Sixers weekly observations: Scrambled offensive identity without Joel Embiid, turnovers and more


Sixteen games remain in the regular season and, leading into Sunday’s matchup, the Sixers are still a game behind the Pacers (see standings).

Here are a few observations from yet another week without Joel Embiid. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reports Embiid plans to play today against Indiana.

• Friday was not the finest night for the Sixers’ offense as the team scored under 100 points for the first time since Dec. 30 in Portland. If you want some perspective on how poor a shooting performance it was, consider this: the Sixers grabbed a season-high 22 offensive rebounds and still managed only 91 points.

Some of the problems from Friday don’t deserve close analysis. After falling behind early on the road against a rolling Rockets team, the Sixers needed something borderline-miraculous to happen. And, regardless of how well the defense plays, it’s fair to classify a 3 for 26 three-point shooting effort as an anomaly.

The bigger picture concern, in my mind, is the team’s scrambled offensive identity. Brett Brown knows that it’s smart to play through Ben Simmons in the post when he’s matched up against smaller guards; to give Jimmy Butler plenty of ball screens when he’s running the offense; to not abandon dribble handoffs with JJ Redick, even with Embiid sidelined; to create isolation opportunities for Tobias Harris. His vocal critics might feel otherwise, but Brown is not clueless.

This sensible desire to cater to his players’ strengths, however, has perhaps not always benefited the Sixers’ offense. It just doesn’t feel like there are many reliable plays or concepts that are central to what the team does.

When Embiid — the core of the Sixers’ offense — returns, you’d expect the team will reclaim more of a clear identity. The task of tailoring the team to what each player does best will become easier, but that’s certainly not to say Brown will have the luxury of sitting back and watching all the pieces mesh in perfect harmony.

• The Sixers have turned the ball over 14.9 times per game since the arrival of Harris (tied for 24th in the NBA).

Taking their history into account, that’s not terrible — the Sixers have led the league in turnovers every season since Brown took over with the exception of 2015-2016, when they had the second most.

Harris himself has never been a high-turnover player, which is helpful; Butler is another low-turnover guy. A 26-turnover night in the playoffs doesn’t seem likely this season.

But many of the Sixers’ turnovers are still highly avoidable. Simmons in particular often continues to turn it over by throwing lobs in the hope that his teammate is open, by being careless with the ball when the Sixers need him to value it, and by looking to thread through a spectacular pass when an ordinary one would suffice. 

• Believe it or not, the Sixers actually are tied for the most wins (24) and the highest winning percentage (66.7) this season in clutch situations — defined by as games within five points in the last five minutes. 

However, mistakes like Mike Scott and Butler botching their coverage of the handoff between Robin Lopez and Zach LaVine, giving LaVine a layup easier than about 98 percent of game-winners you’ll ever see, do not inspire confidence.

Playoff seeding has to be the Sixers’ highest priority, but it would sure be nice to win a couple of close ones, execute well late in games, and feel like the third iteration of this team understands and trusts each other heading into the postseason. 

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