Most great stories are told in three acts. It is the modern storytelling arc. Act one is when the characters are established, the narratives begin to coalesce, and typically the protagonists face a challenge or change that sets up the rest of the story. 

This Sixers season is really no different. As Brett Brown has said, he likes to evaluate a season in thirds, which is roughly 27/28 games of an 82 game NBA season. The Sixers sit at 19-9 and it could be argued that they are neither as good as their record, or as bad. They have faced intrigue and setbacks, regression, and progression. Due to the Jimmy Butler trade, a fair evaluation may need until Christmas, but let’s stick to the original plan and see where we are after 28games. 

Joel Embiid has established himself as a legitimate MVP Candidate who can withstand the rigors of a heavy minutes load and a back-to-back laden schedule. 

The Sixers pounced on opportunity and brought Jimmy Butler in via a huge trade that changed their identity from a young burgeoning power to a team with three legitimate NBA stars. The package of Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and Jerryd Bayless represented a bold move on the part of GM Elton Brand. 

But all is not perfect. The defense has struggled somewhat since the loss of Robert Covington. Ben Simmons has shown flashes of dominance but also perhaps a lack of progress on some of his areas of weakness. Markelle Fultz… well, his Thoracic Outlet has given the entire city of Philadelphia a syndrome. 

So let’s dive into the season: good, bad, and ugly.  

The Good 

The good all starts with Embiid. Embiid played 26 of the first 27 games of the season and has averaged 26 points and 13.3 rebounds per game. Furthermore, he has played 34 minutes per contest and created a stable defensive foundation upon which the team can rely.

His defensive role has allowed the perimeter players to press the 3 point line with the knowledge that mistakes could be erased at the rim if a player attacks a closeout and penetrates. There is an argument to be made that the team could become too reliant on this “Batman” role, but it is a luxury of dominance inside that few teams can boast. 

Ben Simmons has become the steadying 2 way general that the team needs. His ability to bring calm and competence to the point guard position, and to play elite defense has stabilized a team that had suffered from wild swings in prior iterations.

And then you have the closer, Jimmy Butler. Jimmy has brought a late game heroics aspect to the team that simply did not exist before. This hero ball has been well documented but its complimentary value to the consistent reliability of Embiid and Simmons is hard to understate. 

The Home Court is a huge advantage for the team so far. The Sixers have lost just 1 home game in the first third of the season. This advantage would be huge for playoff series were it to hold true for the remainder of the year. After losing their first handful of games on the road, the team is essentially playing .500 on the road. 

Currently the team is sitting in the same #3 seed that they occupied in last seasons playoffs. 

The Bad 

Things have not all been “peaches and cream” to steal an Allen Iverson phrase. The team is struggling in some respects to integrate Butler into their scheme on offense and defense. There are times where Butler will regress in the offense because he is unsure of the plays and terminology. 

Defensively, Butler is accustomed to locking up his man one on one more than he is asked to in Philadelphia. In Philly the Sixers want to switch 1-4 and Embiid’s defensive role is very much as a free safety. When Butler waves off a switch, he may make the decision process more complicated for his teammates. The structure and scheme of the defense is fairly well established.

The team has a soft middle area where it will live with giving up contested long twos. Those jumpshots in the 13-22″ range are the least efficient shots in the game currently. The team is vulnerable to a team that gets, and stays hot in the midrange. This vulnerability is somewhat of a pick your poison situation and something that the team will not be happy about, but will live with. 

“Joel Embiid’s position of strength, and it was the same way with Duncan as he got older, is going to be showing some level of confrontation at the level of a screen, then shame on us. It’s just not right, it’s not fair, it’s not physically possible. When you have 7’2”, put him back where he belongs.” 

Brett Brown on the challenge Embiid faces

These struggles are completely normal when integrating a player of Butler’s talent and tenacity into a very system oriented team. There have been expressions of frustration from Embiid about the things he is being asked to do, or the spaces he is having to operate. In the long run, these seem to be moderate to minor challenges. 

Bench production is a more troubling concern perhaps. Health and well-being factors have forced the Sixers to adapt to having less depth than they probably expected heading into the season. The consolidation of assets along with the loss of the defense and rebounding capabilities of Dario Saric and Robert Covington are certainly causing short term challenges for a team that often struggles to put teams away.

Furthermore, the team too often seems at risk of being run out of the building by a hot shooting opponent. These are areas where the 18-9 record can feel a bit misleading. The whole enterprise, at times, feels as if it is being held together by the sheer force of will of its star players. But that is sort of the nature of the NBA. 

“I know when we are playing well and I know when we’re not, I know when we are vulnerable”

Brett Brown on evaluating the season in thirds

The Ugly 

Where do we begin? Thoracic Outlet Syndrome was the diagnosis after nearly 2 weeks and 10 doctors evaluations of Markelle Fultz’ wellness issues. It was determined that Fultz would require a number of weeks of physical therapy to address range of motion and feeling issues. This entire situation has been troubling from the start in 2017. You really feel for a 20yo young player who is struggling to live up to the expectations of the first pick in the 2017 draft. 

Furthermore, his loss takes away the defensive potential at the point of attack. Losing Fultz and the seeming progress he was making defensively, leaves the Sixers short handed in the back-court. Landry Shamet shows real potential as a backup point guard but as of yet his defense is not at a level that could be a plus in a playoff series.

On Zhaire Smith’s injury and horrific food allergy. He is recovering slowly. 

My expectation at some point is to integrate him a lot with the G League, let him practice and play and let him grow in that environment 

Brett Brown on Zhaire Smith

What to Expect in Act II

The second act in a play is referred to act the character development phase or the rising action. The middle part of the season is sure to bring challenges, change and stresses. The team will either develop deeper chemistry in the face of these challenges, or it will begin to fray apart. Fractures will either heal or split further. 

Look for roles to develop among the bench players, for rotations to become solidified and for style and personality to develop.