Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The State of the Sixers

Simmons and Emiid - 2020

The 76ers will play their 41st game of the season Thursday night when they travel to Boston to take on the Eastern Conference leading Celtics. Their record currently stands at an even .500, 20-20, and there are more signs for optimism than for pessimism for the first time in half a decade for this precocious up and coming talent laden team. Joel Embiid will almost assuredly make his first All-Star team after playing in 31 of the 40 games and averaging 24 points 11 rebounds and 2 blocks per game in 31 minutes. Ben Simmons, still considered a rookie after sitting out the entire year last year, has played as advertised. Simmons is every bit of 6 feet 10 inches tall and runs the point with vision and handle the likes of which NBA fans really have not seen since Magic Johnson retired.

As the Sixers cross the official halfway point of the season I wanted to reach out to my readers to let them know I still am following Philadelphia sports with a passion, but it has been difficult to find time and angles to write about. With the Eagles playing in the NFC Championship game this weekend I certainly could have provided some fluff about their marvelous season, but I do not pretend to know football well enough to report on it intelligently. So good luck to the Eagles this weekend and let’s keep our Ts and Ps with Carson Wentz for a speedy recovery.

I’ll tell you though, at times to the chagrin of my wife, I am fully invested in this Sixers team and their future. NBA basketball is exciting in Philadelphia for the first time since Allen Iverson was traded away 11 seasons ago. Having said that, it can be incredibly frustrating to watch this young team develop on the fly as they are prone to blowing big leads and making too many mental mistakes during crunch time. I have watched a significant amount of these 40 games and will impart with you my observations and opinions on the key players and management of this team.

What a Talent!

Joel Embiid – The Centerpiece

There is no limit to the amount of superlatives you can bestow on Joel Embiid. The 7’ 2” center from Cameroon is one of the few remaining big men in the league with a back to the basket post-up game. He can handle (relatively well for a man his size), he can shoot from mid-range, he can shoot from 3, he has tremendous vision and can pass better than expected, he rebounds well and is always active on defense blocking and altering shots. He has a tendency to leave his feet too quickly in anticipation of a block, but he should be able to clean that up. In an early win at the Los Angeles Lakers, Embiid put up the staggering line of 46 points 15 rebounds 7 assists and 7 blocks. Those numbers had never before been recorded in an NBA game.

Another thing Embiid may do better than any big man in the game is draw contact to get to the free throw line. With his skill set, opposing bigs have to stay in his face when he squares to the basket and he has developed a type of “swim move” you may have seen players like Kevin Durant and James Harden employ where he sees the defenders outreached arm in front of him and he brings the ball up to the shooting position right through that outreached arm to draw the shooting foul. His immense size also enables him to draw contact in the post and Joel knows how to shoot it from the charity stripe. He is shooting 79% on the season and is in the top 10 for makes in the league despite missing 9 games.

As far as chinks in his armor are concerned; he still has not been cleared by the Sixers’ crack medical staff to play on back-to-back nights. I am 32 years old and I play basketball on back-to-back nights. Something’s missing there. Embiid’s health will always be a concern, at least until he plays more than 60 games in two straight seasons, but that is something that is out of his control. Regarding what he can control, I’d like to see Embiid be stronger with the basketball. For such an immense man with obvious strength, he is constantly having the ball stripped from him when he is about to make a move. At times, it would appear that his body cannot quite catch up to what his mind wants him to do and he can look a bit gangly and out of control. I attribute this to having played just over 60 total NBA games since he was drafted in 2014 (and less than 20 during his lone season at Kansas). The guy did not pick up a basketball until he was 16 so expect him to get better as he gets more seasoned in understanding what he can and cannot do on the court.

Rookie of the Year Favorite

Ben Simmons – The Straw That Stirs the Drink

Simmons, along with Embiid, is a generational talent. The 21 year old Australian has a unique repertoire and is averaging 17 points 7 assists and 8 rebounds as the point forward for the team. At this time, Simmons best attribute is his ability to find the open man in a spot that best suits the player to make the next shot. His pass first mentality is a big reason why the Sixers have gone back and forth with the untouchable Golden State Warriors for the NBA lead in assists per game. Simmons has a variety of moves, most notably a behind the back dribble in traffic, that allow him to get free to make these passes. His height puts him at an advantage when smaller players attempt to guard him and his quickness, he has that ability to shrink the court he moves so fast, allows him to get by larger slower defenders. Simmons on a breakaway is really quite breathtaking.


Perhaps the most underrated part of Simmons game is his intensity. It has been on display of late after getting chippy with Marcus Morris of the Celtics in London last week as well as the dustup he had with Kyle Lowry at the end of the Sixers latest win on Martin Luther King Jr day. That grit can be seen on the defensive end of the floor where Simmons is active in passing lanes and in the paint blocking shots and cleaning the glass. Simmons ranks 8th in the NBA in steals at just under 2 a game and is also good for a block a game. Simmons demeanor on the court is often surly, which is a contrast to the affable Embiid who is constantly smiling and egging on a home crowd. I like Simmons having this mentality as he is all business on the floor and is not out there to make any friends with opposing players. I am more prone to respecting a Bad Boys Pistons mentality than an AAU Dwight Howard I’m out here to have fun mentality. It appears that Simmons and Embiid could be a good mix of both.

There is one glaring thing with Simmons, of course, the giant elephant in the room. The guy flat out can’t shoot a basketball. My theory is that his innate ability from the time he was very young made all of his handlers and coaches gloss over the fact that not only can he not shoot, but he appears to shoot with the wrong hand, and with god awful form at that. He was tall enough, fast enough, and strong enough to still dominate every league he played in until he got to the NBA. Now he’s running pick and rolls and every defender sags underneath and DARES him to shoot a wide open jumper from 15 feet away. Reluctant would be putting it mildly if we’re describing Simmons’ penchant for shooting a jumper.  If you’ve been following half as much as I have, then you know that Simmons shoots almost all of his shots within 8 feet or so of the basket and he does so with his right hand. Apparently, Simmons is right-handed but for some reason he shoots his jumpers, and free throws, with his left hand up and his elbow out. That is not a recipe for success as evidenced by his putrid 56% free throw shooting percentage (he is shooting 65% in January). Simmons will take and make the occasional jumper so it is confusing to me why he is not a bit more aggressive on offense but I believe that will come in time.

Lastly, Ben is just way too careless with the ball. He is 6th worst in the NBA at 4.0 turnovers a game (Embiid is 5th worst at 4.2). Ben’s turnovers seem to be mostly mental mistakes or caused by playing a bit too fast. He has a habit of leaving his feet before knowing where he’s going with the basketball and often times that leads to live ball turnovers and run outs for opposing teams. What makes matters worse is that it seems to happen more often when the Sixers are desperately trying to hold on to a lead late in games. Ben will need to clean that up but he is another guy that has only played 40 games in the last 2 years, so hopefully some seasoning can allow for these turnover issues to dissipate.

What Markelle is Kown For

Markelle Fultz – The What the F**k?

The Fultz situation has to be the biggest enigma in the NBA and it feels like it is barely getting any attention (luckily for the Sixers). This summer Bryan Colangelo, the Sixers’ GM, traded the number 3 overall pick along with another high lottery selection the SIxers owned from the Lakers, to the Celtics for the number one overall pick. They used it on the consensus number one selection 6’ 4” combo guard Markelle Fultz. The Celtics took Jayson Tatum out of Duke and while it is still too early to call, the Celtics have to be ecstatic with the way this trade is shaping up thus far.


Fultz looked like the guy who did it all for Washington in his lone season there in a few short outings in Summer League before he tweaked an ankle and sat out the rest of those games. Somewhere in between that time and the beginning of the regular season Markelle Fultz unlearned how to shoot a basketball. He played the first four games to start the season and had an almost shotput like form for his free throws and essentially refused to take an outside shot. Once again the Sixers’ crack medical staff have their hands on him after what they diagnosed as a “muscular imbalance” in his shoulder. The injury and subsequent loss of talent, to almost a Space Jam like level, is incredibly mysterious and disheartening for the fans. The Sixers’ management and lack of transparency regarding Fultz exacerbates the issue for all of us that care maybe a little too much about this team. By all reports he is healthy at this time but his shot is in such disrepair the Sixers are refusing to suit him up. It is scary and terrifying and just a sad situation that Fultz is in right now. Once again, Ts and Ps have go out to Markelle Fultz and his shot. He needs them.

Pass it to the Homie, Now You Hit It

Dario Saric - The Homie

Dario (it's pronounced "shar itch") plays a fearless brand of basketball and is effective at what he does. He is not an elite athlete but he makes up for that with a high basketball IQ that can be seen in the way he plays the game. He is the best offensive rebounder on the team and just has a knack for coming up with a tough rebound despite some physical limitations. He is another guy who can make great passes with ease and if his three point shot is falling you are absolutely in love with him. We saw it last season, and have seen some more of it this season, but Dario seems to play his best when the game is on the line. The Sixers were in the midst of yet another large collapse against the Raptors Monday when Saric stepped up and knocked down a big 3 pointer to give the Sixers some breathing room in their most recent win

The issue with Saric is not actually his issue. Too often Dario is the main option for a lineup that does not feature Embiid. Saric needs to be the second, third or fourth option and that is the plan when Embiid, Simmons, and Fultz are all clicking but right now the Sixers have to rely a little too heavily on the Croatian born power forward.

A Bonafide Shooter

JJ Redick – The Marksman

The veteran from Duke came to town on a one year $23 million deal. In his prior 11 NBA seasons he earned a little over $56 million. So this was quite the payday for a guy who really has put in the time and effort needed for an average at best athlete to thrive in the NBA. In his last 3 seasons, all with the Clippers, Redick made 200, 200, and 201 3 pointers. This season he has made 98 in 36 games. He is just a consistent pro. You don’t see a guy pull up on the dead run and make shots like JJ Redick can; the guy can just flat out shoot. My one knock is the careless turnovers I see too often from him in crunch time. When the Sixers get going bad, the turnovers seem to be infectious. As one of the few guys with big game experience on the team, you’d like to see more of a calming presence from JJ in the late game swoon situations.

Process Lifer

Robert Covington – The 3 Point Shooter?

RoCo is the only holdover from the dregs of the Trust the Process days and he got handsomely rewarded to the tune of 4 years $62 million about a month into the season. Covington was out to a blazing start leading the NBA in 3 pointers made for a stretch and the Sixers pounced to lock him up. The timing of the contract I felt to be somewhat odd. Covington has been a chucker of 3s since he came to Philly in 2014 but he has not exactly shot a high percentage, 36% for his career. After the torrid start that saw him shooting close to 50%, the Sixers went ahead and inked that deal. Covington shot 35% from 3 in December and is at 31% so far in January. He is perhaps the best perimeter defender on the team and with his size he rebounds well, so he is not a liability on the floor as far as intangibles are concerned. However, for the Sixers to truly contend they will need him to get that percentage up where Redick’s is at about 40%.

No More Rec League for TJ

TJ McConnell – The Sparkplug

Yes, you read that right. I can’t believe it myself. TJ McConnell the little white guy from Pittsburgh has officially made it in the NBA. I had a running joke with my buddies that TJ was still running at his local YMCA on Tuesday nights during the season just so he could get some burn. Well, TJ McConnell left the YMCA behind. This little pest (ask Demar Derozan) is just better than you expect him to be in every aspect of the game. He runs the back up point guard position and almost always provides a spark off the bench. He is constantly hounding opposing ballhandlers, usually playing full court defense, and can play passing lanes. His offensive game is really what makes him though. The guy has an uncanny ability to finish at the rim despite being overmatched athletically by virtually everyone on the court. He has a move where he circles under the basket and comes back out the other side to either find the open man or drain a 6 foot jump shot with remarkable ease. I can’t believe I’m saying it, but I love TJ McConnell.

Playoffs or Bust

Brett Brown – The Really Cool Accent But Can He Coach?

In my best Brett Brown voice, “I like where we’re at as a team right now. We’re competing every night. We’re right there in the playoff picture. You have to understand we’re still an incredibly young team. Our two best players have never played a full NBA season and we’re finding a way to win games. Joel and Ben really have just scratched the surface of their talents and we’re still waiting on Markelle to find himself. Once we have our full compliment of players healthy and on the same page really I think the sky is the limit for this group.”

I like Bret Brown, you have to feel for the guy who lost 130 games in two seasons. I think he has the offense in a pretty good spot considering they were going to rely fairly heavily this season on Fultz’s playmaking ability. They are young and fast so it makes sense they run as much as they do, but it can’t come with the carelessness the Sixers usually play with. That being said, the jury is still out for me as to whether Brown will be leading this team when the Sixers are true contenders.

My two biggest knocks basically go hand in hand. The Sixers are dead last in the NBA in turnovers per game and the Sixers blow wayyyy too many big leads. I feel, to some extent, those two issues are a reflection of coaching. I’ve hammered home that Simmons and Embiid do not have much experience, but I have not seen much progress from them so far this season in taking care of the basketball. You just can’t win games by turning it over.  The blowing big leads thing is something you can’t quite put your finger on, but just know the Sixers are in their own heads when they enter the 4th quarter with a lead. They know a collapse is coming, the opposing team smells blood, and then Brown and his team only seem to make it worse by panicking. The Sixers were up 22 on the Celtics in London mid way through the second quarter and from there Boston went on something like a 75-35 run. It’s like the Sixers need to figure out how to stop the bleeding but they are hemophiliacs.

Brown has to do a better job of stemming the tide with timeouts. Too often he lets things ride and the Sixers continue to implode. Many times this season I will see a timeout during an opposing team’s run and the Sixers will come out of the timeout with a set piece that results in a turnover. It is poor execution and a lack of a sense of the moment for a team prone to making the same mistakes.

The Sixers have a tough remaining schedule in January that continues with another date in Boston tomorrow night and matchups with Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and Milwaukee to name a few. JJ Redick has been ruled out for at least 10 days with a knee bruise and Fultz’s return is still a mystery. I said to a friend the Sixers would be hard pressed to get 5 wins in this January that has them playing 12 games. Well, they are currently 3-1 in the month and have won 6 of 8 after a rough month of December. They will most likely need to finish the season a game or so better than the 20-20 record they have so far in order to make the playoffs. I’ll be watching and it will be exciting.

Until next time..
10 9 8 76ers!









  1. Nice article. No love for Rashaun Holmes, Amir Johnson or Trevor Booker (via Jahlil Okafor + Nik Stauskus + 2nd Round Pick... HEH!). I feel Holmes deserves some love since he's basically Nerlens Noel 2.0 and may even have a better upside at this point in their respective careers. Nerlens can't sniff the court down in Dirk-land.

    -Drew, Oreland

    1. I was kicking myself for not having a a list of guys not listed.

      Jahlil Okafor would have been first on the list.

  2. Really want to see more from RoCo in JJ's absence and continue to grow throughout the year. Want to see him be more dynamic and incorporate a mid-range shot and at least the beginnings of a post-up shot. The dude has plenty of size and I feel like he doesn't make great use of it.

    - Joe from Balteemore

    1. RoCo seems to have just been hesitant of late. We (WEEEEEEE) will definitely need to see more aggression from him at the 3 point line - if he's hitting - and with pump fakes and dribble drives if he is not. The absence of Redick should force his hand.

      I think he'd be well served to take advantage of a mismatch in the post if one presents itself and he is a terrific free throw shooter.

  3. Now Mr. Riley- Brilliant column. Your passion is evident. Even though you are thirty two , with the swim move you should be able to maintain your stamina, etc. Your wife's cousin spent some time in Cameroon and I know for a fact what led directly to you Joelle's unbelievable vision. Because their electrical grid is so inconsistent Cameroonians are subject to regular blackouts. Without ability to see in the dark young Joelle would never have made it as a number two pick in the old USA. Secondly, while you are modest in your estimation of your football acumen, I certainly hope that you return from your ski trip ready to report on whether Mikaela Shiffrin is going to win the Women's GS and downhill for the American team, and whether Ted Ligety has any chance in South Korea. We expect the challenge of the mighty Poconos will inspire you.

    thanks for getting back into writing the column. Yes we bought into the Phillies plan again, so I look forward to hearing all you have to say.

    1. I could see where Cameroonians may have it rough. If your theory is true, then more power to Mr. Embiid.

      As far as Ted Ligety's chances, he'll have to get down that mountain Ligety split if he wants to see a medal in SoKo.


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