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3 keys to watch for on Sixers’ treacherous road ahead

NBA: Utah Jazz at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Sixers are now 14-12, sitting in 7th place in the Eastern Conference. Some of their players were out sick, and have since returned to the lineup. But the schedule in front of them is vicious and unforgiving. Seven of their next ten opponents made the playoffs a season ago. One of those teams which did not, the Golden State Warriors, happen to be the best team in the NBA so far. It’s entirely possible that the next month truly tests the Sixers’ (and their fans’) resolve. They could even find themselves four games below .500 if they don’t make some important changes.

Here are three points to keep an eye on during the upcoming vicisious slate

1) Furkan Korkmaz is in the midst of a brutal shooting slump

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Through 25 games, Furkan Korkmaz is now shooting below 30 percent from downtown on the year. The newly extended (3 years, $15 million) Istanbul native started the season hot. He connected on 42.3 percent of his looks (25 of 59) from distance during his first 10 games. But since then, he’s shot a horrific 12 of 65. He’s now just 37 of 124 on the season and not helping his team.

He did hurt his wrist in early November. He missed a game against the Detroit Pistons, and was listed questionable in another against the Bulls. But he shot 7 of 9 from deep in the same game he almost didn’t suit up for a month ago.

Then he drilled 5 of 12 from deep in the next one. But after those two hot shooting games (upon returning to the lineup from the wrist issue) he’s pretty much been awful ever since.

Is it possible there’s something going on here? Is it randomness or something more?

Whatever the case may be, it’s hard to see Doc Rivers continuing to give him opportunities when he’s playing this way. It seems like he’ll have to snap out of this Furk funk in order to maintain his place in the rotation. Many fans predicted a bigger role for Isaiah Joe after his stellar preseason. Joe may have more of an opportunity ahead unless Furk can turn things around.

To my eye, Korkmaz’s shot looks better when he follows through and freezes like this one below:

But a lot of them lately he seems to be “pulling the string.”

2) Tyrese Maxey’s role now that Joel Embiid is back

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Maxey is averaging 16.5, and 4.7 assists, and 3.7 boards this season. He was up to 24 points per game during the 9 games Embiid missed with the virus.

Since Joel has returned, however, the 21 year-old has struggled to maintain his rhythm.

In his last 6 games Maxey has shot just 21 of 65, that’s 32 percent from the floor. He’s 3 of 13 from deep over the same stretch.

The team runs through its MVP candidate. But they’ll want to find ways to keep Maxey feeling confident and engaged. It makes sense a player so young will have ups and downs. It also makes sense he’d defer to his center now that Joel is back and doing stuff like this.

But they could use more balance.

The team could look to stagger the duo’s minutes a bit, and manufacture some of those non-Embiid lineups Tyrese carried recently.

Readers will recognize this suggestion as a rehash from last season’s why don’t they split up Embiid and Simmons’ minutes more? That way you can keep at least one of your best players out there all the time, and keep your secondary scorers’ confidence up.

The 2021 Sixers’ failure to do that had important ramifications. At first they played Ben Simmons wayyyy to much with non-shooting big Dwight Howard. Later in the year, they tethered Simmons and Embiid’s minutes, hoping Tobias Harris could carry bench units. It was all a very predictable disaster.

Here’s an opportunity to learn from that. The Sixers will need both Maxey and Embiid to play their best in some games together over the next month.

3) Has Matisse Thybulle hit a plateau?

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Matisse Thybulle came into this season with some fairly lofty expectations. He joined Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons on one of the All-Defensive teams.

Without Simmons around there are a couple changes for Thybulle. For one, he is often tasked with the first (hardest) cover, affording him less opportunities to cheat and help off of a secondary scorer. One of his best skills is helping, allowing him to muck things up and cause havoc in passing lanes; the type of improvised zone-reads he made so often as a Pac-12 Player of the Year back at Washington. The Sixers don’t have the luxury of deploying him in that role quite as often this season. He’s now more “shadow-coverage corner” than “free-safety.”

And offensively, he appears to have plateaued a bit.

He hasn’t resolved to change his shooting form since entering the NBA. His elbows still flare out a bit resulting in some inconsistent results. Many of the issues highlighted in this video I made a couple of years ago still exist today.

Over the last six games, Thybulle only cracked 24 total minutes once. He hasn’t seemed to fully earn Doc Rivers’ trust for more yet. It will be interesting to see if he hits a plateau or continues to develop. There are some major challenges on the schedule. They’ll no doubt ask him to try his hand at slowing down Steph Curry, Trae Young, James Harden, and Jayson Tatum. If he can knock down wide open 3s on the other end, he’ll get to play much more game-altering defense. Next up, operation “don’t let Steph Curry break the all-time made triples record in Philadelphia.” Seth’s brother needs 10 more to top Ray Allen’s record.

We’ll be keeping a close eye on Furkan’s shooting, Maxey’s role alongside Embiid, and whether Thybulle can continue to grow and earn more minutes.