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Three observations through a quarter of the Sixers season

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

As the Philadelphia 76ers enter a showdown with the New Orleans Pelicans to mark their 20th game of the year, flashes in the pan are becoming noteworthy trends, warnings of small sample sizes are slowly drifting into the background and developments are transitioning from just something to monitor to worth talking about.

Let’s dive into the fun.

Ben Simmons posting up

I wrote about this after the Sixers’ first preseason game of the year in late September, which established that the second-year Aussie was going to get more opportunities down low. That contest was a preview of things to come as Simmons is both frequenting the block more often and encountering increased success. When undersized wings are isolated on him, Philadelphia is exploiting those mismatches and feeding Simmons the ball.

Through 18 games (he missed the Oct. 23 bout at Detroit), he’s registered 53 post-ups, producing 0.93 points per possession (52nd percentile), on pace for 239 such possessions by the end of the regular season. During his rookie campaign, he yielded just 0.69 PPP (17th percentile) on 128 possessions.

He hasn’t suddenly transformed into a Joel Embiid-type paint scorer but the improvements are evident on screen. Whereas he struggled to consistently establish deep position or provide more than one go-to trick last year, he’s sealing off defenders with greater consistency and has added a sweeping runner as a release valve if his patented turnaround flick isn’t available:

He’s also flashed some improved footwork, a deficiency of his low-post game a season ago:

Simmons remains incredibly right-hand dominant near the rim and to fully unleash his potential as a post scorer, he’ll need to become comfortable finishing with either extremity and continue to expand his footwork on the block. Yet while he is no more of an outside shooter now than six months ago — stunting his overall impact — perhaps his true role is as a playmaking power forward alongside a primary initiator. If that’s the case, his shooting woes are less prevalent and his budding post game could emerge as an even more valuable resource. At least through nearly a quarter of the season, Simmons has provided some optimism in that regard.

Is Philadelphia’s pick-and-roll coverage playoff-ready?

The Sixers deploy a simple and traditional defensive scheme against pick-and-rolls by dropping the big man — usually Embiid — into the paint. They rely on his rim protection and encourage opponents to hoist up in-rhythm jumpers from the most inefficient area on the floor: midrange.

In one sense, it’s working. Per Synergy, they’re surrendering just 0.92 PPP to the big man on pick and rolls, the third-stingiest mark in the NBA — a slight improvement from 2017-18’s league-best 0.94 PPP.

But that philosophy hasn’t been entirely successful as ball-handlers are generating 0.92 PPP out of the pick and roll (26th league-wide). With an adjusted field goal percentage (weights 3-pointers more heavily than standard field goal percentage, much like true shooting) that ranks 15th, guards aren’t necessarily lighting the Sixers up.

Rather, it’s the ultra-conservative approach of drop coverage, which fails to apply significant pressure to the ball-handler with a second defender because the big is anchored inside, spiking the numbers. Philadelphia is forcing an opposing ball-handler to turn it over on just 10 percent of all pick and rolls (26th-best), dwarfed by the Oklahoma City Thunder’s NBA-leading 26.2 percent.

Perhaps even more troubling is that some shooting may normalize and further enhance this issue. Opponents are attempting an NBA-high 11.1 pull-up 3s per game against the Sixers this season but are converting just 27 percent of those looks (second-lowest success rate).

Generally, frequency is a much better indicator of 3-point defense in the NBA. It’s very difficult for a shot contest to truly affect the outcome — better reflected in a player dissuading an attempt altogether — as quality snipers are typically capable of discerning good looks from bad ones. So far, Philadelphia is inviting many of the former:

This year’s Eastern Conference playoffs could be a murderer’s row of credible shooters off the bounce in Kyrie Irving, Victor Oladipo, Kemba Walker and Khris Middleton capable of torching the Sixers’ drop coverage. The challenge in adopting a more aggressive strategy is that Embiid’s scoring is vital and expecting him to exert even more energy by showing/hedging or trapping the ball-handler to prevent pull-up 3s could reduce his offensive zeal. Furthermore, backup center Amir Johnson isn’t nimble or switchy enough to operate beyond the paint and recover to patrol inside.

There’s not a catch-all solution at hand currently and it highlights the curse that comes with a big man like Embiid fueling the Sixers on both ends. Ensuring he largely stays tethered near the paint — where he wreaks havoc — enables him to dominate offensively while also potentially capping the club’s defensive upside and creativity.

Do the Sixers need another bench big?

Throughout Amir Johnson’s first year in the City of Brotherly Love, that aura of warmth didn’t always radiate his way with many clamoring for Richaun Holmes to become the permanent backup center. But the truth is Johnson was a steady presence in the middle for Philadelphia.

In his 14th NBA season, though, it appears 31 years of tread has sapped the effectiveness from his gritty game. Per 100 possessions, the Sixers have been 14.9 points better without him — the team’s worst net rating on-off split — and after posting a reasonable minus-5.2 on-off split last year (backing up a top-flight talent like Embiid will never be kind to the on-off numbers), the final ounce of vigor in his legs seems to have dissipated — further underscored by his Real Plus-Minus descending from plus-1.78 to minus-0.96.

Without the mobility of many modern centers, Johnson plays to his strengths and resides in the middle, especially in pick and rolls, where he brings drop coverage to the second unit. Last season, it found success to the tune of 0.87 PPP (70th percentile) when defending the big in ball-screen action. However, the flawed-but-reliable station wagon has become more flawed than reliable these days, ranking in the 11th percentile (1.12 PPP) this year.

Too often, possessions end like this, where Johnson is noncommittal and compromises the rest of the defense, paralyzed awaiting his decision:

If Johnson were to be phased out of the rotation, Mike Muscala — currently holding down most of the minutes as the backup 4 — would likely assume Johnson’s role at the 5-spot, leaving a gap at reserve power forward for a team already short on depth. Jonah Bolden could have been the solution but he was recently sidelined with a right leg injury and it remains unclear whether or not he’s ready to contribute on a playoff contender in his rookie year anyway.

Playing for the lottery-bound Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks, veterans Robin Lopez and Dewayne Dedmon have the makings of potential buyout candidates, as previously articulated by my Liberty Ballers colleague Adam Aaronson.

Trading for Jimmy Butler eliminated some of the team’s issues but it only intensified the call for depth and further pushed Johnson’s decline into the spotlight. Year one donning the red, white and blue was a success for the 14-year center. Year two, not so much. Scouring the market for someone better suited to man the fort during Embiid-less minutes is paramount on a franchise eyeing the NBA Finals.

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