a lot of top players in the league.
The one area he could be a little better in is the shot selection from beyond the arc. He loves to take the open three and Brett Brown doesn’t discourage him, so again, it’s not really a problem. Where Embiid could become truly lethal is if he improved his passing. He needs to work on seeing the court a little bit better when teams double up or collapse on to him. Instead of making or trying to make a move to shoot, he needs to get a little better at recognizing the open man. This is really just me trying to find something that I don’t like about his game and there’s nothing. Embiid has become an MVP Candidate, All-Star and a star in the league. Everyone knows it and there’s nothing they can do to stop him.
Wrong: Markelle Fultz is missing.
Injury diagnosis, mental issues, shoulder problem, not a good fit for the offense, doesn’t shoot, etc. You can pick any one of those and I’m sure that everyone in Philly has an opinion on it. What people fail to recognize is that the kid, yes kid, is twenty years old. There was a reason that he was picked first overall in the 2017 NBA draft and it wasn’t close, no matter how much people will tell you, in hindsight that Jayson Tatum should have been first.
It was Fultz and then everyone else. Maybe Fultz has developed some anxiety on the court, with the pressure of being the first overall pick and coming to Philly where he’s going to be the “third” star in the young Philly trio that will lead to four titles right away. Either way, Fultz has been broken for some time and it doesn’t seem like anyone can figure out what’s wrong. He’s been away from the team and just returned to continue to rehab from “Thoracic Outlet Syndrom” which affects the nerves in the neck and shoulders. So, it remains to be seen what, if anything, Fultz can provide for the team going forward. It may be best that the team moves him for a piece that could contribute over the next few years, but you would hate to see him go somewhere else and flourish.
I, personally, hope that he can get back on the court and play to a high level, even if it’s not superstar level. He was averaging 8.1/3.7/3.1 to go along with one steal per game when he was only getting a sporadic twenty minutes a game before the team shut him down, so he could still contribute. We all shall see, but as of now, him not being on the floor is hurting the Sixers.
Right: Ben Simmons continues to get better.
Last year, everyone was loving Ben Simmons and the fact that each night he seemed to flirt with a triple-double. This year, he’s improved almost every aspect of his game and his stats are better, but to hear the fans speak, he’s a waste of talent that should be traded. It’s pathetic on the part of the people that are looking at a guy averaging close to a triple-double, for the second year in a row, in his second season in the league, at twenty-two years old, and they want him shipped out. People get upset that he’s not shooting any jumpers, at least until recently when coach Brett Brown said he wants him to and Simmons acknowledged that’s a part of his game he needs to improve to take his game to the next level.
His shot attempts are down, yet he’s averaging more points. His rebounds are up. Shooting percentage is up. Free throw percentage is up. His steals are slightly down and blocks are right at the same level. So, what changed for Simmons? He’s becoming a better player. He’s not going to average twenty points per game until he wants to. Right now, he’s running the offense and getting the ball to the players that he’s supposed to. He’s doing everything that Brown is asking him to do. Simmons should be an All-Star this season and he’s one of the top guards in the Eastern Conference, if not the league, for what he can provide each night on the floor. People need to recognize how special of a player he is.
Wrong: Zhaire Smith is where?
No one knows. The rookie who the Sixers acquired in a draft-day trade with Phoenix has been gone all season. Between a foot injury and an allergic reaction that saw him have emergency surgery, Smith has been lost for all of this season, so far. The hope is that he can return at some point later in the season and he’s been working out at the Sixers practice facility since just prior to the end of the calendar year. Smith, supremely athletic, was supposed to add another dimension to the Sixers second unit and provide defense and scoring. Instead, the team and fans have been waiting to even have him on the court, practicing with the team. This seems to be an every year thing with the Sixers where they draft an injured guy or lose them for a whole year, so it wouldn’t be surprising if we didn’t see Smith at all on the floor this season. Hopefully, the foot and throat are healed and he can get on the floor and show why the Sixers traded for him in the first place.
Right: Landry Shamet is becoming a JJ Redick clone.
Shamet came into the league with the reputation of a shooter. He was 43% for his career from three-pointers in college. He had a rough start to his year and wasn’t providing much hope when he was on the floor. He looked lost at times, wasn’t playing any defense and wasn’t doing what he was drafted to do, shoot. He didn’t seem to know where he was supposed to be on the floor and looked like he had lost his confidence. Then something happened, JJ Redick took him under his wing and started working with him on things that have made Redick one of the best of all-time shooting threes. Shamet has come on since then.
He comes off screens and doesn’t have a problem taking his shots. For the season, Shamet is slightly above 40% on three-pointers and that’s huge. While he’s never going to be a lockdown defender, he’s working to get better in that area and it shows in his twenty minutes on the floor. He’s giving the effort. The real key for Shamet is to keep shooting and he seems fine with that. In limited minutes, he’s still averaging just over eight points per game. He’s taking fewer shots than JJ Redick shoots per game and if he was given extended minutes, his scoring would surely be up around 15 points per game. Shamet, for being a late first-round pick, has found a role and will continue to grow and flourish with the Sixers. Finally, a draft pick that the fans didn’t have to wait a year or more to see play and succeed.
Wrong: The teams’ idea on depth
The Sixers bench has been an issue all year. It was an issue last year that the Celtics exploited in the playoffs and it was something that everyone could see being a problem this year. I get that Fultz and Smith, two players that were going to be a huge part of the second unit, haven’t played much, if at all. But, The Sixers failed to address real NBA quality depth when they saw what was going on with their team. Mike Muscala has done well in his reserve spot. The recently added Corey Brewer showed some energy against the Rockets, but there’s a reason that Brewer is on his seventh NBA team. He’s not going to be a great player but, hopefully, he can add some quality depth for the remainder of the season.
TJ McConell is what you’d expect from him. He’s an energy guy. That’s about it. He’s a defensive liability and he’s not going to give you big minutes and production. He’s nice to have on the team from the energy perspective, but for a team that needs production, he’s not it. Shake Milton and Jonah Bolden are starting to see some minutes and that’s a good thing. Hopefully, they can provide some depth. What the team has done is count on a lot of young players to play bigger roles without giving them anyone to model that part of the game after. We’ll see if they can add some depth prior to the trade deadline, but it looks now like the Sixers will be riding the rest of the season with the squad they have and some hope on the return of Fultz and Smith.
Right: Jimmy Butler is a Sixer
Jimmy Butler came to the team and has given them the third star they had hoped Fultz would be when drafted. Butler is averaging nineteen points a game to go along with five rebounds, three and a half assists and two steals per game. Just want the team wanted and got in giving up Dario Saric and Robert Covington in the deal to bring Butler to Philly. While controversy has risen of late with reports that he was fighting with coach Brett Brown, Butler has been a good teammate and leader to this young team. The key to success from the Butler trade will be if the Sixers can re-sign him to an extension in the off-season. If not, the whole thing will be a waste of time, but Butler really seems to like the city, the team, its fans and most importantly, what they can accomplish, so it looks like he should be back. For right now, he’s going to be focused on getting the team in the best position to win games and he’s been doing a good job so far. It will always take time to integrate a new player, especially one of Butlers quality, but they’re starting to come together as a team and he’s a huge part of that.
As the Sixers get closer to the All-Star break and continue to play well, there’s no reason to believe that they won’t be in the top four seeds of the Eastern Conference when the playoffs start. The health and depth that they have at the end of the regular season will determine what happens and how far they go, but if all goes well, they should be in much better shape to compete than they were last season. Either way, the future is bright in Philadelphia and everyone should appreciate this period in time of “The Process” as the Sixers will continue to develop and improve for the next few years.
Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports