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What’s not “sinking in” for the Sixers? Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Doc Rivers need to be better

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Philadelphia 76ers v Washington Wizards - Game Four Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

The Sixers lost the game last night. It’s not the end of the world. The big headline of the night wasn’t the 122-114 final score. It wasn’t that the opposing team decided to play Hack-a-Ben Simmons by sending him to the free-throw line on purpose. It was that Joel Embiid landed awkwardly and injured his knee. Embiid would stay in the game. He’d play over 4 minutes actually. That seems like a good sign, where we might rule out a few disaster scenarios. Last time Joel Embiid got injured (in Washington, back in mid-March) he was instantly done for the game. It was reported he had an MRI that same night and we had our Shams Charania bomb by 8:25 AM ET the next morning that the big fella would be reevaluated in 2-3 weeks. As of this writing, we don’t have any official word on his status moving forwards. Hopefully, no news is good news, but you never know with this franchise, they’ve been harder to trust on injury updates than any other issue over the years.

But maybe Daryl Morey tried to do his part to buck the trend by sending out this cryptic-yet-vaguely-optimistic tweet last night, of “one o-clock and all is well” from Disney’s “Robin Hood:”

Whew?

That might have been just late enough for the team to have completed an MRI and rule out worst-case scenarios.

It’s not the end of the world. They can wrap this series up tomorrow even if Embiid isn’t able to play. That’s not the issue. We’re grading this group on a curve because they have title aspirations. So we have to play bad cop today. There is some tough love that needs to go around. Dems the rules.

Embiid’s play

I feel like this has to be said. It’s impossible to predict injuries. But it wasn’t a smart play by Joel. Given how cunning he is at drawing fouls. Given how many moves he has in his bag. Given how many of the games’ greatest players he’s capable of channeling, up 3 games to none in a closeout match vs. Wizards this was the time to channel The Big Fundamental, Tim Duncan, not Kobe Bryant. Tim would have done something unspectacular. He might have made a bank shot, or missed a hook shot. Next play up.

Jo opts for the bullrush, and goes from a near standstill into a near sprint, accelerating into a leap towards the rim. Expecting contact he bends his knees so that now his feet are way off the ground. Heaven forbid Lopez decided to take a flagrant like LeBron James did and simply fling him to the floor. Embiid left himself vulnerable to a variety of maladies when he could have decelerated and flipped up a fadeaway.

After all he’s been through this season, having dodged disaster in a similar instance in this same building and talking to ESPN recently about appreciating his second chance. As Ramona Shelburne penned just two weeks ago:

“But something he could control in the second half of the season was making sure everybody realized that he was the best player in the world.”

And then he forgot to fall like a tree on the night of March 12.”

Hopefully, he’s fine and this is overly critical. But it didn’t feel like the proper context for that type of risky move. And in typical Sixers fashion, he logged four minutes on it afterward which probably won’t help with any potential swelling. Not ideal.

Ben Simmons free throw shooting

Hack-A-Simmons is going to be the biggest local radio talking point today. It’s easy to say the strategy of intentionally fouling Ben Simmons (who came into the game 0-9 from the stripe) “worked” for the Wizards because they won the game and Ben Simmons shot just 5-11 and just 3-6 down the stretch. I’m not going to defend Ben Simmons as a shooter. He’s not good from the line, although he was better yesterday than he had been in games 1-3. He needs to hire one of the world’s best shooting coaches and spend a summer changing his stroke-like Blake Griffin, like Jason Kidd, like Rajon Rondo have done. Until then, his legacy will be limited.

It’s an issue and I also wonder how it impacts his offensive aggressiveness throughout the earlier portions of an important and eminently, painfully, winnable ball game.

Simmons shot over 61 percent from the line in the regular season. Hopefully, if the Wizards go back to the strategy (surely they will in game 5) Simmons regresses a bit back to his seasonal (61.3) and career (59.7) means, which are both better than he’s shot it recently. The odds suggest he will improve, we’ll see.

Doc Rivers and Ben’s role on this team

But man... what is Ben’s role on this team?

The much more maddening thing to see for me was Ben Simmons’ offensive usage.

Doc Rivers defended his star after the game, and may have been so frustrated there was some shade throw-in at the city for expecting more from Simmons. Per Derek Bodner of The Athletic:

“No. But you guys keep this Ben Simmons narrative alive, which to me is freaking insane. How good this guy is and all the things he does … Ben is not a 40-point guy. That’s not what he does. He does other things for your team. I just don’t understand why that’s not sinking in in our city,” Rivers said.

On the one hand, Rivers is absolutely right. Something isn’t sinking in for the fans in Philly who don’t appreciate Simmons, and simply want him to shoot pull up 3s and score 40. On the other hand, there are a few things that don’t appear to be sinking in for Rivers here. The second half of this season through today, Ben is being grossly underutilized as a facilitator in Doc’s system. Doc talks the talk and defends his star. But the game plans we’ve witnessed recently suggest that Doc routinely underestimates this dude too.

Here is the type of stuff we’re used to seeing from Ben over the years. A bucket getter, for himself or someone else. Some tweets courtesy of stat wiz Justin Jacobs, Senior Researcher and Data Scientist for the NBA:

And Per The Ringer:

So why on EARTH are we watching 8 consecutive minutes in a game without Embiid where Ben Simmons is being shoved into the dunker spot while the team runs sets with Seth Curry and Danny Green as ball handlers setting up looks for Mike Scott to roll to the cup or pop for 3s? And churning out iso after agonizing iso for Tobias Harris amidst one of his worst shooting games of the season? Brett Brown got crucified for leaving Ben in the dunker spot when he had Jimmy freakin’ Butler. But now we’re making room for Scott?

Just watch this condensed version. It’s painful.

Now Simmons had a spooky non-contact crumple pointed out here:

Simmons still played some outstanding on-ball defense over this period. If he wasn’t feeling 100 percent and needed to rest on offense maybe that explains some of this? But then where were the fireworks? It would have made some sense if some people were apoplectic.

Why wasn’t Dave Joerger shown screaming at Doc, insisting they call a timeout to get Ben, the dude who was 5th in the league in assist points generated per game in 2019-2020 some ISO’s?

Why wasn’t Sam Cassell running out onto the floor to eviscerate Tobias for not screaming for Ben to come get the ball at the top of the key while everyone else spotted up?

Why wasn’t Doc yelling at Ben to wake up?

Why wasn’t Ben yelling at his coaches for the brutal misguided offensive sets being executed? Spot up shooters playing point? Ball handlers hiding?

Why didn’t Embiid limp from out of the lockerroom to demand they get Ben the ball?

If you told me the nutjob fan who sprinted onto the court was Daryl Morey wielding spreadsheets to show his coaching staff I would have felt so much better about that game.

I don’t get it. Yet, we’ve seen Ben utilized this way for months now.

Bradley Beal is one of the league’s easiest and best targets. He was guarding Simmons. Not only does he happily hemorrhage hoops on D, making him work on that end (he didn’t have to) might have limited his offensive juice. Philly was outscored 17-12 in this span.

Ultimately, this is Simmons’ legacy. If I were him, I’d want to put up more of a fuss to get some looks. There’s a championship on the line and he was the best offensive option in that spot, not the other four guys who did all the dribbling and passing and shooting.

Doc and Dwight Howard-Mike Scott minutes

Dwight Howard’s time with the Sixers has been wonderful. Our Dan Volpone discussed how enjoyable he’s been. But as our Kevin F. Love pointed out:

“Unfortunately for the Sixers, lineups featuring Howard have not been effective in the aggregate: over 2,102 possessions with Dwight at center, the Sixers have a point differential of -5.0 — the pace of a team who would win about 29 games in an 82 game season. Howard deserves some criticism here.”

Howard was a -10 in his 13 minutes last night. Eventually, Rivers turned to his younger reserves to spark a 16-3 run and get back into the game. But if Tobias Harris has been a bit of a crutch in halfcourt offense at the cost of Simmons this season, then Howard has been a crutch off the bench, despite the numbers suggesting the team is often at a disadvantage when he’s out there. Oh, and he’s been significantly better than Scott. I’d just plug Matisse Thybulle in for either big and give it a spin in game five. I’d rather lose in a new way than in an old predictable way.

The Sixers may not have an alternative to Dwight or Scott minutes that Rivers feels comfortable turning to. But they’re probably going to have to. Reporters like Derek Bodner, Kyle Neubeck, and Ben Detrick have all suggested various versions of small-ball lineups featuring Simmons and Harris surrounded by shooters for no Joel minutes.

It’s probably time to give that a shot.

Doc and Foul trouble

Ben Simmons picked up some early foul trouble and took a huge break in the second quarter. Per Neubeck, of Phillyvoice:

“Foul trouble” is only as dangerous as you allow it to be. With Joel Embiid already back in the locker room getting evaluated for a potential injury, leaving Simmons out of the game for a bunch of non-Embiid minutes with Mike Scott of all people at center is borderline irresponsible.”

It seemed overly risky.

Per the really fun book “Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won” by L. Jon Wertheim and Toby Moskowitz:

“Leave a player with five fouls in the game and what happens? The average player with five fouls picks up his sixth foul out of the game only 21 percent of the time. A star is even less likely to pick up a sixth foul (only 16 percent of the time once he receives his fifth foul; remember Whistle Swallowing”?). Thus, leaving a player in the game with five fouls hardly guarantees that he’ll foul out.”

Bottom line: An NBA Coach is much better off leaving a star player with five fouls in a game. By our numbers, coaches are routinely giving up about 0.5 points per game by sitting a star player in foul trouble....”

Would have been nice to see them gamble a little bit more on the Ben minutes. If you play a dude in foul trouble, you risk losing him. But if you don’t, you basically guarantee losing him for those minutes.

This piece was tough love. If this was your 2018 Sixers the mood would not have felt right. But this team has championship aspirations. And their flaws feel relatively fixable...like they might be able to clean up a few issues that have plagued them all season long with some fine-tuning. If this was most other fanbases, we’d be rallying around one of the best teams we’ve ever had and pushing this stuff to the side. And certainly, some fans are entitled to feel that way. But this is Philly. No cupcake city. This feels like a title or bust playoffs so hopefully Joel is healthy and things start “sinking in” quickly. They may be able to beat the Wiz while making some of the same mistakes they’ve made throughout the year. But the next round will offer less room for error.