During his time as the Sixers head coach, Brett Brown has always broken the season into thirds. The first two thirds have not gone as the team would’ve hoped. The Sixers sit at 34-21 and are currently the East’s fifth seed.
The good news is they look poised to go on a run in the final 27 games of the season.
Let’s start where everything starts with the Sixers: Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. We can debate fit and clashing skill sets all we want. The bottom line is the Sixers need the All-Star duo to be peaking down the stretch and into the playoffs.
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Their win over the Clippers before the All-Star break represents exactly the type of performances needed. What was most impressive is that neither player sacrificed their aggressiveness to accommodate the other. Embiid took 17 shots — but also got 13 free throws — while Simmons took a season-high 22 attempts.
While he's played at an elite level the last 20 games, Simmons' last 11 may represent the best stretch of his career. The 23-year-old has averaged 12.5 field goal attempts in that span. When he takes at least 13 attempts from the field this season, the Sixers are 17-5. While the jumper may not be there, his improved shot is visible from the line, where he’s hit 73.9 percent on 8.4 attempts during that stretch.
There’s no denying Embiid and Simmons’ importance, but having all of your top-five players is also pretty darn important. The Sixers have only had Embiid, Simmons, Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson and Al Horford together for 21 of 55 games. That’s just 38.1 percent.
The Sixers are a respectable 9-7 when Embiid hasn’t played this season, but it’s clear they need all five of these players.
While the Sixers are 9-5 in the games Richardson has missed, you could see the impact he had against the Clippers, pouring in 17 fourth-quarter points. You can’t expect that kind of output every night, but his ability as a two-way player is crucial to the Sixers.
Embiid should be splint free — he wasn't wearing one during the All-Star Game Sunday — for the first time since returning from the torn ligament in the ring finger on his left hand. Richardson looked explosive after missing time with multiple hamstring injuries. Simmons and Harris are two of the most durable players in the NBA.
As for Horford, it appears his run as a starter is over. That doesn’t mean he can’t make an impact. The decision could prove to be a “win-win” as Horford will fit better offensively with lineups that don’t feature Embiid. Brown will likely still use Horford to close games, which makes sense. The Sixers’ original starting lineup is tied for second in the NBA in terms of defensive rating among five-man lineups that have played at least 200 minutes.
One of their newcomers would be a nice fit in place of Horford. Glenn Robinson III could make the team more switchable defensively. Robinson was used in a stopper role in Golden State. That likely won’t be the case here, but his ability to switch one through four makes him a dynamic piece defensively. Robinson is also having a career year as a shooter, hitting 39.5 percent of his threes.
With Robinson and Alec Burks coming over from the Warriors, Brown suddenly has options. Bringing Horford off your bench as the sixth man while using Burks and Furkan Korkmaz as instant offense and Matisse Thybulle as an impactful defender makes the bench much more dangerous.
While there are plenty of reasons for optimism for the Sixers after the break, the reality is they’ve underperformed. A large part of that has to do with their abysmal 9-19 record on the road. The 18-36 Hornets have more road wins.
If you’re looking for a reason that could change, the Sixers’ strength of schedule could be one. Up to now, they’ve played the third-toughest schedule in the NBA. After the All-Star break, they have the second easiest. In contrast, the Raptors (sixth) and Celtics (seventh) have had lighter schedules that will get more difficult — Toronto has the 11th-toughest, Boston the 12th.
That’s not an excuse. If the Sixers are the team they’ve claimed to be, they need to beat good teams. They also can’t follow up big wins with brutal losses like their lifeless defeat in Orlando two days after a Christmas Day win over the Bucks.
The Sixers have work to do and ground to make up. All of these factors don’t matter if they don’t show consistent focus and stay healthy.
Brown refers to the stretch after the All-Star break as a “sprint.” The Sixers could — and probably should — be ready to go on a run.
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