A season that ends anything short of an Eastern Conference Finals appearance will be an immense disappointment. And, frankly, for the large majority of Sixerdom, anything short of a trip to the Finals will be disappointing.
A trip to the Finals can certainly not be secured in October and November. That being said, the Sixers should get off to a fast start, as their early-season schedule is rather favorable. There are, however, better indicators of long-term and playoff success. The following are early season signs to look for surrounding Sixers and if they are building toward being a postseason problem for the rest of the league.
Joel Embiid spends the majority of his time below the foul line.
The days of Jo initiating the offense from the three-point line need to be a thing of the past. For every one spectacular fake and drive or made three, there were ten turnovers, missed threes or wasted possessions. Brett Brown needs to figure out a variety of ways for Embiid to catch the ball 18 feet and in. These touches do not all need to be post-ups (although many should be). Joel facing up a slower player 16-18 feet from the basket is a high-percentage offense. If the defender gives space, Embiid should be encouraged to take that shot at will.
It was a skill that he excelled at early in his career, but that has nearly dropped out of his repertoire completely, as he has repeatedly drifted to the three-point line. From the 16-18 foot mark, Jo also figures to be a much more effective scorer/shot creator, and far less prone to turnovers.
Ben Simmons is fully engaged on defense and shows even a slight willingness to take open shots.
At this point, everyone knows what Ben can do. And what he does is spectacular enough to make him an All-Star, and for the Sixers to win a lot of regular-season games. But if the Sixers are going to win an NBA championship, Ben needs to do more. On defense, along with Josh Richardson, he needs to set a tone that the rest of the team follows. Ben has the physical tools and natural instincts to be an All-NBA defender. He is one of a handful of players in the league that can conceivably guard all five positions. Simmons needs to embrace this ability and make it a calling card from day one. Shutting down Jayson Tatum should be the first thing marked on his to-do list.
On offense, Ben really needs to treat the regular season as a testing ground. There should be plenty of nights that the Sixers are in complete control of the game. If Simmons is not taking open jumpers within the offense in these types of games, it is not a good sign. Step-back, spinning fadeaways should not be a part of this equation. Fifteen-foot pull-ups off a screen, or 18-footers when his defender backs off should be far more in order. Catch and shoot threes when his defender leaves to double should be the other point of emphasis. To be clear, these shots do not need to come in droves. They just need to exist.
Josh Richardson effectively limits the league’s elite scoring point guards.
Scoring point guards have been a major thorn in the Sixers’ side for the past several seasons. The only Sixer capable of slowing these types of players down has been Ben Simmons (See the disappearance of D’Angelo Russell after Game One in the playoffs last year). But this is not a job Ben can handle on a night-in, night-out basis. Josh Richardson can. His combination of speed and length is exactly what the Sixers have lacked for the past several years.
The Kemba Walkers and Kyrie Irvings of the world are likely always going to get their points. Pay attention to how hard they have to work and how many shots they need to take to do it. That will be the true measure of Richardson’s effectiveness.
Establish a way to close games at the offensive end of the floor.
Much has been made about the Sixers’ lack of a “closer” with the departure of Jimmy Butler. It is a legitimate area of concern. There are several schools of thought as to how the Sixers should fill this void. The simplistic approach, and somewhat alarmingly the only one that Brett Brown has publicly stated, is “get the ball to Joel.” This is a road that has already been traveled with not much success. It is not a criticism of Joel, but in today’s NBA it is very difficult to just give the ball to any 7’2” player at the end of the game and get out of his way. Players of that size simply do not have individual shot-creating skills to match the high intensity defense they will face in those situations. The Sixers would be far better served by establishing two-man games for late-game situations. Harris or Richardson could be the ball handler with any of the trio of Simmons, Embiid or Horford as an elbow screener.
The regular season again could, and should, serve as a testing ground for how to handle these situations. The unconventional preference here would be to use Ben as the screen and roller. Why not have the ball go back to your best playmaker heading downhill toward the basket out of the pick and roll? More good things should happen than bad.
Other early signs to look for include the following things…
Al Horford doesn’t look old and consistently hits pick and pop threes.
Tobias Harris is an aggressive shot creator.
Matisse Thybulle establishes himself as a defensive presence who hits open threes at the league average or better.
Trey Burke provides offensive burst in limited minutes with limited turnovers.
James Ennis and Mike Scott do exactly what they did after being acquired last season.
Most importantly, Brett Brown shows the ability to effectively implement the items listed above.
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