Seven on the Sixers: Hello Darkness my Relatively Recent Friend

Remember that little bit of momentum the Sixers had going into the all-star break following the win over the Clippers? Well, that momentum has effectively fallen off a cliff while simultaneously catching on fire and exploding in all of our faces.

It doesn’t even matter the team is 3-2 since the break. They lost the one game that wasn’t against a reprehensible excuse for a team (Milwaukee), and much more importantly, they lost the two key pieces of the franchise to injury.

Fortunately, it seems like Joel Embiid only sustained minor damage to his shoulder in the Cavs game and should be back in a week or so.

But Simmons? Oh, Simmons. Leave it to the medical staff that had three draftees sit out their original rookie year, gave us the Markelle Fultz saga and actually almost killed Zhaire Smith last year to allow a generational talent to take the court even though his back was hurting so much that he couldn’t turn around or stop his momentum due to the pain.

I would say at least things can’t get any worse from here, but we all know better than that.

On to the list!

1. The defense that will be missed

I went really hard on Embiid and even questioned his defensive value back in the first edition of this series, but after some further examination, it’s quite clear that he’s still a destructive force on that end of the court.

When he’s out there, teams might as well just adopt the Rockets-strategy of jacking the best open three ASAP, because attacking Embiid in the paint is just not a viable option.

What happened to poor John Collins there happens to a lot of Sixers’ opponents that venture into the key: they simply get swallowed up by the mass of body that is Embiid.

But his most valuable quality on that end of the floor is his pick-and-roll defense. Particularly, he puts a great deal of mental stress on the ball handler as he hangs back close enough to the roller to discourage passes, yet has the cat-like reflexes and quickness to swat or contest floaters should that be attempted.

Given, that was a poor read by Kevin Huerter, but the list of guys in the NBA who can break up lobs like that isn’t long, and Embiid does it on a regular basis.

Experts around the NBA not only think of Embiid as good defender, but potentially the Defensive Player of the Year.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe has often said how with Embiid on the court, the other team is relegated to a garbage shot profile, almost all mid range shots outside of the paint, again due to his ability to hang by the rim yet jump out and contest anything at a moment’s notice.

Simmons and Embiid may not fit together on offense, but defensively they’re a dynamic duo that gets in the head of shooters and creators with their freakish length and athleticism. There’s a good chance we’ll have a much greater appreciation of them after the basketball we’re subjected to in the following week.

2. The defense we will unfortunately be subject to

And yes, this is about Al Horford.

Remember how I said that Embiid finds that perfect balance when defending a pick-and-roll? Horford might understand how to create that balance, but it’s clear that his bodily limitations are preventing him from properly executing it.

Yes, that’s a tough floater Trae Young hit, but it doesn’t change the fact that Horford simply isn’t as intimidating as Embiid. No quick guard sees Horford and worries about being absorbed by his hulking strength like they do with Joel, and even on this play, part of the reason it’s a floater at all is that Joel was also lurking nearby.

Without a seven-foot tank occupying the same general vicinity, quick twitch players simply leave the 33-year-old in the dust.

The most frustrating part of this has to be that Horford’s defense on Embiid the last two years had become infamous amongst Philadelphia fans, as he always seemed to force JoJo into contested fade-aways or turnovers. So of course, after we not only rid him from our fears, but bring him into the equation, he turns into a miscast 3-and-D wing with cinder blocks for feet.

Either Elton Brand is a terrible GM or Danny Ainge cast a curse on big Al the minute he looked toward the rival team. Or both. Yeah, probably both.

3. This week in unnecessary Sixers drama, Part 2

(See, I told you it was a good idea to make this a category).

No, this one doesn’t have a clip to go along with it, but it’s important enough that I needed to include it for any Philly fans that might have missed it. In a sit-down with Spencer Davies of Basketball Insiders, Glenn Robinson III expressed his displeasure with the situation he was recently brought into in Philly.

Here’s what Robinson said:

“Even when (Golden State) played Philly, I showed them what I could do,” Robinson told Basketball Insiders. “So to play those consistent minutes a night and perform well… that’s the most disappointing part about coming here is that — both of us (are) coming off career years where we’re looking at hopefully big numbers after the season. I know I’ve got a family to feed. So you think about all those things.”

“All those things play a role, and then when you come here and your role’s not really explained or you don’t know what’s going on with the trade — it’s not like it was a trade where you come in and immediately have an impact. It’s a little different, so… this team is full of wings, full of guys who can play. So really, I don’t really understand it. But it’s a business, you’ve got to make it happen and go out and try to do your best every night.”

Here’s how Brett Brown responded.

“That is not true. With all of our players, you sit down and go through, after All-Star break, every single one of them got a road map, this is your role, this is what we expect, one. Two, I get when you have a career year on a poor team, and it’s a contract year, I understand it, I coached those years myself. In the middle of all of it, he’s good people, he’s a good person, and he’s trying to figure out what his next step is while coexisting in a team framework.”

“I’ve coached him before. I think he has an important role to play here, we hope to see more of it. But as I said to him, and I’ll say it again, this is a show-me league, and here it is, this is what we expect and hope to see. From time to time, we have seen that, I think he is a league keeper.”

And here was my in the moment reaction:

Screen Shot 2020-02-28 at 12.15.28 AM

Add on top of all of this that Robinson hasn’t made a SINGLE THREE IN A SIXERS UNIFORM, despite the fact that his shooting acumen was the reason Philly traded for him in the first place, and what you get is an absolute clown show, which is more just like every other Wednesday with the Sixers.

4. Shake is not shook

Shake Milton had been the punchline of a decent amount of my, “the Sixers’ depth” is terrible jokes in 2019. He seemed like nothing more than an athletic scrub that got a chance for some reason.

Well, ever since he was given another chance, he’s blossomed into one of my favorite players on this team, and his absolute best quality has to be his fearlessness to toss up semi-contested threes with Dion Waiters-level confidence (okay maybe not THAT much unwarranted confidence, but confidence nonetheless).

Does Richardson take that shot? Probably not. How about Neto or Robinson? I’d say no. Tobias Harris or Alec Burks? Maybe a couple of times, but none of them would shoot it with the lack of hesitation Milton does, and the quickness with which me makes his decision is what burns Elfrid Payton for going under the screen.

Too often, the Sixers’ perimeter players catch, think and then move, giving the defense ample time to adjust. Milton catches and reacts, y’know, as most NBA players are taught to do.

Even if he wasn’t shooting the leather off the ball at 43% from behind the arc, his fearlessness to fire would provide value. He’s a catch-and-shoot threat that defenses can’t ignore, making him only the third guy on the Sixers to fulfill that role after Harris and Furkan Korkmaz.

Sure, his two-handed push form is a little funky, but I just love how he never flinches when the ball comes off his hand, even after needing to jab-step in order to get space from his defender.

He still has some deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball, and he’s still learning how to create scoring opportunities for others, but given the shooting oomph he can provide, there’s no reason he shouldn’t in the top eight of the rotation come playoff time.

5. Richardson just doesn’t have the handle

Tom West of Liberty Ballers wrote a great piece where he explained all the problems that will come from Simmons’ absence, and arguably the most important one is who will take the ball-handling duties.

Naturally, some might want to slight Richardson to that role, as the true version of a point guard doesn’t really exist anymore, and Richardson is one of those agile, lanky guys  that we like to think can do everything.

But in his piece, one of West’s points was that Richardson is simply not going to be the answer. He does not have the handle or intuitive passing instinct necessary in order to conduct a capable NBA offense.

Personally, my biggest problem is with his inability to change directions and slip by the defense, and because he struggles with that, his inability to draw fouls and earn easy points.

Richardson’s handle is so limited that he is completely stonewalled by Kevin Huerter of all people, and doesn’t even bother trying to attack when a big is switched on to him, not to mention that Collins is not a defensive stalwart himself.

I’m no ball-handling expert, but by my estimation, the problem with J-Rich is that he leans too far forward on his dribble, which kills his balance and any potential to shift that balance and change direction.

On this possession he simply gave up and tossed it to Embiid, but more often that not he’s inclined to try a step-back mid range jumper. He’s only had 107 field goal attempts at the rim this year, compared to 123 short mid range shots and 121 long mid range shots, per PBP Stats. The offense would obviously benefit if he could get all the way to the cup more often, as he’s shot 59.8% on those at-rim attempts, but only 44.2% on all types of mid range.

Unfortunately, there have been no signs that he’ll be shoring up this weakness any time soon.

6. So are the Sixers … short now?

I know that sounds weird, but just think about it. Embiid, Simmons and even Norvelle Pelle are sidelined, which leaves the 6’9″ Horford as the Sixers’ tallest active player.

Sure, there still tall at other positions, most notably the wings with Richardson and Tobias Harris, but with their behemoths no longer able to suit up, a few size-related problems were exposed in the victory over the Knicks.

Mitchell Robinson was allowed free-reign at times, as he easily jumped up for put-backs and boards without the resistance that is usually commonplace on this gargantuan team.

Harris and Horford barely even have time to react before Robinson has already stuffed one back in their faces.

Stuff like that just doesn’t happen when an engaged Embiid (which is not a given) or a Ben Simmons is on the court. Those two gobble up boards to the point where teams are just wasting their time if they chase offensive rebounds.

The Sixers have a matchup with the Lakers this Tuesday, who are the only team that matches up size-wise with a healthy Philadelphia squad, and I’m legitimately worried about the horror Anthony Davis and LeBron James might inflict upon this miniaturized unit.

(Insert quippy and self-deprecating Sixers joke here).

7. A non-related Sixers tangent about Donte DiVincenzo

(Hey, it was either this or a hard-core breakdown of Kyle O’Quinn’s crosscourt passing ability. You decide what’s more intriguing).

So why are we talking about this second-year member of the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks? Simple: DiVincenzo is a really good young player, and looking back on it he should have been a 76er.

Back in the 2018 draft, the Sixers used the 10th pick in the draft on DiVincenzo’s Villanova teammate Mikal Bridges, only to soon flip him to the Suns for the Heat’s unprotected draft pick in 2021, and the 16th pick in that draft, with the agreement that the Suns would then select Zhaire Smith.

Guess who went 17th—that’s right, Donte DiVincenzo. Not only did the Sixers make a mistake in not just staying with their ideal fit in Bridges, they screwed up the their one opportunity to possibly redeem the trade.

This one-minute sequence alone from DiVincenzo has provided more value than Smith has in his entire NBA career.

In order, he got an easy two points by not assuming a make and straight out-hustling Chris Paul for the ball.

Casually stepped into a very-deep three pointer off the first pass of the possession, which he of course drilled.

And last, but not least, he put together one of the most impressive defensive possessions I’ve ever seen, which seems impossible considering the defender he projected to be coming out of college.

Remember how I said that Richardson lacked proper balance and couldn’t change directions? DiVincenzo’s defense is the inverse of that. He always seems light on his feet, ready to change directions even before the man he’s guarding has fully thought out what he’s going to do.

On offense, he’s only shooting 34% from three, but like Milton, he’s so confident and willing to fire that the defense still has to respect him out there, thereby creating space for Giannis Antetokounmpo. All-in-all, he would have been the perfect young player for the Sixers to take.

Not taking DiVincenzo is certainly not the most devastating mistake the front office has made in the last few seasons, but the fact that it feels like you could make an entire list of those speaks to the dire state things are in right now.

See you again next week, hopefully in a more cheerful state of mind.

 

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