Finally. Finally Brett Brown’s Sixers are starting to look like the team we expected them to be this season. Yes, Jerryd Bayless can’t get his wrist right, and Ben Simmons still isn’t back, but things are starting to finally, amazingly, believe-it-when-you-see-itly looking like NBA basketball.
The ‘Winning’ Sixers
With Sunday’s victory at Detroit, the Sixers won back-to-back road games for the first time since December 21 and 23, 2014. If Brown’s bunch can pull off a win against Toronto (17-7) on Wednesday, the three-game win streak would be the first of that length since January 1, 2 and 4, of that same calendar year, a span of 235 games.
Yes, if the Sixers beat the Raptors, they will have played 235 games — of which they won just 39 — between three-game win streaks. For what it’s worth, that was a four-game streak, dating back to December 29, 2013.
Four Bigs, One Rim
Brown’s master plan for the 2016-17 roster changed when the team traded for Ersan Ilyasova. While the logjam at center isn’t going to fix itself until one or two of the bigs are traded, Brown had expected to run a rotation of Simmons and Dario Saric at the power forward spot, with Jerami Grant getting tertiary minutes. But when Simmons went down in the preseason, that rotation changed, putting Saric in the starting lineup, and creating an opening for Ilyasova to come to town in a trade for Grant.
We touched on Ilyasova’s importance on the floor last week, and since then his minutes have increased, averaging 34.5 per game over the last five contests. To make room, Saric has been playing more at the three, as Brown has successfully tinkered with a lineup of three of his 6-10 or taller bigs on the floor at the same time.
In that time, Brown has come out and said he plans to play Simmons as a true point guard, giving him four players 6-10 or taller on the floor more often than not. But can it be five?
With Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor and now Nerlens Noel back and demanding minutes, Brown will be pressed with playing two of them at the same time quite a bit. Which leads to two questions:
Question 1: Where will Richaun Holmes get his minutes?
Holmes has been active for the Sixers, averaging about six points and four rebounds in 14 minutes per game, getting more time whenever one of the other bigs is out. But with three centers ahead of him, where’s will Brown find his minutes? Practice, probably.
The Sixers don’t play back-to-back games again until December 29 and 30 at Utah and Denver, then don’t have another back-to-back set until mid January. Assuming his elbow inflammation has subsided and his legs hold up as they’ve been, Embiid shouldn’t miss any games in that stretch. Okafor looks back to his old self and Noel is going to need minutes to get himself back into game shape for the second half of the season.
It feels like Holmes is too good for the Delaware 87ers, but given what Noel has dubbed “the logjam” at center, that might be the best place for him to get minutes, if all the other bigs can stay healthy.
Question 2: Can Ilyasova play the three?
No. Ilyasova is a solid perimeter shooter and above-average passer, but he cannot guard most NBA small forwards, and asking him to do that would be, pardon the pun, a stretch.
It’s unlikely the Sixers will run out a lineup of Embiid/Okafor/Ilyasova/Henderson/Rodriguez anytime soon. Noel and Okafor can play together some, and fans may be salivating for the rim-protecting prowess of Embiid and Noel on the court at the same time, but that creates fewer minutes for Ilyasova, unless Brown goes super big.
Sure, we all hope just for fun Brown starts Embiid, Noel and Okafor together sometime soon. But it’s not sustainable, and in a 48-minute game, with Embiid’s minutes increasing, something is going to have to give. That may mean less time for Ilyasova and Saric. For now.
Nerlens is Back-ish
Noel played his first game of the season Sunday, leaving at halftime with a left ankle sprain, which allows us a perfect opportunity to highlight what that roller coaster of a red line is on all our Big Man Tracker charts.
All season, we’ve been tracking the bigs’ points, minutes, rebounds, assists and blocks, highlighting the points and minutes per game visually in our weekly updates. The blue bars are indicative of each player’s points and minutes, but the red line illustrates their average per team game played. So, Embiid is leading the bigs in points per game, but because he has missed so much time, Ilyasova actually has a higher points per team game average than him.
The point of this is simple: A player can’t help the team if he isn’t on the floor, so while Embiid is clearly the runaway favorite for Rookie of the Year, his impact in games he sits in street clothes is zilch.
For Noel, missing the first 25 games of the season has his per team game averages nearly at zero. As he plays more, that average should skyrocket, but in 15 games when people tout that he’s averaging 10-and-10, it’s important to remember how much time he missed, and how that absolutely impacted the team’s ability to compete in those games.
Noel quickly showed his value to the Sixers on Sunday, but one has to wonder if his minutes will become more of a showcase for trade partners than meaningful minutes to help the team win games. It can be both, and until Brown figures out a feasible rotation, it might have to be.
Embiid in vs. Embiid out
The Sixers are obviously better with Embiid in the lineup, but they are 2-7 in games he hasn’t played and 4-11 in games he has. Over the course of an 82-game season, that’s a difference of maybe two or three wins. Significant, yet kinda inconsequential.
The Sixers are averaging 96.7 points scored in games Embiid has played, giving up an average of 104.3. In games he hasn’t played, the Sixers average 99 points per game, but are giving up 105.4. Clearly opponents matter in those numbers, as does the small sample size of 15 games played and nine missed.
A deeper look into the Sixers’ numbers with or without Embiid shows his true value. The Sixers have a defensive rating of 104.9 this season, but with Embiid on the floor, that drops to 97.9.
With Embiid off the floor, the Sixers defensive rating is 108.0, the second highest on the roster, behind Robert Covington. (The team’s defensive rating when Covington is on the floor is 100.7.) The Sixers defense is enormously better when Embiid is back protecting the rim.
Simmons is Looming
The countdown to Simmons returning is officially on. We’re within a month, if the Sixers stick to their original timeline. So stick to basketball Ben. And come back soon.