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The Behind 9: Joel Embiid improving, questions about the guard rotation and more

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9 Early Season Sixers Observations

Philadelphia 76ers v Detroit Pistons Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Five games in the books, a 2-3 record, what better time than to give some probably way too early and not so accurate takes. If I’m right you probably already knew it and I’m behind the curve. The rest you may dismiss.

1. Joel Embiid has taken a leap

It feels as if there are things Joel is doing wrong. The team’s defense overall isn’t good. He’s still not always seeing open 3 point shooters and settling for contested post-up jumpers. He’s still not shooting over 30 percent from 3. He’s not fighting for deep-post position or playing lots of “bully-ball.” But when you hear so many areas for improvement and yet still see the staggeringly dominant lines he is putting up you know you have a possible MVP candidate on your hands.

A Defensive Player of the Year finalist at the 5 who can cover miles on the perimeter chasing wings, is already sufficient enough to net Clint Capela money. Add in over 80% from the free throw line on over 9 attempts a game and you’re seeing greatness with room to grow. It’s scary. Also since the Boston opener, his turnovers have been way down. Joel is special and it doesn’t even really look like he’s peaked in terms of complementary play with his teammates.

For the talk about how he and Simmons don’t always complement each other, keep in mind he’s played 106 NBA games and far less with his co-star Ben Simmons. There’s room to grow in terms of chemistry. Now he is playing over 35 minutes per game, playing in back-to-backs, and looks leaner and quicker than last year. Someone should ask him what % conditioning he has reached now.

Here, enjoy the luxury that Markelle Fultz got to enjoy vs. Detroit. If you can’t guard Blake Griffin, just simply hope Blake backs his way down into the Cameroonian Colossus waiting behind you both:

2. If you’re booing Robert Covington, you may as well boo Santa

OK fine, Robert Covington may not be Santa but he is remarkably consistent. Sixers fans love or hate him, and argue about him until no end. But it says much more about us than it does about him. He has been booed by his own fans in a year he’s currently a leader in 3 point makes. Seriously. He’s shooting almost 6.5 3’s per game and still shooting over 40 percent from 3 and has been booed for taking some!

Here are the NBA 3 point percentage leaders ranked for those who have taken 25 or more (in other words, your most accurate of the high volume shooters through 5 games):

  1. Khris Middleton: 58.1% on 31 attempts (not booed)
  2. Kyle Lowry: 53.3% on 30 attempts (not booed)
  3. Steph Curry: 52.4% on 63 attempts (not booed)
  4. Joe Ingles: 50% on 30 attempts (not booed)
  5. Bryn Forbes: 48% on 25 attempts (not booed)
  6. Bradley Beal: 45.2% on 31 attempts (not booed)
  7. Kemba Walker: 44.4% on 54 attempts (not booed)
  8. Victor Oladipo: 44.4% on 27 attempts (not booed)
  9. James Harden: 44.1% on 34 attempts (not booed)
  10. J.J. Redick: 42.6% on 47 attempts (not booed)
  11. Danny Green: 42.4% on 33 attempts (not booed)
  12. Taurean Prince: 41.9% on 31 attempts (not booed)
  13. Robert Covington: 40.6% on 32 attempts (booed)

The company Rob is keeping on this list is extremely impressive given how much better he is at defense than most snipers.

Snowballs at Santa. Cheering Michael Irvin’s career-ending injury. And now I submit for your approval a monster run-on sentence: booing the undrafted Rockyesque underdog story who proved himself by playing as hard as he could during 10 win seasons to grow into a 1st team All-NBA defender during a stretch he was literally a top 13 3-point shooter during an era when 3nD wings are treated like actual royalty elsewhere. COME ON!! You know, now that I think about it it actually makes more sense to boo Santa. Can you even imagine Santa on a basketball court? A Kyrie Irving-Al Horford high screen would humiliate him.

3. Ben Simmons is an absolute nightmare for opposing offenses

The caveat is that he is healthy, and not taking a play off. But this is a really fun one to think about. I know Sixers fans reading this know it. I know you have all cited it in any silly rookie of the year debates. But did we all really...I mean truly know or appreciate what we were talking about until we watched Blake Griffin go nuclear on the Sixers in Detroit? Who would have been better equipped to thwart Griffin than our own alien-blend of size and agility? What a weapon he is.

Ben tests off the charts on a stat that basketball stats legend, Stephen Shea, came up with. It’s Shea’s patented combination rating of interior plus perimeter defense. This list below is from last year around January 2018, Ben was just behind another familiar name on the rating. Both rounding out the top 12 in the league at the time:

In today’s NBA, the top few teams play a switch-frenzy style where someone who can guard wings and bigs or someone who can guard a big who plays like a wing becomes the ideal defensive weapon. Sixers fans got a bit of a taste last night for just how valuable Ben Simmons is defensively by having to watch Blake Griffin look like peak Charles Barkley and the 2019 Pistons look like the ‘93 Suns.

4. Dario got roasted in Detroit, owned it, then came back stronger in Milwaukee

On the bright side, it produced this quote from Dario:

Few players are more forthcoming and likable than Dario Šarić.

But he hasn’t been playing very well yet through the subpar start. Hopefully his best game of the year last night gets him going. So much attention gets paid to switching and defensive efficiency and defending the corner 3. Dario sheds light on the often overlooked “simply don’t let someone have an amazing day” element.

5. What’s going on with the guard rotation?

With Ben Simmons out with back tightness vs. the Pistons, Sixers fans were looking forward to the opportunity Markelle Fultz would receive. In the role Ben Simmons typically occupies, it seemed like the perfect chance to surround him with shooters and allow him to play with the ball in his hands like he was most comfortable doing before turning pro. What better way to not draw the entirety of everyone’s focus to his jump shot then by letting him fill up a boxscore in other ways? But before the game came a weird report that momentarily made us wonder if Brett Brown was possessed by Demogorgons.

Brown ultimately made the highest upside decision in the end and started Fultz and a surprise, Landry Shamet. He may have considered starting J.J. Redick but starting Shamet gave the chance to develop two younger players without tinkering with the second unit’s chemistry. I liked it.

But then...after Fultz played well in his minutes as lead guard and showed promise, Brown decided it was T.J. McConnell time. Fultz wound up only playing 21 out of a full 53 minutes. That was a head-scratcher.

Apparently some fans instantly hit the panic button and think Fultz’s growth has been stunted like a 10 year old gymnast’s. They should relax. More interesting is what Brown may have been thinking. I get the sense that he is somewhat conflicted. To get to where he is today, he is likely wildly competitive.

Maybe he knows that in the end he’ll need Fultz at his best to defeat the Celtics. But on a nightly basis he may have an inner Herm Edwards in his head saying things like:

“Hello Brett! You play to win the game! T.J. is the only one you got who can keep up with that “waterbug” Ish Smith. So let’s go with T.J. now and PLAY TO WIN THE GAME! By the way, why did Stan Van Gundy pay Reggie Jackson $80 million dollars when he had Ish Smith! Hello!?! Ish plays to win the game!!”

On some level, I understand this cartoon version of Brett’s possible thinking I made up. I think a worthy compromise might have been giving Fultz another 10 minutes in Detroit and still letting T.J. close the game out. But it’s a process and I think the way Fultz played offensively was still promising. The next night he wasn’t really able to capitalize on any momentum as he struggled to keep up with Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon or carve out a role in the offense. But he made another 3 so if it’s the defense we’re more concerned with that’s maybe a step in the right direction.

If you do see him get benched after a nice looking jumper and you wonder why that might be happening, it’s probably because of possessions like this one.

6. Fultz’s shooting

Above was his open 3. His second of the year. He doesn’t want to be defined simply by his jumpshot and after Detroit he doesn’t have to be. He had one of his now patented track down blocks, he had two very nice finishes at the hoop, he stuck one of his patented 12 footers, and he drilled that three pointer without bouncing it first. A real bona fide catch-and-shoot 3! And it looked pretty good. Someone on Twitter asked me how it looked and if it was a “push” shot.

I thought it reminded me of two shooters with pretty good form who simply happen to have pretty low and slow releases. One from this draft class I wrote about here, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who often is described as having a push shot, but who does keep his elbow in and follows through well. Another is Mr. Clutch Kiss of Death himself, Mario Elie from the championship Houston Rockets. Remember this one? Here is who I thought of when Fultz hit his baseline 3’s.

It was a bit low, and a bit slow, but the mechanics were there for Fultz. Power from his legs, right angle with his shooting arm, nothing obstructive from his guide hand and something we haven’t seen a ton of from him, a nice full extension and freeze.

There is something romantic about Joel playing the role of Hakeem Olajuwon and Fultz waiting in the corner with the Mario Elie style set shot, right? After one of those in a key moment, maybe Fultz will even blow a kiss of death to the Boston crowd who knows. I know you didn’t want to spend first overall picks on a small forward from 1995 but trust me, this was a good sign.

Here is the one last night:

Looks pretty good again and despite the low release he has no problems getting it up and over the arms of the the diminutive Bledsoe. Great full extension and freeze. He’s hitting 60% on his 3’s if you don’t count his lone desperation heave.

7. J.J. Redick has a real chance to sneak his way into being the leader of the team

J.J. Redick is shooting almost 4 more shots per game then he averaged last year. He’s not starting but he’s playing one more minute per game. He’s also shooting three more 3’s per game than last year. He’s leading the team in netRTG and defTRG for everyone in the rotation. At 34 he’s averaging a career high in points at 21.2 and near highs in minutes and rebounds. Much of that won’t hold up. But man has he been great.

He’s a pure marksmen. He took an intentional foul in crunch time that almost cost the Sixers a win in Detroit but then he made up for it with an astounding 4 point play. He could emerge as a true leader this year in ways he did not last year. He looks a little more vocal, more confident, and is taking on more responsibility in crunch time. Proof that hard work can pay off even later in a career.

I happen to know this was meant with more than a little tongue-in-cheekiness but...

He’s got the 6th man thing in the bag if Brett keeps him there.

8. Mike Muscala played his first minutes after a tough few days

He hit a three pointer and got a couple blocks and is dealing with an ankle injury but it already looks like he may not be the arbitrage version of Ersan Ilyasova some hoped. Muscala got matched up against Giannis a couple times and it was as if there was no defender at all. If we’re looking down the road to the playoffs, coach Brad Stevens and Mike Budenholzer have shown a willingness to target relentlessly lesser defenders. Something to keep in mind.

9. Shamet’s shot is so pretty

I warned you this was behind the curve. You know this. But I just wanted to appreciate his stroke. A little less arc sometimes than I would have guessed such a pure shooter would have but man does it work for him. Can’t wait to see more of him shoot it.