With two-thirds of the season in the books, we figured now was as good a time as any to look back at the first 55 games of the Philadelphia 76ers’ 2017-18 campaign. We’ve seen Joel Embiid play at an All-Star level (and show out in the All-Star Game itself), we’ve seen Jerryd Bayless play at... less than an All-Star level, and we’ve barely seen No. 1 draft pick Markelle Fultz play at all.
The Sixers won 16 of their last 23 games prior to the break, and with a very favorable schedule down the stretch, the team is all but set to make its first postseason appearance since 2012. Before we head into the homestretch, a few of us here at Liberty Ballers sat down to discuss what we’ve seen... and what’s to come.
What grade would you give Brett Brown for the team’s 30-25 start?
Emily Anderson: A-. I think Brett is a great coach, it takes a lot to keep a locker room together through those losing seasons. I think his out of bounds plays are genius. I just can’t get behind the not playing of Richaun Holmes (see, game against the Heat). I know that he is inconsistent but I think the offensive explosion you can get from his is worth the risk when we are normally starved for bench points.
Sohil Doshi: I’d give Brett a solid A. Considering the expectations coming into this season, right or wrong, I think Brett’s done a great job navigating the highs and lows. That the team is now sitting at 30-25 with a realistic chance at possible home playoff series is remarkable considering 7th or 8th seed was the “ceiling” for what I thought this team could achieve.
Tyler Monahan: I’d give Brett Brown a B for the progress his team has made so far this season. At 30-25 they have obviously made big improvements, but there are also times where they show the inexperience of years past. Still trying to find out who to play in crunch time (please no more Trevor Booker and Amir Johnson lineups) is something Brown needs to improve on, but overall the season so far has been successful.
Kevin Rice: Brett gets a B+ that gets curved up to an A- so far this season. The Sixers are third in the league in assists per game (Spurs culture) and they jump to the #2 spot in AST%. They lead the league in rebounds per game, and remain in the third spot in DEFRTG in the league, behind the Celtics (great coach in Brad Stevens) and the Spurs (Pop, say no more). The only places where I take points off his letter grade is because of some of the lineups he has run with this season. The lineups where Joel is our primary scoring option sometimes make me want to claw my eyes out; and the lineups that include both Amir Johnson and Trevor Booker give me heart problems. In Brown’s defense, he doesn’t necessarily have the cream of the crop to work with off the bench; as much as I want the “Free Richaun” movement to work out, it fails to gain traction because Richaun’s still a work in progress on both ends of the court. So with what Brett Brown has to work with, I’d say he’s doing a pretty damn good job so far this season.
Sean O’Connor: I’d give him a B-plus. He’s obviously a good coach who still gets max effort out of his team, but with more talent. His system makes sense, the team is entertaining, and the season has at a minimum met expectations. Putting Ben Simmons in position to succeed from the get-go, and designing multiple sets to take advantage of the individual brilliance of our young stars, has probably been his best move, and the defense is better than ever under his helm. The reason I wouldn’t go higher is due to some suspect situational coaching especially surrounding bench usage and the Embiid overtime fiasco against the Thunder, but fortunately gaffes have been few and far between. I also tend to think he’s been too quick to pull youngsters for veterans in general, and Richaun Holmes should see more time at either the 4 or 5 than what he has so far.
Roy Burton: B+. 30 wins in 55 games with essentially no Markelle Fultz is pretty astounding, but I have to knock off a few points for some questionable lineups (#FreeRichaun) and a few of those inexplicable blown double-digit leads. But if you told me before the season that this team would be five games over .500 heading into the All-Star break, I would have signed up for that every day of the week.
Kevin Love: I give Brett Brown an A; to see how far this team has come is pretty remarkable. Brown is winning games with an incomplete roster and a handful of young players still adjusting to the NBA game. Helping young players adapt is part of Brown’s job, and Ben Simmons hasn’t looked like a rookie in a long time. Most importantly, Brown has the Sixers playing defense at a very high level.
The Sixers are right in the playoff mix and within reach of a 3 or 4 seed. After an up and down start, the team has outperformed my expectations and Brett Brown has played a huge role in that.
Who has been the biggest (positive) surprise this season?
EA: Ben Simmons. We all knew he was going to be dishing dimes, but I’m impressed with how quickly he has learned to be aggressive and drive to the basket instead of passing. I also think his defense is WAY better than any of us expected.
SD: Biggest positive surprise is a tie for me. Ben Simmons is the easy answer because I just didn’t think he’d be this good this fast. Gaudy stats and triple-doubles aside, his defense has been WAY better than advertised. Dario Saric is my second “surprise”. Dario frequently is talked about in a tier below guys like Joel and Ben, understandably. However, over the course of this year, his shooting and versatility has definitely got me thinking about pushing him into that status. While I used to exclusively think of him as a solid guy off the bench, not anymore!
TM: TJ McConnell becoming a fixture as the teams sixth man has been an incredible storyline so far this season. McConnell has gotten consistent minutes for the first time in his career and is making the Sixers look smart for it. Improving his jump shot as well as bringing his always scrappy defense, McConnell has brought some sense of consistency to a very up and down bench for the team.
KR: The Homie. Coming in to this year, a lot of people wanted Dario Saric to learn to lead the bench unit and become the 6th man of the future. Dario said f*** that, I’m a damn starter. It was expected that Dario would improve in some statistical categories, but not literally every single one of them, some by a wide margin. Dario has improved his FT% up 11.7% to 89.9%, 3PT% up 7.6% to 38.7%, points per game are up, rebounds per game are up, assists are up, turnovers are down, and his +/- has gone from a -3.8 in 2016 to a +1.7 so far this season. This February in particular has been the best month of the young Croatian’s career. On 52/46/91 shooting splits in February, Dario is proving that he is one of the most important staples in this Sixers core. The Philadelphia 76ers are WINLESS this year when Dario doesn’t play (he was inactive for one game against the Lakers when Brandon Ingram drilled that three) which means it’s a scientific fact that without Dario, we are nothing. Dario has also had two games where he finished with a +30 for higher, Joel Embiid is the only other Sixer this year to crack +30, which he also did twice. Maybe the thing that surprised me most about Dario, was the fact that his OFFRTG went from a 99.7 up to a 107.0 (!!!). That’s a HUGE jump for a second year player to make, playing alongside Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid obviously helps, but the excellent strides that Dario has made has surprised me the most this season.
SO: With apologies to Dario Saric proving more adaptable than I’d ever imagine so soon, and the rest of the starting five, it’s Joel Embiid. Embiid is the alpha and the omega for this franchise. He has played two (2!) back-to-back situations now and hasn’t had a minutes limit all year (ALL YEAR, NATIONAL MEDIA, ALL YEAR) despite kicking off camp late and not in shape. He’s as dominant as we’d hoped, with his offense settling in and his defense returning to elite form after he worked himself into better conditioning. He still hasn’t joked so inappropriately so as to get suspended. He still calls himself The Process, which is huge. And he’s healthy, and has been for most of the year.
RB: I figured Ben Simmons would be good, but averaging 16/8/7/2 on 53% shooting was beyond my most optimistic calculations. He’s playing at an All-Star level while learning the nuances of playing point guard in the NBA AND playing high-level defense on the other end of the court. Joel Embiid may be The Process, but Simmons is The Problem.
KL: Dario Saric. From year 1 to year 2, the Homie’s shooting percentage jumps: EFG% has risen 6.7 percentage points, 3PT% has jumped by 7.6 points, and FT% has climbed 11.7 points. I previously talked about not seeing Dario’s fit with this Sixers team. If his shots keep falling at this rate, I’m happy to say I was wrong.
Who has been the biggest disappointment so far?
EA: Can I say Markelle Fultz? Markelle Fultz.
SD: I would say Fultz but I don’t even think that qualifies as a disappointment considering how everything has gone down. I suppose TLC is the guy that I expected more out of. The 2nd year jump hasn’t come outside of a brief stretch in January. While the shooting and defense are the most obvious things that jump out, it’s his lack of athleticism, or rather finishing at the hoop that’s been most underwhelming considering what was advertised coming out of Mega Leks (or from what I remembered/misremembered?).
TM: Post-contract extension Robert Covington has to be the pick here even though Markelle Fultz is probably the trendy choice. Ever since Covington signed the extension that much of Sixers Nation loved, he has forgotten how to do many of the things that made that contract look so great. Shooting woes along with lackluster defense has turned Covington into a player easy to game plan against, but I believe this All-Star break could do him wonders.
KR: I am always going to be a ride or die for him, but so far this year, it’s gotta be Timothe Luwawu-Cabrrot (the only reason I’m not saying Jerryd Bayless here is because I didn’t expect him to do anything). I wrote that whole article “Where is the World is Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot?” and it sparked him into an offensive outburst for about eight games during late January and early February during the absence of JJ Redick and Jerryd Bayless. Now that they are both back from injury, TLC has sunken back down in to an inconsistent shooter and a timid driving threat on offense. On the season, 48% of his shots have been classified as “wide open” (no defender within 6+ feet. On those wide open shots, he is shooting a mere 34.5% and he’s cracking 32% of catch and shoot 3s. Timothe also still hasn’t been able to create for himself off the dribble in the NBA, something he was rather good at when he was on Mega Leks. He’s shooting just 46% this year on layups… shooting 40-87 on layups this season, 17 of which have been blocked, and only 12.5% of those layups have come unassisted. I still have faith in Timothe, I know he’ll be great, even if he’s not on our team. Everything will change when he decides to throw down a hammer on someone.
SO: In the non-Markelle Fultz division (because injury/bio-mechanical reasons I’ll go elsewhere), I’d go with the bench discounting T.J. McConnell. McConnell has been what you want out of a backup point and more than that at times. The rest of the bench has been a disaster. Jerryd Bayless lost his top-end speed and can’t play anymore. Trevor Booker doesn’t fit with most lineups. Amir Johnson has his moments, but you can’t help but think you could find someone in his role for less than half the price. Richaun Holmes doesn’t play enough. TLC and Justin Anderson have been as erratic as their playing time in Brown’s rotations.
The Sixers went into camp with the thought of having the best depth they’ve had since the Process began. Instead, the starting five’s production carries the Sixers as the bench eats away at any lead they generate.
RB: Jerryd Bayless, by far. On the surface, he hasn’t shot terribly from deep (37 percent), but he’s been flat-out awful in virtually every phase of the game. Bayless is a suspect defender, and he might be an even worse playmaker (he averages about as many assists per 36 minutes as Trevor Booker).
KL: I was devastated when Furkan Korkmaz was declared out indefinitely. (Editor’s note: Korkmaz is scheduled to be re-evaluated in a few weeks, so there’s a chance that he might suit up this year.)
Will Joel Embiid make the All-NBA 1st, 2nd or 3rd team?
EA: 1st team. People outside of the Philly area don’t realize he plays 30+ minutes a game and back to backs. It’s going to take awhile to shake that stigma I think.
SD: Yes. At this pace and with how successful the 76ers are (in addition to all the injuries), he’s outright the best active center in the NBA.
TM: Joel Embiid will make the NBA All 2nd-Team by years end. The combination of great seasons from other big men in the league and Embiid missing several games during the season for injuries and rest, the 1st Team might seem a little out of reach. Joel Embiid is on the verge of completely taking over the NBA, and an NBA All 2nd Team selection should just be the beginning.
KR: Joel will hopefully sneak on to the 2nd team. My prediction for the 1st Team will be LeBron, Steph, Harden, Giannis, Anthony Davis. Which leads to a 2nd Team of Kyrie, Westbrook, DeRozan, Durant, and Joel. And FWIW he might have the strongest candidacy for DPOY.
SO: Provided good health, I anticipate a 2nd team selection. Anthony Davis has been unreal since DeMarcus Cousins tore his Achilles’ tendon, and now that he’s hawking the Center minutes for New Orleans I expect Davis to net the top spot. I’d guarantee it if New Orleans manages to still make the postseason. No one else is in Embiid’s world for the second team spot.
RB: He’s arguably the best center in the NBA, but I think he’ll wind up on the 2nd team for a variety of reasons (mostly because of hate from the voters). But he started for Team Stephen in the All-Star Game, so I can’t imagine that he won’t make one of the top two teams.
KL: With the absence of DeMarcus Cousins, All-NBA 1st team is Embiid’s for the taking. He’s the best two way center in the league.
Will Ben Simmons win the Rookie of the Year award?
EA: Yes, because I’m choosing to be optimistic on this one. I think the Mitchell buzz is a product of the Jazz’s win streak and I’m hoping everyone comes back down to earth after the all-star break (see rising stars box score).
SD: Yes. I really like Donovan Mitchell but a lot of this recent publicity is a combination of “prisoner of the moment” and boredom. Simmons, even with his December dip, is outperforming his fellow rookies and it isn’t even close. While there is always a chance that voters will out-think themselves again to find reasons to vote for another guy, I don’t see Simmons and the 76ers slowing down whereas I think the Jazz will cool off a bit despite Mitchell’s offensive output.
TM: Yes, Ben Simmons will win the Rookie of the Year. The numbers he is putting up are incredible for any player, not just rookies, and while Donovan Mitchell deserves the hype he is getting, I don’t believe he can keep up the production for the entire season. Getting snubbed for the All Star game might give Simmons a little bit of extra motivation going into the stretch run of the season.
KR: Two things are true: Donovan Mitchell is having a great rookie year… and Ben Simmons is having a better one. While the “he isn’t a rookie!” narrative scares me a little bit, I don’t think it has enough traction or credibility that the “31 games” argument did, which cost Joel the ROY. Now, I LOVE Donovan Mitchell; I think he is going to be one of my favorite players to watch over the course of his career, but his 19/3/3 and 104.3 DefRtg aren’t even close to Simmons’ 16/8/7 with a 101.5 DefRtg. Jazz fans have been quick to argue that Simmons is excelling on the court because he’s playing alongside Embiid, which is fair, to an extent… if Simmons and Mitchell’s stats were closer, that might be a valid argument for Mitchell but, Simmons’ stats are far enough ahead of Mitchell’s that the “Embiid Factor” shouldn’t matter. Ben Simmons = Rookie of the Year.
SO: No. There’s enough momentum behind Donovan Mitchell to snag the award, especially given Utah’s recent surge. I expect more support to go his way. And Mitchell, despite not being more valuable than Simmons, is still very good, though Mitchell’s two worst games of the season coming against the 76ers will not help Sixers fans handle it well.
RB: I’m going to say no... there’s a LOT of Donovan Mitchell sentiment out there (which will undoubtedly - but sadly - be buoyed by his Dunk Contest win), and that plus the fact that there are voters who don’t consider Simmons a true rookie means that Ben has his work cut out for him. That said, he SHOULD win ROY.
KL: Unless something catastrophic happens to Ben Simmons’ game, there is no reason he shouldn’t win the award. I recently wrote a piece comparing Simmons’ rookie year to that of Donovan Mitchell, #2 in the running for the award, and concluded it really isn’t even close. Some serious foul play would have to ensue on the part of the voters for Simmons to not be crowned Rookie of the Year. (Although, I wouldn’t really be shocked they found a way to rob Simmons in favor of Mitchell.)
Will Markelle Fultz play another game this season? If so, when?
EA: No, I think they need to shut him down.
SD: I don’t think so. It’s the stretch before the playoffs and I doubt Brett really wants to throw Fultz into a trial by fire, especially when the team is in the post season chase. I thought there was a chance back in January but I think it’s best to just shut him down and bring him back next year with, hopefully, his jump shot back.
TM: Markelle Fultz will not play another game this season, much to the chagrin of Sixers fans. At this point the Sixers seem to have enough depth to move on without Fultz for the rest of the year. Let the young point guard get away from the spotlight because at this point it seems like the problem is all mental.
KR: Nah fam, he ain’t playing. No video or report so far has led me to believe he’s mentally ready for an NBA game and at this point in the season, I’m ok with it. It wouldn’t be fair to him to be thrown back in to the rotation this late in the season and have that added pressure of having to figure things out extremely quickly heading in to the *coughs* playoffs. Also fine with him not playing because at this point, it’s a necessary initiation for Sixers first round picks to sit out at least one year and then killing it in their faux rookie year (although he’s already played 4 games so his rookie year is in the books but you know what I mean). Furkan’s got the right idea, he’s gonna come back a beast next season, and so will Markelle. BOOK IT.
SO: No. I get why they haven’t yet, but the will they/won’t they needs to end. He won’t play in the playoffs anyway if he’s just returning to the team, so stick a fork in it, rehab his shot, and target training camp next season.
RB: March 13 at home versus the Indiana Pacers. I have very little reason for the optimism other than the fact that the recent videos we’ve seen have been mildly encouraging. The Pacers game is roughly a month before the postseason begins, and if Fultz doesn’t come back by then, they might was well shut him down for the season.
KL: At this point, I really doubt he plays again this season. I may or may not have formulated that opinion in an attempt to reverse jinx the situation, but I also don’t think rushing Markelle back aligns with the Sixers’ short-term or long-term goals.
The team is in the midst of the playoff hunt. A really solid run of basketball to finish out the year could get the Sixers’ as high as a 4 seed, giving the franchise its’ first playoff berth since 2012. An awful performance down the stretch could drop the Sixers behind the Miami Heat and the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference standings, causing them to miss the playoffs. If the usage of Joel Embiid is any indication, this franchise craves a playoff appearance and I don’t see how thrusting Fultz back into action makes that dream a reality. I expect Fultz to struggle, at the very least with adapting to game speed, if he returns this season, which could hurt the team’s playoff aspirations.
Long-term, the Sixers need to ensure Fultz comes back with some resemblance to the Markelle Fultz that played at the University of Washington. Bryan Colangelo risked too much in trading up for Fultz to NOT take this situation slow, infuriating lack of transparency withstanding. I’ve heard or read somewhere that the Sixers have sat players out for what would have been the players’ first year? I feel that’s the best way to go about rehabbing Markelle Fultz.
Fill in the blanks: The Sixers will finish the season with a record of ______ and wind up in ______ place in the Eastern Conference.
EA: 45-37, 5th
SD: Let’s say 44-38 and 6th place. I’m not sure if that makes sense in the context of the rest of the eastern conference. But I’m looking forward to the first round series of LeBron’s former team vs LeBron’s future team!
TM: The Sixers will finish the season with a record of 48-34 and wind up in 4th place in the Eastern Conference. Maybe it’s just the optimist in me, but the Sixers are starting to really gel as a unit. Both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are playing like franchise cornerstones and everyone else is helping fill in the cracks. The rest of the Sixers schedule is very winnable, and none of the teams ahead of them are far enough ahead that the Sixers couldn’t jump them. The 4th seed is very attainable, especially if the Wizards continue to be without their star in John Wall.
KR: The Sixers will finish the season with a record of 45-37 and wind up in 5th place in the Eastern Conference, hello Washington Wizards.
SO: 46-36, 6th place, and unfortunately staring down a series with the Cavs, the one team I don’t think they can realistically challenge in the first round.
RB: 14-13 gets them to 44-38, and that should be good enough for the 6th seed in the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately, that probably means a first-round date against LeBron and the Cavs.
KL: Looking at the rest of the schedule, the Sixers have some very winnable games. I won’t bore you with listing nearly 30 matchups, but aside from an away game against the possibly reinvigorated Cleveland Cavaliers, the Sixers should have a relatively easy end to their season.
The Sixers will finish the season with a record of 45-37, and wind up in 5th place in the Eastern Conference standings. That seemed high writing it, but given the previously stated ease of schedule, recent play of the Sixers, and lack of separation between teams, it makes sense to me.