Sixers Start to Have Some Crucial Conversations

CAMDEN, NEW JERSEY: The Philadelphia 76ers returned home briefly for a rare in-season full practice day on Thursday. The team flies to Houston tonight for its fourth straight road game Friday. The team has lost three in a row, and some of the new players have started gently speaking out.

Josh Richardson spoke about accountability after the loss in Indiana. “I don’t think that there’s enough accountability in our locker room right now, honestly,” said Richardson, who is feeling his way around the social dynamics of his new team.

Much has been made about potential unhappiness in the locker room, but for a team led by introverted stars, more communication can be painful but needed. Indeed, prior to Thursday’s practice, the players held a meeting in which there seemed to be more open conversation and crucial communication than had happened to date.

Following today’s practice, Joel Embiid added, “I don’t talk much; I lead by example. But if I feel the need to say something, I will. As a leader, you kind of have to do that.” This expression may be the beginning, or at least a signal, of crucial conversations that are happening internally.

Al Horford went on to point out the growth in Embiid’s leadership, even vocally. “I’m looking at Joel as our leader and our guy we need to lean on,” he said after practice. “He’s the one who’s been here the longest. He understands, he knows the things we need to do.” Horford went on to say, “He’s also starting to be more vocal; he’s starting to speak more, and it’s been positive, especially the last few days.”

Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons speak with the media after Tuesday’s practice.

Roles and Skillsets

Additionally, Al Horford recently talked about how his skillsets have not been able to be on full display yet for his new team. “I still haven’t been able to find my rhythm with the team,” said Horford Monday. Horford mentioned he is “doing what I can to help us. But offensively, I’m very limited with the things that I can do. So I can’t control that stuff.” While some took this as a sense of deep frustration, Horford is typically well thought out and measured when he speaks.

On Thursday, he added, “As we go along, I’m finding my way and understanding how I can help the group and where I can come in and have a positive impact.” Horford felt like today’s opportunity to have a rare in-season practice was a major step in the right direction.

However, there’s no denying that there are still kinks to be worked out in regards to the on-court fit of this team. Following today’s practice, Brett Brown mentioned, “At times it is clunky. It’s an unusual set of talent that we have. So, should it be clunky? I think it should. Should it have been ironed out a little bit sooner than January the 2nd? Possibly. But is it something I’m really worried about? It’s not.”

Al Horford speaking to the media following Tuesday’s practice.

Integration Challenge

Both Richardson and Horford were brought in as defensive-minded players who can help bring more pick-and-roll aspects to the Sixers’ half court offense. Those skillsets theoretically bolster a team built around the unique talents of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Simmons and Embiid, for all of their talent, are not natural fits in a pick-and-roll based offense, which is a skillset most teams at least need in their repertoire. “It’s always an adjustment period when you are with a new team,” said Horford, who was the centerpiece of offenses in Boston and Atlanta that relied heavily on ball movement and going from good to great shots.

The challenge for Brett Brown is finding a balance between utilizing what Richardson, Horford, and even Tobias Harris do well, without marginalizing Simmons and Embiid. While both young stars excel defensively, the team likely does not want to ignore their needs, especially when All Star and All-NBA honors are heavily based on offensive statistics.

Joel Embiid is somewhat of a ball-stopper offensively who requires time to create his shots. Many of Embiid’s post moves are deliberate, and very few of his shot attempts are of the catch-and-shoot variety. Ben Simmons is best in transition, playing full court and scoring quickly. His struggles in the half court offense are not a secret. When in a half court setting, Ben may be asked to hide in the dunker’s spot and try to get offensive rebounds. This may frustrate some fans, and it can feel at times as though the team is playing 4 on 5 offensively.

Complement or Conflict?

So different skillsets can either be complementary or conflicting. The team is 23-13, so the panic button may be premature. The playoffs don’t start until April, and the team has proven it can beat the top teams in the Eastern Conference. The team has weapons at many positions and at times feels like it can easily look like an NBA Finals squad. There are other times, like the week since Christmas, where you can envision the team getting upset by a less talented team.

After a bad loss in Indiana where Horford started, his postgame comments were more about cohesion defensively than anything offensive. He doubled down on that mindset after Thursday’s practice. “I just think that as long as we play how we want to play, which is getting stops and not having to call a play every time, just go out there and play, and play with good pace. I think if we’re able to do that, more often than not, we’ll be fine. The last couple games, we haven’t been getting stops, and so our defense needs to be better.”

Defense remains the heart of this team’s identity. The challenges in half court offense are most problematic when looking at the style of play in the postseason, when possessions become more precious and the pace tends to slow down. Communication on the court will go a long way in helping those half court sets. But arguably even more importantly, communication off the court, as happened this morning, can go a long way in developing that cohesion necessary for success.

Brett Brown speaks with the media following Tuesday’s practice.