How Fixable Are The Sixers’ Issues?

All great recipes require patience. Time is often a key ingredient that separates a two-star meal from a five-star meal. Whether the subject is food or something else, time is an invaluable potion that can spell the difference between disaster and art.

The Sixers have poured “time” on many of their issues throughout the first half of this season, and the taste test indicates that letting the team marinate is not going to be the key ingredient. There are clear problems contributing to the team’s underperformance thus far, and switching up the ingredients is the only way to salvage the recipe in time for a five-star meal.

Bench

The Sixers’ reserves are only piecing together 29.4 points per game, fifth-worst in the NBA. No matter how you contextualize it, that number is laughably bad for a team with championship aspirations. The bench is a significant burden when the starters are lacking offensive energy on any given night, as Brett Brown has virtually no one to go to that he can reasonably believe in to pick things up. While Trey Burke has shown some offensive spark-plug capability with his shot-creating, his size and defensive liability are huge detractors when going up against playoff-caliber opponents.

The bench is also a glaring weakness when you take into account that league average bench production is 36.5 points per game, opponents score 34.9 points per game against Sixers’ reserves, and that nine of the Sixers’ twelve losses have been by six points or less. If the front office assembled a reserve unit that could just meet average offensive production, it’s hard to comprehend how different the team’s outlook could potentially be 35 games into the season. 

Is it fixable? Yes, and I believe Elton Brand will make moves to do so.

Consistency At Backup Point Guard

Brett Brown has favored Raul Neto backing up Ben Simmons in the first half of the season. While Neto might be less crafty than Trey Burke, he does a better job of directing the offense in Ben Simmons’ absence. While Burke makes the obvious pass when it’s there, he’s largely a shot-creator at the point guard spot.

Recently, especially with teams utilizing a (2-3) zone defense against the Sixers, Brown has favored Burke. Given Burke’s ability to create shots and how the team has handled the zone in his presence, it would be beneficial for Brown to favor Burke at the backup point guard spot going forward. What will hurt the team is wavering between Neto and Burke. Inconsistency at the backup point guard spot will not only hurt the on-the-court chemistry with the other players, but it will also tax the two point guards involved.

Defined Roles

It is easy to adopt a certain mentality when the role is consistent. Some players are able to step up when needed because they’ve been conditioned in that role. It is far more difficult to adopt the required mentality and be comfortable when the role fluctuates on a game-to-game basis. If Neto and Burke have to go into every game not knowing which one is the backup point guard and which one is out of the rotation, it is unreasonable to expect either to play well in non-garbage-time minutes.

Is it fixable? Yes, and Burke should be getting those minutes going forward.

Consistent Aggressiveness Out Of Ben Simmons

Contrary to what Twitter users believe, there is a medium between “Imagine thinking Ben Simmons isn’t a superstar” and “Ben Simmons can’t shoot, the Sixers have to trade him.” The correct answer is that Ben Simmons is currently an elite all-around player who will blossom into the superstar he was projected to be if he becomes even somewhat of a jump-shooting threat. If he can graduate from “somewhat of a jump-shooting threat” to “someone who is willing to shoot jumpers,” he will be the generational franchise centerpiece that people envisioned he’d be before he even played a game at LSU.

Right now, that’s not what he is. While his lack of growth is frustrating, we see flashes of what Simmons can be quite often. The frustrating part is that we don’t see them enough. Ben Simmons is not going to make marked growth in the jump-shooting department this season; he might not even make that growth next season, either. What Ben can do this season, and what I think is at least as important as his developing a jump shot, is having a more consistent aggressive mentality.

Attack Mode

Ben has been selectively aggressive all season long. In those games, he shows flashes of brilliance. The difference in mentality lies in his decision-making as soon as he gets to the free-throw-line-extended area. In the games in which he is not out for blood, he stops, turns around, and passes to whomever is open on the perimeter. In the games that he is wired for attack, he does things like this:

The latter version puts pressure on the defense to protect the basket and, thus, opens things up for his teammates on the perimeter, helping the offense flow without clog and setting the tone for the defense to lock in. That version of Ben Simmons elevates the Sixers from being a team that is pretty good to a team that is unbeatable in a seven-game series. The problem is that that Ben Simmons only comes out when there’s a personal side-drama at play as well. If Ben feels he is being personally challenged, he flexes and dominates. If he doesn’t feel that challenge, he becomes passive.

The Sixers won’t earn the East’s two-seed and won’t get past the Conference Finals with the former Ben Simmons; they can win the title this season with the latter. For what it’s worth, the team would be better off with a Simmons who attacks the basket without fear and doesn’t stop until he gets the bucket than a less-aggressive Simmons who is willing to take jumpers.

Is it fixable? Yes, and I suspect Ben will step his intensity and aggression up as the playoffs approach and seeding becomes tighter.

Al Horford

When Elton Brand and Brett Brown elected to offer the 33-year-old Horford a 4-year, $109 million deal this summer, they gambled with the risk of paying a player max money at an age when natural decline could have a random onset and ravage his abilities rapidly.

The Numbers Aren’t Pretty

Horford isn’t declining rapidly, but it certainly seems like father time has begun to take its toll on the all-star center. Averaging 2.4 fouls per game, his most since 2010-11, Horford’s defense has slipped a bit. He has had exceptional defensive moments throughout the course of the season, but he simply hasn’t been that nightly defensive stopper that has garnered him such tremendous respect over his twelve-year career. 

On the offensive side, Big Al is playing more minutes than he did last season, but is averaging fewer points and assists per game. While his role is quite different than it was in Boston, and that can partially explain the lower offensive production, a more concerning sign is the dramatic decline in his shooting percentages. Horford’s overall field goal percentage is down 7.5% and his three-point percentage is down 1.6%.

A Sign of Age

More concerning than either of the other categories is his free throw percentage, which is down 11.9% from last season. If his three-point percentage had been lower but his free throw percentage still pushing the 80-percent range, I would attribute it to simply missing shots and would not be concerned. However, the fall-off across the board, magnified by the seismic decline in his free throw conversion rate, tells me that Horford’s legs are aging. 

The Sixers are locked into Horford until the expiration of the 2022-23 season, and it’s hard to imagine that any team is going to willingly eat his contract in a deal. While I don’t think the dramatic drop-off will hit the point of the contract being an albatross until its latter half, this year is the Sixers’ best chance of winning a title before they’re saddled with a bench player making close to $30 million per year.

Is it fixable? Unfortunately, no–especially considering the other options on the market this past summer.

Coaching

There are a number of different variables to assess when pondering whether the coach is an issue or an asset. I have admittedly been one of Brett Brown’s biggest supporters over the last 4 seasons. He has juggled intentional losing, grooming children into men, and upper management incompetence for five of the seven seasons he has been here. He is going to lead his third consecutive 50-win season. However, after a certain point, the discussion has to shift from “it’s impressive that he’s won over fifty games in three consecutive seasons” to “the coach carries a lot of the blame for the team not being better than a 50-52-win club.”

To his credit, Brown has improved his understanding of when to call timeouts and has adjusted his offense to cut down on turnovers (although, that has only been improved this season). However, his defensive philosophies have plagued the team in its battle with contention over the past two-and-a-half seasons. Dropping the big man to protect the basket in the pick-and-roll while eliminating corner three-point attempts takes away the most efficient shots in today’s NBA. It risks players walking into open mid-range jumpers. While the philosophy works as a foundation, it is tremendously flawed if the coach fails to make in-game adjustments. Such has been the case throughout Brown’s tenure.

A History of Unfortunate Events

The Sixers have lost dozens of frustrating games that they should’ve won because random players torched them from those blind-spot areas. Had Brown made adequate in-game adjustments, those losses never happen, and this conversation doesn’t exist. But, history is history, and the Sixers’ history since 2017-18 includes a 34-31 record in games–regular season and playoffs–decided by six points or less.

It is hard to dispute that Brown doesn’t own a majority of the responsibility for their inability to consistently close out those tight games, as that trend has continued through three different iterations of Brown’s Sixers. I think Brown is good enough to win meaningful regular season games, but he has been a problem when it comes to winning the big ones in the postseason.

Is it fixable? Yes, but I don’t see it happening.

Effort

This team has frustrated its fanbase because its effort is highly selective and, as a result, they often play down to the competition. Joel Embiid and Brett Brown basically admitted as much following the blow-out victory over Milwaukee last week. The perfect microcosm of this season was the Christmas Day demolition of the Bucks, arguably the best team in the NBA, and then immediately suffering a pair of one-point losses on the road in large part due to poor effort.

The players ultimately power the team, and their individual efforts on any given night dictate how the games play out. Their individual poor body language, mistakes, softness, and inconsistent intensity compound to create a team that has underperformed expectations thus far. 

Is it fixable? Yes, and it will happen when a) Brand adds veteran pieces to the bench and b) when playoff seeding becomes tighter towards the end of February.