The Sixers have problems. Their veterans are bad, and their young players are in many ways good but also all play the same positions, and an organization is mistakenly trying to pass off short-term win increases as actual progress. The Suns have problems. Their veterans are a little too good, and their young players can’t really hold their own despite being put in decent position to succeed, and ownership wants to win now.
But games are played on the court: like tonight’s in Phoenix, when the Sixers start a four game road trip at 9:00 PM EST. One of these problem teams has to win, so something needs to give. Here’s three on-court things to watch for, starting with everyone’s favorite conundrum maybe turning out okay for one night only.
- Embiid and Okafor, at least one more time
If the Sixers faced the Suns every night of the season, the Sixers oddball Okafor-Embiid pairing might actually work. The Suns have primarily started rookie Marquesse Chriss alongside veteran center Tyson Chandler. Chriss is getting force-fed minutes that he’s clearly not ready for even in small doses, and Chandler isn’t going to chase Embiid out to the three point line consistently enough at his age. Given this thinking, the Suns might try using Chriss to guard Embiid.
Good luck with that one, kid. Embiid has a dramatic size advantage over Chriss, who’s a lanky 6’10” and doesn’t know what’s he’s doing on defense. If they decide to match to position, Okafor should also easily dispatch of Chriss. The Suns will probably move to backup power forward Jared Dudley early and often, and that should be the end of any two-big pairing.
- Marginalizing Dario Saric
Saric’s transition into the NBA hasn’t been as smooth as hoped, partially due to the team’s roster construction issues and partially because Dario has been overly reliant on his inconsistent perimeter shooting to provide any on-court value. When Dario shoots well, he makes a positive impact. When he shoots poorly, he doesn’t impact the game in enough other ways. At best, he’s an average defender and rebounder, and a purported strength - his secondary creation skills - hasn’t yet materialized. He’s averaging more than a turnover for each assist.
Saric’s field goal percentage is down to 38% after a disastrous five-game stretch of 6-25 shooting including 2-13 on three pointers while playing more than half of his minutes outside his natural position of power forward. Starting Okafor, rather than employing him simply as a backup, created the domino effect of reducing minutes for Saric and Ersan Ilyasova. Ilyasova is the better player right now, and the general manager has a misguided fetish for him, so he needs to play for Brett Brown’s job security.
This has made Saric’s already difficult NBA transition bordering on impossible, and if the towers lineups continue nothing will change on this front. T.J. Warren and P.J. Tucker aren’t exactly difficult matchups for Saric, but his skills just aren’t being used optimally and the results are showing.
- Hide and seek, starring Sergio Rodriguez
One fun game I play before every game is trying to figure out how Brown will hide Sergio Rodriguez on defense. The Sixers have used Gerald Henderson or Robert Covington to defend any offensively competent point guard, while Sergio gets the weakest offensive player as his assignment. Team’s haven’t gone out of their way to attack size mismatches against El Chacho, so in the halfcourt the arrangement works well enough.
However, part of the reason the Sixers have struggled defending in transition is because of the cross-matching issues having Rodriguez on the court presents. There are many, many reasons the Sixers allow the most transition points per game among all NBA teams, but one of those is attempted cross-matching in transition when guard matchups get switched. A good example of this is all of Rodriguez’s minutes in the fourth quarter of the Brooklyn win, where Rodriguez and Covington routinely got mixed up when trying to switch coverage between Jeremy Lin and Joe Harris.
A hiding place may be difficult to find tonight. Devin Booker and Eric Bledsoe combine to average 39 points per game out of the backcourt for Phoenix, while Warren is the stereotype for a professional scorer (he is certainly not the prototype for a passer or anything else, though). Tucker is the most likely cover if he’s out there, or potentially the struggling Brandon Knight.
Either way, T.J. McConnell should be playing more minutes than Rodriguez, who isn’t nearly as good on offense as hoped.