(picture by Jeff Hanisch/USA Today Sports)
This one goes out to all my fellow Philly people. I know I jinxed us the moment I wrote in my season preview that this team was going to the NBA finals. I even mentioned how I had to talk myself into it, how my original pick had been Milwaukee.
The key lesson here? Never, under any circumstances, trust a Philly sports team with a lot of preseason hype. NEVER.
And now here they are. The Philadelphia 76ers sit fifth in the East with a record of 32-21. They’ve disappointed to the point that the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team in a transition year that considered selling off the third best player in their team in Danilo Gallinari this week, surpassed them in win percentage. That is inexcusable.
To help myself and any other Sixers’ fans out there deal with the frustration, I’m going to be writing this weekly column in which I break down seven pieces of game film (similar to most of my work over at Inside NU), telling you what happened and why it’s important.
1. A Thing of Beauty from Bam
Watch this picture-perfect denial of the post by rising Miami Heat star Bam Adebayo.
That is insanely good. Bam is the perfect combination of the optimal lean-but-mean body type and tenacious effort that gives an arrogant and lazy team like the Sixers fits. It doesn’t matter that Joel Embiid weighs significantly more and should be able to easily dislodge Adebayo for post position. Bam outsmarted Joel, beat him to the spot, and made him look silly.
The Sixers could use more guys like this. Players who not only know what the right basketball play is, but have the wherewithal to expend the energy in a “meaningless” regular season game.
In addition, this is why I can’t stand outsiders saying, “Why don’t they just post Embiid up every time?” Because it’s not that simple. Great defenders like Adebayo will destroy your offense if you simply plant your behemoth on the block and have him wrestle for position.
It doesn’t mean Joel should just shoot threes, but there are more creative ways to get paint touches for a dominant center than to just have him sit there and shoulder into his defender.
2. The No-Embiid Offense
Midway through the third quarter in Miami, the Sixers were trailing by 14, and Brown decided to give the big man a break, throwing out a lineup of Simmons-Korkmaz-Thybulle-Harris-Horford.
I don’t care that Tobias Harris missed there. That’s a good look for the best three-point shooter in the Sixers’ starting lineup. And then the very next possession …
Huh? That looked similar to the play before that. I wonder what happened on the third possession after Embiid got subbed out …
Yeah. That was three straight possessions, three straight Simmons’ drives with a now-open lane, and three kick-outs to open three point shooters that generated six points, i.e. two points per possession.
None of this ever happens when Embiid and Simmons share the court. In a completely unrelated note, Embiid is averaging a career worst in points per 36 minutes this year with 26.8.
3. Risk and Reward
It’s been widely publicized how much this fan base loves Matisse Thybulle. So much so, that the Sixers refused to include him in trade talks for players such as Sacramento’s Bogdan Bogdanovic—a far superior offensive player.
They were also probably afraid of making the same mistake as last year, when they included rookie Landry Shamet in the Tobias Harris trade, only for Shamet to finish the season on a shooting tear and make a game-winning three in game five of the Golden State series.
Thybulle is already a top-tier defender, and Thursday night in Milwaukee, he officially put Pat Connaughton on his hit-list.
I would pay money to know what Connaughton was thinking in this moment. Poor guy thinks he has a wide open elbow jumper, and out of nowhere, this rangy octopus comes up from behind and swallows his shot whole. He’s now done this so often that I think we need to call this, “The Thybulle Special.”
That said, his strategy of worming his way around the screener and taking a long, looping path doesn’t always result in him catching his man from behind. Better shooters get great separation for clean looks, and savvy vets can lure him into landing-space fouls.
Brett Brown has said all year that Thybulle has free rein on defense to take risks if he thinks he can steal the ball. If that’s the case, we’ll only see more of the Thybulle special.
4. The Epitome of Laziness
This was reprehensibly bad effort.
Even worse that it happened because two of the only players on the team I haven’t renounced publicly, Simmons and Thybulle, didn’t communicate on a back screen.
This is the kind of porous, lackadaisical defense that gets shredded by quality teams in the playoffs, and the fact that it happened to the team’s best two defenders is concerning to say the least.
5. The Two-Man-Game is Not the Same
I’ll happily admit I was wrong about Furkan Korkmaz. He’s gone from useless byproduct of the Process to the team’s best shooter by a mile. I just watched him torch the Grizzlies for a career-high 34 points and was so compelled that I posted this horrendously corny tweet.
But unfortunately, Furk still has a major shortcoming on the offensive end of the floor. For two years, the two-man-game between Embiid and J.J. Redick was deadly and a source of instant offense for the Sixers.
Due to his funky stand-still form, Korkmaz is not a very adept shooter off the dribble, and thus cannot perform the dribble handoff like Redick could. The Sixers have adapted by running a variation of this where Korkmaz peels off an Embiid pin-down. Let’s just say it hasn’t worked great.
Korkmaz isn’t a threat to finish at the rim, so defenses are comfortable chasing him around the screen. That leaves his only option as a post entry to Embiid, while everyone else on the court stops moving and the Sixers just wait for the incoming double team/turnover.
6. Give Me All of The Simmons-Korkmaz Synergy
Where Korkmaz lacks in his ability to serve as a partner to Embiid, he makes up for in the dynamite relationship he has established with Simmons.
Furkan initially shows like he’s going to set the ball screen for Simmons, then slips it for an easy three off the flip pass. It’s eerily similar to the deadly inverted pick-and-roll between Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray out in Denver.
In both cases, an oversized ball-handler with sage passing skills gets a screen from a somewhat tall shooting guard, and teams often surrender an open look while frantically deciding whether to switch or play drop coverage before the pick is even set.
Not only does this play amplify Korkmaz’s shooting though, it also allows for a beautiful wrinkle that’s commonly regarded as one of the best plays in basketball.
Simmons with a full head of steam is downright unstoppable at this point in his career. He’s a locomotive of muscle mass and wide receiver-speed that will either dunk on you or miraculously flip in some stupid right hand hook shot.
More of this please.
7. The Pick-And-Roll Over
One adjustment Brown’s made before to try and fix the Simmons-Embiid pairing is to run a pick-and-roll inside the paint. What could go wrong?
While it’s not always this bad, this action usually doesn’t lead to good things. Simmons doesn’t have enough of a runway to build up his rim-running momentum, and Embiid isn’t quick enough to slip the screen in time and pop open for the lob.
The more I watch this team, the more obvious it becomes that the Simmons and Embiid just can’t play together.
And the scary thing is … I think I’d rather keep Simmons right now.
More to come next week.