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It’s All Still Ahead for the Sixers

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Despite a dispiriting recent stretch, all is not lost.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t know about you all, but at some point during the pu pu platter of Sixers basketball (?) that we were served between Thursday, January 30 and Thursday, February 6, I forgot what it was like to watch the team actually win a game. Over that seven-day span, the Sixers lost against the Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat and Milwaukee Bucks.

Not-so-conspicuously, those losses all took place on the road. They were one-sided affairs; the stretch began with a double-digit loss to the cellar-dwelling Hawks, and then continued with similar, but more annoying, defeats at the hands of teams with whom the Sixers are currently jockeying for position in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

By the time the buzzer sounded on Thursday night in Milwaukee, a MEN IN BLACK-style brain wipe had been performed on yours truly. Gone were the memories of the Sixers trouncing the Bucks on Christmas Day, or the Heat in November, and the three prior Ws against Boston must’ve been apparitions. All I could see was this sluggish Philadelphia team collapsing beneath their own expectations; all I could hear were the reverberating guffaws of Celtics fans and the incendiary commentary of Charles Barkley, whose words would be easier to dismiss if only they didn’t ring, at least partially, true.

Everything was terrible. Al Horford looked old as dust. Josh Richardson was still on the shelf with a hamstring injury. Joel Embiid was playing with a contraption he must’ve borrowed from Jason Pierre-Paul. If Tobias Harris reads another book, I am going to lose my mind. It was not good. Amidst those losses fell the 2020 Trade Deadline, wherein the Sixers bid adieu to James Ennis III, Trey Burke, and Trey Burke’s disgruntled father. Jonah Bolden was released in favor of Norvel Pelle. Incoming were two Golden State Warriors wings: Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III, who thus began the Homerian odyssey of somehow, someway making their way from their final game with their former team on the road in Brooklyn, to their new team in Philadelphia.

The Sixers returned home to the friendly confines of South Broad Street on Friday night, and decidedly beat the Memphis Grizzlies, 119-107. They won largely because of rejuvenated defensive effort and a 34-point outburst from Furkan Korkmaz, and despite Embiid sitting out the entire second half with neck stiffness. Then, last night, Korkmaz did his thing again en route to 31 points in the Sixers’ W over the Bulls.

The disparity between the team’s play at home versus on the road is a legitimate talking point and cause for concern. At home, the team is 24-2; on the road, they are 9-19. It’s tough to pinpoint exactly why they play like the ‘16 Warriors at home and the Washington Generals on the road. Most teams play better at home, but the chasm between their two records is too vast to ignore.

One working theory is that the team is merely terrified of ever losing at home and feeling the wrath of a disappointed Philadelphia crowd. Another popular (but flawed) hypothesis is that the Sixers often “load manage” road games against poor teams. The problem with that theory is that they are not good enough of a team to do that, and also the East is simply too good at the top to sleepwalk through the season. Hence the reason the Sixers currently stand 5th in the conference.

As much as I love Brett Brown, he is not blameless for these struggles. ‘Effort’ can be a fairly nebulous barometer for a team’s level of play, but the Sixers absolutely lack effort and juice on the road. Whether that is a flaw in personnel (yes) or coaching, it cannot go on unless the team wants to seriously re-evaluate its expectations for this season.

And yet, with all that being said, I’m here to tell you that the grand vision for this season shouldn’t be discarded just yet.

Here’s why:

  1. They’re getting healthier. Josh Richardson has returned from his hamstring pull. Joel Embiid’s finger ought to continue to heal with time, and after Tuesday’s game against the Clippers, the team will have a week-long break with All-Star weekend upon us to rest up and continue to get well.
  2. There is a clear in-house adjustment to be made. Al Horford should be moved to the bench, and the coaching staff appears to be seriously considering it:

A team that starts Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons just cannot start an additional center. Horford, despite his poor play of late, should be commended for doing his level best to up his volume of 3s in a noticeable way. But it’s not working. Horford’s percentages have dropped, as has his level of effectiveness when guarding smaller players. It’s best for the team and for Horford to limit the Sixers’ two-center lineups as much as possible. Also, Tobias Harris is clearly better on both ends of the court when playing the nominal ‘4’. And now, the Sixers have a number of diverse options to use in a new starting lineup.

3. The additions of Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III, in exchange for three second-round picks, have the potential to provide tremendous upside for this Sixers team, especially as they explore the best rotation to maximize their talent. If we can agree that Horford is best off being repurposed off the bench (and, this summer, another team), the question becomes, which Sixer ought to replace him in the starting five?

The candidates should all be wings, as they would allow Harris to play power forward, and Embiid to operate as the lone post presence. That would narrow the possibilities down to Furkan Korkmaz, Matisse Thybulle, Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III. In Korkmaz, the Sixers would be elevating the team’s best off-movement shooter into the starting lineup to provide them with the most space possible. The downside of this option, is that despite his best efforts, Korkmaz remains eminently viable to be exploited and hunted on the defensive end of the court.

Then, there is Sixers rookie standout Matisse Thybulle. What Thybulle would bring to the table is elite perimeter defense and the ability to create a turnover at any time. A perimeter triumvirate of Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson and Thybulle wreaking havoc on defense is deeply enticing. The worry with Thybulle is that his 3-point shot comes and goes, and certainly does not fall in at the rate that Korkmaz’s does.

You might say that the Sixers’ starting lineup is rife with defenders and should optimize spacing as much as possible. Alec Burks played great for Golden State this season, as he showcased his ability to shoot consistently from beyond, handle the ball as a creator, and get to the free throw line consistently, a skill sorely missed on the team ever since the departure of Jimmy Butler. Burks is a solid ball-handler, and his insertion into the starting lineup would be red meat for those starving for Ben Simmons to be constantly paired with a more traditional guard. Burks stands to receive the backup point guard minutes on the team going forward, but he is not as prolific a catch-and-shoot player as you’d hope.

This brings me to my choice, Glenn Robinson III. GRIII is a Process alum, and appears to provide the appropriate blend of skills needed for the team’s fifth starter. He excels from beyond the arc, sinking 40 percent of his 3-point attempts with Golden State. He is accomplished at running off screens and cutting toward the hoop, which should blend well with Simmons’ expertise. Finally, Robinson III has shown a true desire and ability to guard and switch on the perimeter. (For more on how Burks and Robinson III can help the team, read Tom West.) Regardless of which player gets the job, when Horford is moved to the bench (please God), the Sixers are going to have a number of versatile lineup options at their disposal that will neither cripple their defense nor suffocate their spacing.

Only time will tell whether or not the proper adjustments to both the Sixers’ rotation and the team’s overall effort will take place. There are 28 games left, and there’s no time to waste. If they can somehow begin replicating their level of play at home to when they are on the road, we’ll be back to greasing the poles and planning the parade, fifth seed or not.