I’ve always rationalized last year’s embarrassing 2nd round loss to the Celtics as the product of rookie mistakes, and had a few key things happened differently it could have been a victory if not at least a competitive series.
And I still believe that, to be extremely frank with you. I think that series really was a turnover, a Belinelli foot being an inch further back, and a Covington 3 or so from being a win. But with all of that said, the Celtics are still, despite all of their drama and struggles, one of the most difficult matchups for the Sixers in the league (result of tonight’s game notwithstanding). It’s not an uncommon take to say that the Sixers would probably be better off against Milwaukee than Boston in a 7-game series.
First things first, though. Let’s talk about why this is. One thing that is clear from this year so far is that the Sixers tend to struggle against teams with guard depth. Brooklyn is a perfect example of this. D’Angelo Russell looks like Steph Curry against them. Spencer Dinwiddie looks like he’s ready for a starting job. Why is this?
I think the Sixers’ guard problems can be traced back to the fact that Simmons is not a traditional point guard (obviously). For as strong and switchable as he is, certain smaller guards, particularly those with good handles and mobility, can give him trouble. Specifically, Kemba Walker, Kyrie Irving, and players in that vein. I have a feeling Iverson would destroy Simmons. This isn’t counter-intuitive, either: it’s easier to move a 6’1 body than a 6’10 body.
So in that regard, the Sixers are already starting defense mismatched, which leaves some question marks for the rest of the squad. Is Butler better suited for small guards? Is Simmons capable of hanging with true small forwards in Butler’s absence? All of this uncertainty arises from the mismatch created by particularly crafty and slippery guards.
But that isn’t all that works in Boston’s favor over Philly. Big men who can play the perimeter more and drag Embiid out from under the hoop also present a defensive problem. Bigs who can shoot, specifically like Horford, Baynes, and others like Aldridge, weaken Embiid’s incredible ability to protect the rim and abuse his physicality. This displacement of Embiid makes life easier for those small guards, as well, providing them more room to drive and collapse the defense on to them.
So, teams with bigs who can shoot and small, handl-y guards give them trouble historically. But how do the recent acquisitions impact that? For starters, Tobias Harris is a more athletic player than Wilson Chandler, so he’s an upgrade defensively purely from a physical standpoint. However, his pure 3-point shot makes the offense lethal, as you simply account for both Redick and Harris while properly handling Embiid or Simmons down-low. Butler, of course, can kind of play anywhere in between, as well, with great post skills and a respectable jumper.
Underrated, however, is the impact that the new role men in the rotation impact their matchup favor-ability. In last year’s playoffs, the Sixers simply had too many guys who could only hang on one end of the floor. Belinelli could shoot the lights out, but he makes Redick look like a lock-down defender. Covington could handle anyone at the perimeter on D, but went ice-cold from 3. Players were too easy to circumvent on any one side of the court.
However, the new Sixers, such as James Ennis, Mike Scott, and John Simmons, all have the basics covered on both ends of the floor. Simmons has shot poorly as of late, but he at least has that in his arsenal. Scott and Ennis both play hard and physical, and make you work to get your shot off from the arc. Harris is no different, mind you. He is a passable defender and a pivotal offensive piece.
Tonight’s game was an interesting case study into this idea. For one thing, Harris went 0-6 for 3. That’s…not good. But obviously, things like that are in part due to chance. Embiid had two 3-pointers rattle around inside and bounce out. Things like that just suck when the team was already struggling offensively.
Some of the teams’ struggles were Boston’s defense, like how Horford gets away with murder against Embiid. But some things, like Korkmaz and Harris missing open looks, and Redick having an off night, are just shit luck.
I’m not going to try and justify this outcome as frustrated as I am by another loss to Boston on the season, but man would this have felt good. How Sixers-y is it that Harris goes cold the one night we really need him not to? Or, among other things, the refs blowing calls and Butler missing 2 free throws late in the game? All of these things aside, I think the matchup was about as we expected. Players like Horford and Morris drew the front-court away from the rim, and Al Horford is just more mobile than Embiid. And he’s certainly more mobile than Boban.
The likelihood of the Sixers and Celtics meeting in the postseason is low, save for the Eastern Conference Finals, or, if Indiana keeps playing well, in the first round. Neither of which are likely, as the odds that the Pacers outplace both the Sixers and Celtics are pretty low, despite having a one game advantage right now. And moreover, I think the Raptors or Bucks would beat the Celtics in round 2, as Boston struggles on the road and neither have answers for Milwaukee’s system or the Raptors size and strength. So, for the sake of my heart health, it’s probably good that the two won’t meet up.
It didn’t take long for NBA Twitter to catch fire when news came that Anthony Davis was not intending to re-sign with the Pelicans, and was requesting a trade out of New Orleans. As the internet exploded with memes and speculation about his destination, one aspect of the story stood out to me. The Brow wants to win titles. This makes the trade speculation a lot more interesting, as it puts an unusual constraint on his potential landing spots.
This is not to say, of course, that this isn’t typical of stars that demand trades, but rather it’s abnormal in the sense that AD has made clear that winning championships is what matters, not money.
With that in mind, I began to wonder what other teams might be interested in taking a gamble on AD, specifically teams that haven’t already received a lot of attention as potential trade partners for New Orleans. For one thing, the Lakers could get outbid pretty easily, despite their more agressive interest in the trade. Another problem with the usual suspects is Boston, who can’t make a trade until Kyrie Irving is on a new contract (or is involved in the deal, which is also unlikely).
So unless the Lakers clear house, or the Celtics turn this into a waiting game, there are definitely other teams worth exploring as landing spots for AD. There are some important things to keep in mind when thinking this through, however. First, the path to a title, both now and in the immediate future, is easier in the East. Second, teams must be in need of AD’s services, both positionally and skill-wise, to really be interested in making a move here. Third and finally, do these teams have the resources to get this trade done? I can think of a few, but some are far more likely than others.
The Toronto Case
The first team that came to mind as a dark-horse trade destination for AD was the Toronto Raptors. First of all, the team has depth at center, but no absolute killer out there. Unlike Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and some others that fit the bill, Toronto could certainly benefit from having Anthony Davis both short and long-term. Would Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, OG Anunoby, and a pick get the deal done? Would Toronto be comfortable with that? Serge Ibaka is an interesting candidate, but his salary makes him harder to move and/or balance with New Orleans, and as a home-grown guy, I’d rather keep JV if I could.
If I were New Orleans, I would certainly be trying to get Pascal Siakam in the deal, but he has proven so valuable as a role player this year that I doubt Toronto would be super interested in moving him. With that said, a starting 5 of Lowry, Green, Leonard, Siakam, and AD would be one hell of a team on both ends of the court. Not to mention having such strong presences off the bench like Fred Van Vleet, Ibaka or Valanciunas assuming one doesn’t end up in the trade, and other competent role players to back them up, this sounds like a title team to me.
Not only would they be instantly a defensive bastion, but the on-court fit is better than you would probably expect as well. Kawhi and Danny Green are both efficient floor-spacers, Kyle Lowry is an assist machine, and Pascal Siakam can do more or less whatever you need at the 4. If I were AD, I’d be thrilled at this. No player on this team has an ego, it would be very easy to come in and be instantly embraced by the city and team, and that team could win a title this year and down the line as well.
The one downside to this for the Raptors is potentially disrupting the home-grown talent and culture guys that they have. But with a player like AD, I think that’s a chance you take.
The Portland Case
Another team that interested me in this thought process was Portland. They’ve been overdue to shake things up for a while, and they are a team that really is just one player away from being a contender, even in the West. The Trailblazers could try to move CJ McCollum, who for all of his struggles this year is definitely a player of value. He’s not enough to get the deal done straight up though, despite their near identical salaries.
Nurkic is also an interesting asset, and trading a center for a center would make the position fit easier, as well. It would be tough for Portland to get this deal done without digging into their depth a bit, but their depth isn’t going to push them above the 4th seed at best this year.
It’s been time for this team to try and push their ceiling up, and this would certainly be a good way to do it. AD is a top 5 player on both ends of the court, and with floor spacing that Damian Lillard and the other powerhouse shooters like Seth Curry and Meyers Leonard provide, AD would have all the room in the world to work down low. A starting 5 involving Dame, Aminu, AD, and players to fill in the gaps off the bench like Curry, Turner, Leonard, and Collins, I could see this rotation of guys making a strong run this post-season. The problem would be filling in the gaps at SG and SF, depending on who is involved in the trade, and what Portland gets back. Regardless, this team is well-suited to take in AD and instantly become a contender.
The Clippers Case
This final one is easily one of the least likely, as the Clippers have made clear their interest in Kawhi Leonard this off-season. However, they are easily capable of making moves that would open up two max slots in their cap room, and part of that could be made possible through an AD trade. Although Davis has stated money isn’t important, I can’t imagine playing in LA isn’t at least slightly alluring. Plus, he gets to do it without all of the drama and sacrifice that involves playing with LeBron and for the Lakers in general.
That is all an aside, though. The real question is, how much depth does LA have to cough up in order to get this deal done? The easy part is matching salary. They have plenty of players of varying skill levels on various size deals, all or most of whom are perfectly fair value. Would NOP be interested in Montrezl Harrell, Danilo Gallinari, and some picks? As cruel as it would be to make Tobias Harris move again, he is also an undoubtedly valuable piece on a very solid contract. Getting Gallinari off the books makes more sense, however, as it alleviates more cap room as well as providing a very convenient opening at small forward for one, say, Kawhi Leonard.
As young players like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander continue to improve, this starting 5 would only increase their ceiling even after adding two top 5 players in their prime. SGA, Lou Williams, Kawhi, Harris, and AD would be one heck of a lineup with plenty of upside and room for improvement. The best part of the Clippers is they have so many functional and valuable players, but none that are irreplaceable. This is a well-coached, consistent, and professional team that would be a prime landing spot for any marquis talent, but it would specifically would be a great spot for AD given LAC’s future plans and current situation.
While I think it’s fun to imagine AD in green or yellow (actually now that I think about it, that’s the least fun thing I could do) there are certainly other interesting options that not only fit the bill for AD to go there, but also have interesting options as a return for New Orleans. If I were the Pelicans, there are certainly players I’d value on the teams I mentioned above more than I’d value any combination of Kuzma, Ball, Hart, and Ingram. So cheers, we’ve begun the next great NBA trade saga, so now all we have to do is wait.
You may remember that about a month ago I wrote a piece titled The Ghosts of Process Past that highlighted the biggest mistakes throughout the history of the Sixers’ Process. Now, you may also remember that I mentioned it was the first article of a three part mini-series, and while it has taken much longer than I wished for me to get around to it, I present to you part two: The Ghosts of Process Present.
Now much like Ghosts of Process Past, I am going to avoid talking in retrospect as much as possible. What I mean by this is I am not going to be talking about why the Sixers can’t win a championship this year. With the way the league is currently constructed, it is incredibly difficult for really the 28 other teams outside of the Warriors and the new look Raptors to contend for a title this year when they are healthy. Will the journey to the Championship series be exciting? Probably, just as we saw last year’s Western and Eastern Conference Championship series each go to 7 games. But really, the Warriors and Cavaliers were both chalked up to compete in their fourth straight title series since before the season even started.
Rather, my desire is to discuss the biggest issues with how the Sixers are currently built, why these problems are taking away from them truly reaching their potential, and how it may affect them in the years to come. So, without further ado, here are my top 5 Ghosts of Process Present:
5. The Markelle Fultz Mystery
It should come to no basketball fan’s surprise that Markelle Fultz found his way onto this list. What may be a bit surprising is why I have it so low, so hear me out. Markelle Fultz’ rookie year was incredibly disappointing, and it makes it even more so because Bryan Colangelo traded up to select him with the first overall pick. With uncertainty surrounding him and the team concerning whether it was an injury or a mental issue, there have been questions circling whether or not Fultz will ever be the same since the first time he suited up for a preseason game. But the fact is the Sixers were a 52 win team without him. Sure, the Washington Markelle Fultz could have easily been the piece that turned a good team into a great team, but with the new addition of Jimmy Butler, Fultz does not need to be the guy to fill that role anymore. With all of this in mind, its fair to consider the Fultz issue as more of a “non-positive” rather than a negative.
However, there was a lot of anticipation that Fultz could have very well been ready to return in full form this year after working all summer with shot doctor Drew Hanlen. But as we all saw, Fultz clearly was not at 100% and his improved shot and mentality quickly deteriorated as the season went on. With Fultz currently out rehabbing what was officially declared as thoracic outlet syndrome, there is hope again that Fultz can come back ready to play like he did as a collegiate athlete, but it was also recently reported that Fultz may not be able to return this year at all.
Even if he never becomes the player he was supposed to be, he could very well play an important role off the bench as the team’s future sixth man if he is able to find any sort of footing in the NBA. With all of this to consider, it puts the Sixers in a very difficult situation: should they trade him or keep him? The benifits of trading him is freeing up $10 million in cap space they can use to strengthen their depth next offseason. But if they trade him for a pile of second rounders and an aging vet (which, lets be honest, is all they can get for him right now) and Fultz turns around his career, it could haunt the Sixers for upwards of a decade. It remains to be seen how the situation will turn out, but it will be incredibly interesting to see what happens.
It has been about a month and a half since the Sixers traded Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and some change in return for All-Star Jimmy Butler. Since then, the Sixers are 13-4 in games Butler has played since making his debut in a Sixer’s uniform (0-2 when he sits). So there is no doubt that the trade has made the Sixers a much better basketball team. However, as much as Butler helps the Sixers, there has been one noticeable drawback from the trade: three point shooting.
Now, when you look at the team stats from three point range, there is not a glaring difference from before and after the trade. The Sixers struggled collectively from three early this season but last year they shot 29.8 3PA on 36.9% per game (29.8 3PA on 37.9% per game after the start of the New Year when the Sixers really started rolling). Since the trade, the team has been shooting 30.4 threes per game at 36.9%. While the team’s three point production has not exactly changed, it is hard to ignore trading away two of the team’s three best three point shooters for a guy who makes a living in the mid-range like Butler. Butler is currently shooting a career high 38.8% from three, but it remains to be seen if he can keep this pace up as he has only played 27 games this year. With Embiid not exactly a prolific three point shooter and Ben Simmons yet to attempt a legitamate three in his career, the Sixers lack of premier perimeter shooting could very well be exposed futher down the road like in last year’s playoff series against the Celtics.
3. The Phantom of the Process
While yes, this heading is an ode to Embiid’s self imposed nickname from last year’s playoff run, I do not mean this in a good way. Just like a phantom, or a ghost, can disappear into thin air, so can Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons against the better teams in the league. What do I mean by this? Well, let’s take a look at the Sixer’s performance against the Celtics and the Raptors, the Sixers’ two biggest obstacles in the Eastern Conference, over the last two seasons. In the regular season alone, the Sixers are a combined 3-9 against these two teams (1-4 against Boston and 2-5 against Toronto). The Sixers might have won big the other night against Toronto, but the Raptors were without three of their best players in Kawhi Leonard, Serge Ibaka, and Jonas Valencuinas. And then of course we all remember losing to the Celtics in 5 games in last years playoffs: a series in which the Celtics were without their two best players and a game where Ben Simmons could only manage one singular point.
On top of all that, with the Sixers recent win against a depleted Raptors team, they improved to a mere 4-7 against teams with a winning record this year and face 16 more teams with a +.500 winning percentage through February 12th. It will undoubtedly be the biggest challenge of the season for the team, and will show us truly what this team is all about.
Nevertheless, the Sixers are still a young team learning to grow with eachother, and I have faith they will get this issue sorted out, especially with the talent they have at the top of their roster.
2. Brett Brown Being Just… Ok
While the “Fire Brett Brown” crowd has not been as loud this year, they still exist, and they have a tad bit of a valid argument. Before I get into it, I just want to preface this by saying Brett Brown is not a bad coach, by any means. But that being said, he is not a great coach either. Now, I love Brett Brown. He has been here since the beginning of the Process and deserves every chance in the world to be able to win a title with this team. He is an excellent X’s and O’s guy, as he’s been able to develop very effective offensive and defensive systems. The Sixers were even one of the best defensive teams in the league in the middle of the Process Era led by a rookie Nerlens Noel. On top of that, the organization loves him and his players believe in him.
However, in the heat of the game, Brown is prone to some questionable rotations and even more questionable time management. Time in and time out, he fails to stop the clock, give his guys a rest, and draw up a play to get the team rolling when they are on the wrong end of long scoring runs. I would not place him in my top 10 coaches in the league and I’m not convinced he is in the top half either. With a young, inexperienced team, it is incredibly important for the team to have a coach that can guide them through close games and the playoff grind, and judging by the collapse against the Celtics in last years playoffs and their inexplicable habit of losing 20 point leads in the 4th quarter, I am not convinced Brown is that guy.
My stance? The Sixers should not fire Brett Brown, yet. While the Sixers could do a whole lot worse at the Head Coach position, I don’t think they could do a whole lot better at the moment, as there are not exactly any desireable coaches available on the market. Brett Brown is still figuring things out just like his players, so only time will tell if good ole BB can coach his guys to a long playoff run.
1. The Bench
Any Sixers fan who’s watched their fair share of games this year knows that the Sixers’ depth, or lack there of, has been a major issue. This also ties in with Markelle Fultz’ disappearing jumpshot, as his ability to create shots off the dribble is exactly what the Sixers need off the pine. Currently, the Sixers rotation includes TJ McConnell, Furkan Korkmaz, Mike Muscala, Landry Shamet, and more recently Jonah Bolden. Shake Melton, Demetrius Jackson, and Amir Johnson round out the reserves. While most of these players are solid rotational guys and could very well earn minutes on a majority of teams around the league, there are two glaring holes in the rotation: shot creating and rim protection.
As far as the guards go, Shamet and McConnell are the first two guys off the bench. Shake Melton and Demetrius Jackson have been getting more looks as of late, but their youth and inexperience show when they find themselves on the hardwood. Shamet has been one of the most surprising rookies in the league, going head to head with Luka Doncic for the rookie leader in three pointers made. McConnell has been a fan favorite for years with his gritty defense and incredible moments over the years, like his game winner against the Knicks two seasons ago.
But both of them come with significant draw backs. McConnell is not exactly an offensive force. He is a game manager that is great in his role, but he cannot be called upon to come off the bench and give the team a bucket. Additionally, after posting a career high in three point efficiency last season, he has taken a significant step back in that department. Shamet on the other hand is used as essentially JJ Redick lite, which is perfect on the offensive side of the ball. However, much like JJ, Shamet struggles on the defensive side, especially against more athletic players.
Furkan Korkmaz is currently the only wing coming off the bench for the Sixers, and he poses the same advantages and disadvantages as Shamet. However, he has proven that he could earn an important role off the bench come playoff time, as he has been playing more than Shamet lately.
Perhaps the biggest issue is the backups to All-Star Center Joel Embiid. Jonah Bolden, Mike Muscala, and Amir Johnson arenot bad players, but none of them can effectively guard the rack. Bolden has shown some defensive upside, but much like Amir, he just does not have the athleticism to keep the other team outside of the paint. While Muscala plays an excellent stretch role at the five and four, he is a giant hole on the defensive end.
The season is far from over, and the Sixers’ roster is far from complete. I expect them to address this issue with a trade and free agency after the Buy Out Deadline, but as of now the Sixers’ bench greatly hinders the team from reaching their fullest.
Well, there you have it: The Ghosts of Process Present. I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Keep an eye out for the final edition of this three part docu-series: The Ghosts of Process Future.
The NBA Christmas Day games were as interesting as the league could possibly have hoped. The prime-time games, especially, were more close than I think most would have expected. Bucks/Knicks was exactly as much of a non-factor as I figured it would be, which was why it got the bad slot. It was close, for like, a quarter? Which doesn’t mean much. Regardless, the good games were good.
Lakers/Warriors, and a King’s Exit
Beginning with the Lakers/Warriors game, the Lakers got off to a quicker start than I think was probably warranted. They led at the end of every quarter, and the Lakers’ role players showed up, with 6 players not named LeBron James in double-digits for points on the night. Notably, Lance Stephenson did so in only 11 minutes of play.
Speaking of LeBron James, he left the game early with a sort of dumb-luck groin injury, which was very akin to Chris Paul’s hamstring injury recently. Nothing gross, nothing severe, just the wrong motion at the wrong time and he was out to the locker room. The Lakers survived the patented Warriors 3rd Quarter comeback, and blew them out in the remaining time. With that said, LeBron missing any amount of time could set this team off of the track that they had found themselves on. Smooth sailing is a luxury in the Western Conference, and losing LeBron for even a week could spell stormy waters for LA.
The King will undergo an MRI soon, and more information on his condition will be available soon. He has beaten the odds avoiding any sort of major or recurring injury considering the amount of miles he’s taken on in his career, and while the injury didn’t appear to be anything severe, it could put a dent in his ability to play so many minutes for so many games from here on out.
Sixers/Celtics, and an OT Thriller
Pivoting to the Eastern Conference showdown, the Sixers/Celtics game was probably the best one on the docket for Christmas, both in terms of storylines and in terms of quality of the game itself. Embiid exploded against a team that historically has shut him down, but some of the bench players went absolutely cold, preventing the Sixers from properly capitalizing on the gravity that JoJo created.
My one reason for optimism as a Sixers fan (other than this being a close loss in hostile territory and Kyrie putting up the best Celtic performance in more than a decade) is that the Sixers brought themselves back into a game that looked like a shutout. After the first quarter, it looked like this game would go the way of the playoffs and opening night game in which the Sixers make a lot of errors, both forced and unforced, and generally struggle to gain footing. This was not the case, however.
Generally, the Sixers are much better at taking a lead and holding on to it than they are overcoming a deficit, especially against teams at a similar level to them in terms of talent. Usually, when they start cold they need to take risks to get back into it such as unnecessary 3-pointers, Embiid dribbling into double-teams hoping for a foul, and other things that are just unpredictable. However, in the Christmas game, they fought their way back into it in the second half through big defensive plays up and down the roster and fluid scoring. For a team with depth issues, especially against a team that’s among the deepest in the league, I was pleased to see them keep their head on straight and just play.
For a while, the Celtics did what they’re good at, and held the Sixers to arms length, surviving any surges to make the game closer, but eventually the Sixers built a near double-digit lead, despite being down as much a quarter or so earlier. At the risk of reading too much into one game, this was a big time game against a team that they have struggled against in the past, and they almost one even with a historic performance on the other team. They’re too good to feel good about moral victories, but I think from a mentality perspective, the team did the damn thing yesterday.
Rockets/Thunder, and James Harden’s Heroics
The final game I’m going to touch on is Rockets/Thunder, in which the Rockets survived a Chris Paul absence against a defensive powerhouse in OKC. Harden continued to put the ball in the hole at the most elite level the league has seen in a long time with 41 points, and backup PG Austin Rivers had double-digits in his debut. Safe to say Chris Paul would have scored more than 10 points, but for a guy Houston signed just days before, you can’t really complain.
The most important thing, in this game, was not Harden delivering a much needed win against a contender for the Rockets. To me, the most important thing is that Paul George is looking like the best player on this team, even in his role as a second option. Russ is supposed to be the engine of this offense, and Paul George is consistently scoring more, getting more rebounds, and guarding the perimeter at the highest level in the league.
It doesn’t quite matter who the “best” player on the team is, but I think it’s time Russ stops playing as if he’s Jordan. For all of the Thunder’s strengths, offensive selfishness could be their downfall. Everyone on this team is playing selfless around Russ, which during his MVP season was just plain logical. But if Russ can recognize his own shortcomings, especially in shooting 3-balls, he could do more to enable the people who help him out like Paul George, the quiet killer, or Steven Adams, who is possibly the most selfless player in the league with a killer hook-shot.
The moral of the story is, this team has found something special in the role they’ve developed for Paul George, but it could go south easily if the Thunder don’t play to their strengths, none of which are Russell Wilson taking almost five 3-pointers a game at less than 25%.
The Christmas day games are pretty special, and while I think some teams get in off name and name alone (looking at you, Knicks) the roster of contending teams put teams in a place of high regard by the league, both in terms of strength and entertainment value.