With every Daryl Morey move and every Philadelphia Eagles stinker, Philadelphia sports fans are becoming more and more excited about the Sixers’ 2020-21 season getting underway. Nevertheless, while what Morey has done over the past week or so has provided the team with more shooting, versatility, and financial flexibility, the roster still has the same glaring weakness present ever since Jimmy Butler took his talents to South Beach: the Sixers need a closer.
The Sixers are certainly fortunate to be in the position where they field two young, All-NBA-caliber talents in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. However, neither star profiles as the prototypical closer, something that doesn’t matter much in the marathon of the regular season, but impacts a franchise’s ability to contend at the highest level in the gauntlet of the NBA playoffs.
In the recent four-game sweep against the Celtics in August, Embiid averaged 30 points on 45.9 percent shooting and attempted at least 12 free throws in every game. Those are excellent offensive contributions! Still, in the three games that were within reach, crunch time saw the same old problems with having Joel as the main closer. He is tired after battling on the interior of both ends for 35-plus minutes, and has to fight tooth-and-nail to get into a workable position. It’s also often difficult to get him the ball when the opposition knows that’s the Sixers’ intention. Both those factors force the Sixers to burn off a large chunk of the possession before Embiid can even receive the ball and assess the situation. Success does not often follow.
Will better shooting around Joel help him succeed in those situations? Undoubtedly. But I still think there’s enough evidence showing you don’t want to have to rely on a big man as your closer in the guts of the game in the modern NBA.
As for Ben, he was obviously unavailable for the most recent playoffs with a patella injury, but his difficulties in filling the role are well-known at this point. His inability or unwillingness to present himself as a perimeter threat allows the defense to back off and clog the paint. Simmons also struggles from the free throw line, which both makes possessions where he gets fouled less efficient than for your typical star ball-handler, and seemingly causes him to shy away from contact in the first place, so as to avoid even being placed at the charity stripe. Like Joel, better shooting will help Ben, but he will need significant progress in his own game before he can be considered the answer.
Looking to the team’s veteran acquisitions, Seth Curry is a guy with a lot more creation ability than what I would consider his public perception. Playing some point for the Mavericks last season, Curry was just a hair less effective than Luka Doncic as a pick-and-roll ball handler, finishing in the 89th percentile on a large sample size of possessions. Although he only ran a total of 28 isolation possessions last season, Curry was also effective in that capacity. Still, while Curry does possess some skills in this area, it’s fair to wonder if much of his success might have come against second units. I think asking him to be a lead guy down the stretch of a meaningful game would be an overreach of his role, and would also negate all the value and gravity he provides as an off-ball threat.
Meanwhile, self-creation is simply not part of Danny Green’s game, as he very much lives up to his 3-and-D reputation. Green only conducted a total of 17 pick-and-roll possessions last season, with very poor efficiency, and didn’t even have enough qualifying isolation attempts.
Now, on to the rookies, Tyrese Maxey could eventually be an option. He projects as a three-level scorer with the ability to create for himself when defenses clamp down. However, it would be misguided for any team to rely too heavily upon a rookie in this capacity, especially one obtained outside the lottery. Even a highly optimistic outlook would project Maxey to maybe have an Alec Burks-like impact in his first season. Meanwhile, Isaiah Joe was not a guy who attacked the paint much at Arkansas and projects as a pure floor-spacer.
All that being said, I don’t want to get all doom-and-gloom about the Sixers. The moves made this offseason have given the team a more cohesive and functional roster, and I believe them to be better-positioned to succeed than last season. While Philadelphia still needs a closer, Sixers fans can take solace in knowing they have a lead decision-maker in Daryl Morey who will be ready, willing, and able to identify and address such a hole in the roster in the future.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com/Stats.