Sixers Lead

3 Things to Watch For in the Back Stretch

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24.

That’s how many games are left on the Sixers schedule. Twenty. Four. That’s twenty four games for Brett Brown to figure out his rotation. Twenty four games to mesh. And, most importantly, twenty four games to make any last additions to their roster.

This last concept is nothing new. The Sixers still haven’t fixed the holes on their bench. And, to make matters worse, they have yet to make a splash in the buyout and, by the looks of it, won’t be making any major changes.

So this is it. “Our opportunity is now,” said Sixers GM Elton Brand to ESPN’s Tim Botemps. With the All-Star break in the rearview mirror, the Sixers now have 25 games to figure it out. In the meantime, let’s look at what we’ve learned so far.

1. Horford still owns property in Embiid’s head

Joel Embiid should probably stop acting like there isn’t a problem when evidence shows otherwise. After last Tuesday’s blundering loss to the Kyrie Irving-less Boston Celtics, the franchise big man had this to say about Al Horford:

“He’s not doing anything, it’s just me,” said Embiid in his postgame press conference. “I was sleepwalking for three quarters and that’s on me.”

This couldn’t be further from the case. The Sixers are a lackluster 1-7 against the Celtics dating back to last year’s playoff loss. Even worse, no player outside of LaMarcus Aldridge has defended Embiid better than Horford this season. The numbers speak for themselves. In the Sixers’ three losses to the Celtics, Horford has held Embiid to 17-40 (42.5%) from the field according to NBA.com. Against other defenders, the seven-footer went 11/20 (55%).

On most nights, Embiid can get away with his unique brand of bully ball. Most players either commit silly fouls or, to quote another dominate big man, end up barbecue chicken. Horford, unfortunately, isn’t like most players. He’s built solid and has the defensive IQ to anticipate Embiid’s arsenal of moves. Luckily, all hope is not lost. Despite an overall forgettable performance, Embiid changed his game in the fourth and scored 15 points. The only difference? He went back to the basics. No more trying to overpower Horford; just ball fakes and taking what the defense gave him.

Sure, it didn’t hurt that Embiid hit two threes after going 0-4 through three quarters. The Sixers success has never hinged upon Embiid’s three point shooting and they shouldn’t start now. That’s why they have JJ Redick. That’s why Brand got Tobias Harris. Embiid’s game will have to evolve in the postseason for the Sixers’ title aspirations to become a reality.

2. Having the league’s best Starters doesn’t mean much

One of the most important elements of championship teams is their bench. The Lakers had Michael Cooper and Kurt Rambis. The Bulls had Steve Kerr and Tony Kukoc. The Spurs had Manu Ginobli, Robert Horry and Bruce Bowen.

A team can have all the talent in the world but will flounder without an effective supporting cast. Just ask the 09-10 Cleveland Cavaliers. As Michael Jordan once said, “talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.”

There’s no denying the abundance of talent in Sixers’ starting lineup. No team has five starters averaging more than 15 points per game. They do, however, seem to be lacking in the teamwork department. This is not to say that the Sixers don’t move the ball— they rank third in assists and second in assist percentage. But with a bench that ranks 26th in scoring as of the trade deadline, the issue is the starters have no one to pass to.

In no game was this more obvious than their pre-break loss to the Celtics. Thanks to an electric game from Gordon Hayward, the Celtics outscored the Sixers’ bench 39-22.

Of course things can be done to ameliorate their bench deficiencies. Brown has turned to staggering his superstars in an effort to have a scoring threat on the court at all times. Realistically, a bench with TJ McConnell as its best scoring threat doesn’t scream NBA title.

3. Ben Simmons’ jumper is… loading

The phrase “if Ben Simmons gets a jumper, it’s over” has been repeated ad nauseam. Reggie Miller has said it. Numerous writers have dissected it. Now, finally, it seems like progress is being made.

Social media exploded when footage of Simmons consistently knocking down 22-footers first surfaced. That, coupled with the midrange fadeaways gave the appearance change seemed to be on the horizon. Then came LeBron James’ “defense” against Simmons and, just like that, the reigning Rookie of the Year was once again the laughing stock in NBA circles.

When it comes to Simmons’ jumper, expectations must be tempered. Expecting this man to turn into Stephen Curry overnight would be unrealistic. Even expecting him to become Embiid would be foolish. In his 4,660 regular season minutes, the 6’10” point guard has taken only 15 catch-and-shoot jumpers. Instead, Simmons has experienced most of his success shooting fadeaways.

The story of the fadeaway jumper is pretty well documented. It helped an aging MJ extend his career and Kobe Bryant win five championships. A seven-footer from Germany named Dirk Nowitzki put his spin on it and the move has since became eponymous. Simmons now has the opportunity to add another wrinkle to the storied move’s extensive history. After going just 1-9 on fadeaways during the first two months of the season, the Simmons has picked it up as of late. The Australian wunderkind has seen a significant uptick in makes, attempts and, most importantly, efficiency.

Although converting 36.4% of his fadeaways won’t stop opponents from daring him to take the jumper, it does show signs of improvement. Rome wasn’t built in one day. Ironically, neither were the Sixers— it wasn’t too long ago that “Trust the Process” banners hung throughout the Wells Fargo Center. Waiting for a star player to fine tune his jump shot is much better than the alternative.

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