We begin 2019 in Los Angeles and Phoenix, where the Sixers (now 25-14) beat the Clippers and Suns to wrap up their West Coast roadie. With 37 games under their belt before 2018 came to a close, now is the perfect time to look at where the Sixers stand going forward.
Bryan Colangelo and Burnergate
Bryan Colangelo’s Twitter fiasco served as the summer connector between last season and this season. Thanks to an investigative piece done by The Ringer, the Sixers uncovered numerous Twitter burner accounts operated by Colangelo’s wife through which she criticized players on the roster and disclosed private information about the team.
Colangelo eventually resigned in June, leaving the ship without a legitimate captain heading into (arguably) the most important summer in franchise history. Retired Sixer Power Forward Elton Brand would eventually be named the team’s permanent General Manager. Ultimately, the Sixers came up very short of their goal, missing out on LeBron James and Paul George in free agency and then failing to acquire a discontent Kawhi Leonard from the Spurs. Ultimately, the only roster movement they made was re-signing G JJ Redick and F/C Amir Johnson and trading for F/C Mike Muscala and F Wilson Chandler. They were praying that Markelle Fultz would rediscover himself and serve as their big acquisition.
After the dust surrounding the Colangelo situation settled, all eyes turned to Markelle Fultz, who had been working with renowned trainer Drew Hanlen to rebuild his jump shot. Thanks to some teasing by Hanlen on Twitter and a video produced by The Player’s Tribune being released on all social media networks, fans were optimistic for Fultz. The analysts, however, were skeptical.
Fultz’s new jumper made its debut in the team’s preseason opener against Melbourne United (Australia) at the Wells Fargo Center. While Fultz supporters might believe that the shot looked vastly improved, I saw no change to the mechanics but some improvement in the confidence.
As the season progressed, Fultz’s playing time was inconsistent. In fact, it reached the point where Fultz was completely out of the rotation by the team’s November game against the Phoenix Suns. The very next day, the former first overall pick’s camp removed him from the team entirely to seek a second (which actually turned into an eleventh when all was said and done) opinion regarding his shoulder. The conclusion? Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, a nerve issue that essentially compromises the shoulder’s ability to move regularly. Fultz has been absent for the last month, but new information is expected in the coming days.
It seemed as though GM Elton Brand saw reality, and reality said that Markelle Fultz was not going to be the answer. With news breaking of all-star guard Jimmy Butler requesting a trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves, Brand opted to sacrifice depth in an effort to build a Big 3, trading F Robert Covington, F Dario Saric, and G Jerryd Bayless for Butler and C Justin Patton. The team was 3 games above .500 without Butler, and 9 games above .500 since acquiring Butler. Jimmy Buckets has had a huge impact on the team’s rise in the early part of this season, most notably:
With the addition of Jimmy Butler producing such positive results quicker than expected, the Sixers are undoubtedly trending upwards.
The starters dominate the team’s statistical categories. Joel Embiid leads the team in points per game (26.5), rebounds per game (13.3), and blocks per game (1.9). Unsurprisingly, pass-first point forward Ben Simmons leads the club in assists per game (7.9), while defensive-hound Jimmy Butler is the leader in steals per game (2.0). Butler is also the team’s leading three-point shooter, knocking the long-ball down at a 39.1% efficiency.
The team does project to have a fighting chance of being awarded three all-stars in Joel Embiid (10, Jimmy Butler (4), and Ben Simmons (0). Embiid’s full stat line is 26.5 points, 13.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.9 blocks. Joel is all but certain to be voted a starter in his second consecutive all-star game. While the cases for Butler and Simmons are not so obvious, they do exist.
Butler is putting up 19.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1 block, and 2 steals on a nightly basis. While Jimmy might be selected with the help of his name and reputation, Ben is going to have a harder time, averaging 16 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 8 assists per game. While it is clear to me that Ben is worthy of all-star selection this season, the fan vote almost certainly won’t see it that way, and the coaches may not either. However, the disappointing Eastern Conference leaves fewer deserving candidates than usual, so Ben is certainly viable.
Some fans will tell you that a new head coach is the Sixers’ biggest need. Brett Brown is not the issue, yet. The issue right now is finding consistent shooting to surround Embiid and Simmons. Due to the team’s painful lack of depth, Embiid, Simmons, and Butler often play staggered minutes to help compensate for the horribly underwhelming bench. As a result, Joel and Ben do not often play with the likes of Redick, Shamet, and Butler.
So, the bench is desperately starving for wing role players who can come off the bench and make shots. The bench averages 34 points per contest, and the league average is close to 37 points. For a team whose games conclude with them winning by less than 3 points on average (point differential statistics support this), the bench scoring is largely to blame for them losing close games. In order for them to legitimately challenge the Celtics, Raptors, and Warriors, they must acquire at least two role players to provide some consistent scoring off the bench.
The acquisition of Jimmy Butler slingshot the Sixers ahead of their original projections. The widely-accepted estimation for their win total coming into the season was around 50. At 23-14, they would have to go 27-18 the rest of the way to match that. I think they can and will do much better. The bench will continue to cost them games from time to time until Brand makes a move, but I am confident that this is a 55-56 win team.
Buy or Sell: The Finals
As things currently stand, this roster simply isn’t built to beat the Celtics or the Raptors in a 7-game series. Home court advantage might be able to convince me in a series against the Celtics, but I don’t see a scenario in which they can beat the Raptors four times in 7 games, regardless of who has the home court advantage.
However, I do believe that Brand will make moves. There is no guarantee that Butler re-signs with the team (even though I am very confident he will re-sign), so Brand will want to give this team the best chance to win as possible. If they make the correct acquisitions, whether it be at the trade deadline or on the buy-out market, they can challenge Boston and Toronto.
If I’m operating under the belief that they will add pieces to their bench, I would buy. But I have to make my assessment based on reality, and the reality is that those pieces are not on the bench right now. At this moment in time, I have to be honest and sell. This team will present anyone with tremendous challenges in the Conference Semifinals, but as currently constructed, will not go any further.
Austin Krell (@Austin_PFO6ers)