35 games into the 2018 NBA season, and the Sixers find themselves with a respectable 22-13 record and third in the Eastern conference. Joel Embiid has put up MVP numbers and with the addition of Jimmy Butler, the Sixers big three appears primed for a deep post season run come April.
But despite their big three, they still have two major issues that need to be addressed if they wish to get past the second round of the playoffs this time around.
The Lack of a Bench
Out of the handful of issues facing the Sixers right now, this is the most glaring. Adding Butler was key for the Sixers, but it came at the expense of two pivotal role players, Dario Saric and Robert Covington.
With them out of the lineup, Wilson Chandler has been forced into the starting five leaving Mike Muscala as the only competent four coming off the bench. Amir Johnson has been supplemented into that role from time to time, but at 31 he’s limited and tends to get dominated by more athletic forwards. Coach Brown showed his willingness to give Jonah Bolden some minutes against Toronto last Friday night, but he saw no floor time on Christmas Day against the Celtics.
As dominant as Embiid has been this season, the Sixers desperately need a consistent backup big man who can protect the paint when Embiid’s on the bench.
The 4/5 isn’t the only area that lacks depth on the team, the entire bench could use some help.
There really isn’t anyone who the Sixers can count on to lead the second unit at this point. Ideally, this would be Markelle Fultz’s role, but who knows when he’ll return to game action. For the past couple of weeks, Coach Brown has let TJ McConnell handle backup point guard duties.
As much as I love TJ, his hustle and effort on the court doesn’t necessarily translate to offensive production. Out of all the players who have logged significant minutes with Embiid, it’s the McConnell pairing where he performs the worst. Not only is Embiid relied on more with TJ on the floor, but as you would expect, his efficiency plummets. This is a product of his lack of spacing or ability to consistently penetrate and create.
For the record, the offenses numbers with Fultz in the lineup are the same as with Simmons on the floor; translation: we either need Fultz to return soon, or the front office needs to address the backup point guard position.
Along with the absence of an adequate guard to come off the bench, the Sixers have lacked any sort of consistent production from their backup wing players. In fact, they really don’t have any backup wing players. Chandler and Butler are the only natural wings that the Sixer have. Chandler has done well in the starting lineup, but he’s not exactly a defensive-stopper to begin with, and behind him, Butler, and Simmons, the Sixers are in dire need of players who can defend and switch across the perimeter.
Shamet has been able to provide spacing, but he’s a defensive black hole just like Redick. Korkmaz has showed some spark coming off the bench, but he hasn’t brought that production consistently. It’s remarkable that the team have even gotten this far into the season without adding depth to this position group.
With the hope of a Fultz return, adding a backup big and wing (preferably one who can space the floor) should be at the top of the Sixers priority list as the season moves on.
Brett Brown’s Late Game Coaching
I think it’s fair to say that Brett Brown has cost the Sixers a handful of games this season due to his decision making late.
The 4th quarter has been a bug-a-boo for the team all season, and this past game on Christmas day was the latest example of this. With the game on the line tied up at 108, the Sixers had the chance to win the game in regulation. They had about 20 seconds to run a play out of their timeout. Everyone, including myself, thought without a shred of doubt that Jimmy Butler would be the one taking the shot. He’s one of the best clutch shooters in the league and has made a handful of buzzer beaters since he’s joined the Sixers.
Instead of going with the obvious play in this situation, Brown decided to run a dribble handoff at the top of the key to give JJ Redick a shot — a side-fading 20-footer.
It just didn’t make sense. JJ isn’t a terrible choice for the final shot, but when you have one of the best late-game shooters in the game at your disposal (and Embiid as a secondary option), why in the world would you not give him the chance to win it? Not to mention that Brett Brown thought a triple handoff would really work in a buzzer beater situation against a Brad Stevens coached defense.
I don’t think it’s ridiculous to say that Brett Brown has held the Sixers back this season. To be honest, I think it’s pretty accurate.
The Sixers have one of the best starting fives in all of basketball. Despite this, Brown has failed to lead the Sixers past any of the top tier teams in the NBA. They’re 0-2 against Boston, 1-2 against Toronto (the win coming when they were without Kawhi), 0-1 against Milwaukee and 1-1 against Indiana. That’s a combined 2-6 against the top five teams currently in the Eastern Conference. With the amount of talent the Sixers boast, this is unacceptable.
If Brett Brown continues to struggle against elite teams come playoff time, don’t be surprised if he gets replaced next season. The Sixers are primed to be a threat to win the Eastern Conference for years to come, and they’ll need a coach who helps them achieve that, not hold them back.