The Philadelphia Eagles season ended on Sunday after a 17-9 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, a game where one cheap shot changed the entire game. (I’ll put it on record right now. The Eagles win if not for that dirty AF play by Jadeveon Clowney on Carson Wentz.)
Now that the biggest draw of the fall sports season is over, it’s about that time of year where the portion of Eagles fans who only casually follow the Philadelphia 76ers bleed over into that section of us that follow the team 24/7/365. Since that’s the case, I feel like I should prime those folks. Here are things to know before gang green goes full tilt on the 2020 Philadelphia 76ers.
The East … Doesn’t Suck
The top half of the Eastern Conference at the end of last season looked like this:
The teams after that included a 48-34 Indiana Pacers team that lost Victor Oladipo, a Brooklyn Nets team that wasn’t great but not bad, an Orlando Magic team that was “meh”, and a Detroit Pistons team that was also “meh”. Kawhi Leonard left the Raptors, but they’re still a top-four team thanks to yet another jump from Pascal Siakam. Milwaukee is 32-6 because the reigning MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, cashes checks from the Bucks. Boston lost Kyrie Irving, but upgraded (you read that right) with Kemba Walker and have a 25-9 record.
Then we get to the cowardly Miami Heat, who signed Jimmy Butler away from the Sixers yet use the zone defense more than any other NBA team. (This is my daily reminder that #ZoneIsForCowards.) With just Butler, the Heat are somehow 26-10. The Pacers are 23-14 right now, but a return by Oladipo is looming. They’re going to get better.
I won’t even discuss Kevin Durant coming to the East and returning to the court next year. I’ll begin crapping my pants on that one when he actually suits up for the Brooklyn Nets. My point is that if you thought this season was going to be a cakewalk to the Eastern Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks, think again.
Ben Simmons … The Good. The Bad. The Ugly.
Let’s start with the positive. Simmons has been incredible on the defensive end this season. Don’t let national pundits fool you. He should be in consideration for First Team All-NBA defense this season. Second Team will be a bit of a slap in the face, but if he’s not considered at all, I’m leading a torch-and-pitchfork-carrying mob to the home or office of every journalist that has a vote.
Through 36 games played, Simmons has 2.3 defensive win shares and a 3.4 defensive box plus/minus. He currently leads the league in steals with 78 and steals per game with 2.2. The last two season leaders in steals (Paul George last year and Victor Oladipo the year before) have been First Team All-NBA defense. The year before was John Wall, and he didn’t make any defensive team – which may have had more to do with his 0.2 DPBM, but whatever.
Opponents guarded by Simmons shoot 36.4 percent from the field, and he allows 0.824 points per possession, putting him in the 81st percentile according to Synergy Sports. Simmons has been ridiculous using his length to get steals and deflections. His 136 are third in the league behind Jrue Holiday and Kris Dunn. (Kris Dunn. How about that? He’s not in the G-League. I learned something today.)
Now, we get to the negatives – of which there are a couple of nits to pick.
When it comes to scoring the ball, Simmons has been CRAZY inconsistent this season. You don’t really know which Ben Simmons is coming to play on any given night. Is it “offensively aggressive Simmons”? Is it “going through the motions Simmons”? Is it “holy crap, he’s bad tonight Simmons”?
When Simmons is locked in, you get games like his 29-13-11 on 20 shots line against Houston on Friday night or his 16-13-17 line on 14 shots against Detroit on December 23rd. Even when he’s “just okay” you get lines like his 15-7-14 line against Milwaukee. Then, you get these weird games like his game against the Dallas Mavericks (12-8-6) or the second game against the Miami Heat (15-7-11).
Is it weird to anyone else that Simmons only averages 4.6 free throw attempts per game? I feel like that number should be higher, right? If he’s aggressive all night, every night, he should get to the line at least 8-12 times a game. Those “potential” points (because he’s only a 59 percent FT shooter) can swing close games.
The “ugly” is straightforward. We all know about Simmons’s aversion to shooting outside of three feet. I’ve come to grips with the fact that he won’t shoot 3s – which is a giant pain in the bottom when you consider he’s set to cash in on his max contract extension. This is even uglier to me. At least five times PER QUARTER, I’m yelling the following at my television:
“Ben! You’re 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds. You have five inches and 15-20 pounds on the guy guarding you. Get. On. The block. Post. Up. Go to work!”
I don’t know why he doesn’t do this more often, but if he’s not going to shoot 3s, he must do other things to help the Sixers in the half court.
Joel Embiid is still Really Good
This is out of the “no friggin’ duh” category, and this wasn’t going to change. Embiid wasn’t suddenly going to turn into Darko Milicic or anything, but if you expected some kind of Wilt Chaimberlain-esque jump, I’m sorry to disappoint you.
Embiid remains solid shooting and scoring after 31 games. His .590 true shooting percentage right now mirrors his season average at the end of last season. His 3-point average is actually UP to 32 percent from 30 percent at the end of last season. (It doesn’t seem like much, but it is.) The biggest difference in Embiid this year is HOW he’s scoring baskets.
Last year, Embiid posted up on 29.9 percent of his possessions. In those possessions, he averaged 1.048 points per possession and shot 50.1 percent from the field. This season, that number is up to 35 percent. Embiid has posted up on over one-third of his possessions, averages 1.120 points per possession and shoots 52.8 percent from the field. Embiid has done a much better job fighting for position under the basket and bullying his way to the rim.
That’s what made guys like Shaquille O’Neal – who criticized Embiid – so great. Shaq didn’t waste time out by the 3-point line. He’s Shaq. He’s over three bills. Give him the ball in the paint and let him abuse fools. Embiid seems to have gotten the message.
The big man doesn’t seem to be taking as many bad 3-pointers, anymore, either, which is pretty good to see. He’s still shooting close to four per game, but at least his percentage is up. They’re not heavily contested – or as contested as they can be when the man shooting them is over 7-foot tall. They’re usually in transition when Embiid is trailing the bullish Simmons or if he’s left WIDE OPEN for some incredible reason.
Embiid wants to win Defensive Player of the Year, but it may not happen barring some kind of insane jump in defensive output. He’s the defensive anchor, for sure, but Embiid is only top-10 in DRtg. He’s outside of the top ten in every other defensive category. Again, he’s not Jahlil Okafor on the defensive end. He’s just not on THAT award-winning level like a Giannis Antetokounmpo, for example, who leads or is top five in several defensive categories.
Meet the Young ‘Bulle
The Sixers traded with the Boston Celtics on draft night to move up four spots to take Washington’s Matisse Thybulle with the 20th pick. Who was Thybulle? His main claim to fame was defense. He’s lengthy, quick, and athletic with good instincts.
Stop me if you’ve heard this, but a Sixers rookie is injured. Don’t be too concerned (I think). Thybulle has been out with a bone bruise since December 22, but Marc Narducci of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on Sunday that Thybulle had been cleared for limited contact after a re-evaluation of that injury on Saturday, January 4.
Why is this important to note?
Thybulle has become a vital member of the rotation. His defensive prowess has translated to the NBA as evidenced by his 102 DRtg and 3.1 DBPM. Thybulle is an excellent defender, and I say that because Synergy Sports says as much. His 0.792 points per possession number puts Thybulle in the 89th percentile as a rookie, and opponents shoot 34.8 percent from the field when being guarded by him. Throw in the fact that 16 percent of Thybulle’s defensive possessions lead in turnovers, and good god, this kid is a defensive whiz very early in his pro career.
The rookie’s shooting was a question when he was drafted. Thybulle shot 36 percent or better in his first three seasons at the University of Washington, and that number dropped to 30 percent in his senior year. Why the drop? Who knows, but in the NBA, the kid can shoot it. He’s shooting 46 percent from 3 on 67 total attempts. On catch-and-shoot jump shots, Thybulle is knocking down 41 percent of his shots, averaging 1.245 points per possession. The Sixers are 2-4 in the six games Thybulle has missed. Is his absence the primary reason for this slide in the standings? No, but it certainly hasn’t helped.
Big “Meh”ny Contracts
The Sixers signed Al Horford away from the Boston Celtics in the offseason. The former Celtics big man was given $97 million guaranteed over four years ($109 million total). He’s been … okay. (Shrug). Horford is only averaging 12.3 points per game, but his shooting numbers are WAY down from last year. In 13 seasons, Horford has only had two seasons where his true shooting percentage was below 55 percent: one was his rookie year, and the other is this year.
His shooting from the field is down under 50 percent from the field. His 3-point shooting is down below 35 percent. Horford said this about his offensive struggles to Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer last week:
I still haven’t been able to find my rhythm with the team. I’m out [there] for the team and doing what I can to help us. But offensively, I’m very limited with the things that I can do. So, I can’t control that stuff.
That’s just fantastic. **rolls eyes**
The big note about Horford was always how he stymied Embiid when he defended him with the Celtics. No one is asking him to have offensive numbers like his 2013-14 season with the Atlanta Hawks, but if the Sixers spent at least $97 million just to keep Horford from pwning Embiid a few times a year, I’m going to be really upset. Don’t get me wrong. Having “Embiid insurance” for nights he needs a rest, or spelling him for longer stretches during games isn’t bad, either, but $97 million?
Then, we get to Tobias Harris – who signed a five-year, $180 million contract. While watching the Eagles’ season end with a group of friends, one of them asked me what the difference is between Tobias Harris and James Ennis III? At first, I was only able to utter the fact that Harris makes $180 million. I may have been drunk, and or frustrated with the Eagles – neither of which is beneficial for rational thought. Now that I am out of that situation, let me answer my friend’s question more thoroughly.
Harris is NOT James Ennis III. He is better than Ennis III. Tobias’s shooting has been on the upswing. He’s shooting 38 percent from 3 in December and January. Harris can score in more ways than Ennis III. You can spot him up on the 3-point line. You can post him up against a smaller defender. When you look at Harris’s per-100 possessions compared to Ennis, that comparison is pretty dead in the water. Harris is meeting his points per game numbers at the end of last season (19.4 PPG currently, 20.0 PPG last season) as well, and if his shooting percentages continue to trend upwards, the contract is pretty justified.
I apologize for not defending Tobias more vehemently Sunday night, but again … drunk and very frustrated. (Damn you, Jadeveon Clowney. You cheap shot artist!)
It’s possible the Sixers are playing him out of position. Should Tobias be more of a four at the start of games? Possibly. That idea has been floated around among the Liberty Ballers staff. When Thybulle returns, my colleagues and I think the starting lineup should be Embiid, Harris, Thybulle, Josh Richardson and Simmons.
A Deadline Approaches
The NBA Trade Deadline is less than a month away, and the question is if the Sixers will shoot off grand fireworks or if they’ll do more minor moves.
Setting off giant explosives would involve something like trading Al Horford. Somehow, I don’t think that’s likely. One, the Sixers just signed him to that $97 million deal. It’s not untradeable, but it must be to the right team. The Portland Trailblazers make the most sense because they DESPERATELY need someone in the front court to balance out all the talent outside of the paint. There’s NO CHANCE the Blazers trade C.J. McCollum for Horford straight up. That being the case, the Sixers are looking at a mixed bag that includes guys like Kent Bazemore, Skal Labissiere, and Gary Trent, Jr. or something.
Not a great return on investment. Besides, Portland seems to be keyed on prying Kevin Love from Dan Gilbert’s cold, comic-sans hands.
An explosive move like getting Chris Paul has been brought up in the Liberty Ballers Slack as well. I love Chris Paul as a player, but if he’s on this team, there’s no longer a debate on who the point guard is. It’d be Chris Paul. Ben Simmons would be relegated to doing what he honestly should be doing more often, anyway, which is getting on the block and using his size and quickness to get to the rim.
It helps that Paul has become a steadier 3-point shooter, but there’s another thing to consider if the Sixers are even contemplating trading for Chris Paul. He has a shelf life. Like Jimmy Butler, he weighs on you. Back in May of last year, when he was still a member of the Houston Rockets, Paul said the following about NBA players who don’t like to play with him because of his playing style:
But as far as the way I play? No. If anybody doesn’t like the way I play, I don’t care. I don’t care. I play that way, and if you don’t like it then …
Is this the kind of attitude general manager Elton Brand wants to bring to the locker room? I understand we’re past the point of messing around with this team and these superstar kids, but just remember what you get if you bring in Chris Paul. You get lots of good, but equal amounts of bad.
On Monday, Derek Bodner and Rich Hoffman wrote a piece on The Athletic as a trade deadline primer for next month. The column commented on everything from what the Sixers’ strategy should be and what’s in the war chest in terms of assets. Mike Scott being mentioned as the first name to be on the block will upset the Hive, but I don’t disagree. His contract is very movable, and with Zhaire Smith, maybe the Sixers can get a serious body to help with the playoff push.
Is it enough to wrestle Davis Bertans from the Washington Wizards? Mehh, not likely. Marcus Morris of the Knicks and Danilo Gallinari of the Thunder both have contracts that are too high even on expiring deals, so what names are we considering here? Jae Crowder? Andre Iguodala? Could the Sixers get Robert Covington back from Minnesota? From a money standpoint, Scott and Smith get the job done, but what else would the Sixers have to give the Timberwolves?
Now that you guys have been prepped, it’s fair to say that this image properly encapsulates how the rest of the Philadelphia sports season is going to go:
I have to say I’m here for it.
Trust the Process.