Welcome to ‘Winning Culture’ the new column focusing on the Philadelphia 76ers for tapintothemainline.com. Throughout the season we will be following the Sixers and trying to make sense of going from 10 wins to hopefully 55 in just three years. Be sure to check back each week for offbeat insights, weird references, and as many words about Joel Embiid as we can write.
The Philadelphia 76ers have played 39 games on the season, two away from the official midpoint in their schedule. Of those 39 games, they have managed to win 25, including the last two, and six of ten. The last time the Sixers were 11 games above .500 at this point in the season was 2001, the year they went to the finals.
Last year at game 39 the team was 19-20.
Joel Embiid is having an MVP caliber season, the team traded for All-Star Jimmy Butler, and Ben Simmons is looking like he will be a first-time All-Star. Objectively, everything around the team should be great, but as we arrive at the halfway mark, everything feels very unsettled. In order to understand why, I’m going to look at the major questions and issues surrounding the team, starting with…
The Jimmy Butler situation.
A little after 3 pm on Friday afternoon a tweet from Adrian Wojnarowski appeared stating that Jimmy Butler "aggressively challenged" Brett Brown about his role in the offense and apparently had an argument with him at a film session in Portland that was "disrespectful" according to the ESPN article. The initial tweet sounds more ominous than the article itself, but both tap into concerns about Butler.
Butler forced his way out of Minnesota and had issues in Chicago. He is a vocal player and the impression he often gives the media is that he isn’t the nicest guy in the world. Despite that reputation, most former teammates speak highly of him, with the possible exceptions of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Brett Brown also speaks highly of him, and that seems more important than anonymous sources.
The Sixers have some very strong personalities on the team. Joel Embiid is unquestionably the teams leader and the most outspoken Sixer. Ben Simmons isn’t far behind. The concern regarding Butler’s fit was primarily how he would get along with those two, and secondarily his fit on the court. The blowup with Brown was apparently about the latter, and how he has been used in the Sixers offense. The spin on it seems to be trying to make it about the former, especially in the light of Joel’s caught-on-mic gripe after Simmons hit his face going for a rebound.
Butler’s comfort zone has usually been in pick-and-roll and isolation offenses.
The Sixers don’t run a lot of either, outside of postups for Embiid. Butler’s touches have been coming in the flow of the current offense. He’s had a similar usage rate to what he had in Minnesota, but not the kind of situations he prefers. Having a heated discussion with Brown, who isn’t always the quickest at altering things to adapt to new situations, may be what both Butler and Brown needed. Either way, Butler has barely been on the team six weeks, and they have been a top five offense since his arrival.
The Sixers and Butler have the rest of the season to decide if they’re a mutual fit before he becomes a free agent or signs an extension. This may be a tempest in a teacup or a warning shot of future strife. Only time will tell.
Late Game swoons.
I used to play a video game called Everquest. It’s an online role playing game where you play a character in a fantasy world along with thousands of other players. In the game, there was a class of players called Clerics whose primary job was to heal other players and keep them alive while fighting all sorts of monsters.
Each player had a bar that showed how much health they had left. It was normally read, but when it was reduced to zero, it would turn purple for maybe two seconds, and then your character would die. If a Cleric timed a healing spell just right, they could save you while your health bar was purple. They called it "putting you in the purple club."
The Sixers are developing their own purple club, letting games get to the very tipping point and then saving them. This past week both the Los Angeles Clippers and the Phoenix Suns went into the purple club.
With 3:37 left in the third quarter of the game against the Suns the Sixers were up 97-67. With 3:37 left in the fourth the Suns were within six. The gap would close to three points, a single possession, before the Sixers finished them off. Against the Clippers the Sixers were up around 20 points all game, until the gap tightened to five points in the fourth and then ended up winning by six.
This has happened repeatedly this season. Games where the Sixers get up big they gradually let the opposing team back into it. There are a variety of reasons, chief among them is probably depth. The Sixers bench simply cannot hold a lead without at least two of the big three on the floor. This is especially pronounced when Embiid sits.
The team also feels like it gets into quicksand and has a habit of compounding mistakes by pressing. They already have a problem with turnovers and ball security, this just gets more evident when things go wrong. This really seems to be the issue of a still-young team led by 22 and 24 year olds who want to win now, but are still learning on the job. The addition of Jimmy Butler has helped but they still have a ways to go.
As it stands now, no matter how much of a lead the team jumps out to, it has become impossible to feel comfortable. We will probably see a few more teams join the Sixers purple club, but as long as they keep winning it should work itself out. They had the same issue last year before eventually getting better at closing teams out.
Aside from being a young team, the other reason for late game swoons is depth. The bench has some okay players on it, but as I mentioned, it cannot hold a lead. Embiid, Simmons, Butler, and JJ cannot play at 100% all game every game. It takes a toll that is increasingly noticeable.
Mike Muscala, T.J. McConnell, Landry Shamet, and Furkan Korkmaz are the primary bench contributors. Amir Johnson has almost completely fallen out of the rotation. Shake Milton and Demetrius Jackson are on two way contracts and often with the Delaware Blue Coats instead of the Sixers. Jonah Bolden has played more minutes in Delaware than Philadelphia this year, but is just now starting to contribute to the big club. Markelle Fultz and Zhaire Smith are both MIA.
There is nothing impressive about that bench. Individually each player has some helpful skills, but also giant weaknesses. Shamet is a terrific shooter, but also a rookie and improving on defense, but still mostly lost from play to play. Muscala boasts and nice shooting stroke, and hustles for rebounds, but he’s often overmatched as a backup center and seems incredibly streaky with his shot. Korkmaz is up and down from game to game.
McConnell is a fan favorite. He gets ovations when he enters games at the Wells Fargo Center, but the more he plays the more he’s exposed both on offense and defense.
McConnell does a lot of things well.
He can get to his spot to take mid range jumpers almost at will. He gets a lot of steals when other teams fall asleep on routine plays such as inbound passes. He hustles on defense, often picking up opposing guards full court.
The problem is he’s small, and in the Sixers defense -- where players have to switch who they defend very frequently -- he ends up against bigger plays and is rendered completely helpless. He’s reluctant to shoot so teams slack further off of him than they do Simmons. He makes a lot of poor decisions and has never been great about making decent passes into the post. Essentially he kills the teams spacing. While his defense is energetic it is only marginally effective, and he misses a lot of open teammates with passes. He is a great guy to have as a 3rd guard playing 10 minutes a game as a spark plug, but right now he’s playing 20 minutes a game and routinely getting overmatched.
Open roster spot.
As minutes and injuries pile up it has become very clear the Sixers need reinforcements.
The trade deadline is February 7th and soon after the buyout market begins as un-traded players are cut lose. Last season the Sixers picked up Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli after they were bought out and both made solid contributions down the stretch. They were good pickups, but you can’t count on repeating that kind of success. More likely the Sixers will need to make a trade. Basketball Twitter and NBA Reddit are flush with hypothetical trades, but no one really knows what Elton Brand might be up to.
The Sixers have had an open roster spot since the Butler trade and outside of some rumored workouts of has-beens like Aron Afflalo, there has been no apparent move to fill it despite the depleted depth.
Teams can start signing players to ten day contracts on Saturday the 5th. It would seem like the Sixers may try and strike gold this way, but we’ll know soon enough.
Ben Simmons' jump shot.
There has been talk about Ben Simmons jump shot, or lack thereof, since before he was drafted. Lately is has come into sharp focus as the Sixers suffered another loss at the hands of the Celtics who neutralize Simmons in a way most teams can’t. National media has begun to question his long term fit on the Sixers and we’re starting to see people talking about trading him.
Sixers fandom is divided as to how pressing a need it is for Simmons to start shooting. Some think it’s the most important thing in the world for him and the team, others don’t believe he will ever really need one. It’s a divide and debate that seems to be growing every day and speaks to the general anxiety surrounding the team and Simmons future.
I will leave most of the debate to the Spike Eskins and Ben Detricks of the world, but I will say this: I think Ben Simmons is an all star player right now.
To make the jump from all star to MVP candidate, he will need a broader offensive game, and that likely means developing some sort of jumper. I don’t think it’s quite as urgent as some would make up, and if I’m being completely honest, I would like to see him develop a reliable floater. He’s 6’10” and faster than anyone, if he had a decent floater that would broaden his options while driving and playing in the pick and roll considerably.
Ben Simmons is 22 years old and playing in his second season of NBA basketball. We should not talk about him as if he was a finished product.
Markelle Fultz and Zhaire Smith.
A million words have been written about Fultz and his issues. Suffice to say, I am in the camp that thinks he can come back and be the guy we thought he was. This latest diagnosis makes more sense than the scapular imbalance. I hope he plays again this season, sooner rather than later.
The Sixers most pressing need is a wing defender who can shoot. A healthy and fixed Fultz could go a long way to being the solution to that problem, as could Zhaire Smith.
Zhaire looked like a good defensive wing with plenty of athletic and offensive upset when the Sixers drafted him. If he can come back and use the quickness he showed in college to stay in front of the kind of guards like Spencer Dinwiddie who have been torching the Sixers all season, it could mean the difference between a first round playoff exit and a trip to the finals.
In Conclusion …
The Sixers are a very good basketball team led by three players who will likely be all stars this season, and one who will be top five in the MVP voting. They have their best record in almost 20 years at this point in the season, and reason to believe reinforcements are on the way. Philadelphia fans are far more used to being filled with anxiety than confidence. There are plenty of reasons for concern, at least until they beat the Celtics and the Bucks, but this is a good young team taking huge strides in their development into contenders. For all the worry and negativity, it’s easy to lose sight of the positives, but the reality is there are far more positives than negatives.
Only in Philadelphia could the Sixers have the same record as the defending champion Golden State Warriors and half the fanbase is ready to write the season off as a disaster.
I think we all might need to lighten up some and trust the process.
Jacob Jones-Goldstein has written about the Sixers for Roundballrev.com, loves statistics, and Trusts the Process. He dabbles in fiction, watches a lot of movies, and goes to more concerts than he should.