The NBA season is still not near its peak, but we have seen some seismic shifts in the relative power ratings between teams. In the East, the Bucks have surprised everyone. The new look Raptors look awesome — though they did just get pounded by the Spurs. The Celtics — who were supposed to be awesome — look a bit less so.
And the Sixers? The sad fact of the matter is that at present, the Sixers would probably lose to any of the above teams in a playoff series. They might even lose to the Pacers, who are also good, but not quite as good as the above big three.
What happened? Why are the Sixers not competing at the very top? The answer is simple. When the Sixers lost to the Celtics on opening day, it was already clear that the team did not have enough fire power. to compete. Brett Brown hoped he could get that from Fultz,. Fultz disappointed, and then went out with his shoulder issue. So the Sixers gave up two rotation players to get Jimmy Buckets and a back up center (whose name no one remembers).
When you give up two rotation players, and your bench is already depleted by the loss of Belinelli and Ilyasova, you are asking for trouble. And that is what the Sixers got. They are very, very short handed. I mean come on! Starting Wilson Chandler at the 4?
So where are we now? Actually, the Sixers are not in such a bad place. Consider the following
- Joel Embiid has leveled up. He is having a monster season and if he stays healthy, can anchor the team to the playoffs. That is IF Brett Brown can find a way not to give him too many minutes
- Ben Simmons has not leveled up yet (except for his post up game), but he is showing signs that he wants to. His horrible free throw form is improving and he is taking at least one jumper per game. They are not going in, but they might start to if he figures out how to release the ball a bit earlier. There is hope!!!
- Jimmy Buckets has given the Sixers what they wanted – a solid wing who can drive and shoot from the outside and defend. He has also upped the toughness quality of the team.
- Wilson Chandler has been horrible, but he was not acquired to play so many minutes. He may be replaced by Jonah Bolden who is showing promise. Bolden is big, agile and can play offense and defense. Bolden may at least be a back up 4 in the rotation,and not ridiculous as a starting 4.
- JJ Redick may have lost a step on defense, but his shooting is as good as ever. And he now has sharpshooting partners in Shammet and Korkmaz (korky). None of these dudes plays serious defense, but one at a time can be hidden if everyone else does play defense – that means Simmons, Embiid, Butler, and perhaps Bolden.
The above shows that the Sixers starting unit looks pretty amazing on paper. And the stats bear this out. The Sixer starting five can play with just about anyone, even with Wilson Chandler at the 4. So far, so good.
The problem — and it is a big, big problem is with the bench. The Sixers bench sucks. There is a lack of talent and a lack of vision. This was different last year when the bench went small ball. Amir Johnson could still get up and down the court, and Belinelli and Ilyasova could pop from the outside. So what are the prospects for finding some comparable magic this year?
- Markelle Fultz may be back, and if comes back with a repaired shoulder, he can be the focus point off the bench. That is a big if, but one can dream, right?
- Zhaire Smith may be back, and he is a highly athletic wing. At least he can play defense. Will he be able to?
- Let’s face it, Amir Johnson has lost too much, and we need to move on from him. The Sixers should acquire a new back up five — or perhaps Justin Patton will fill that role? Who is Justin Patton? He is the back up 5 that the Sixers got with Jimmy Buckets in the Timberwolves trade. This is a very long shot as Patton broke a bone in his foot. So we are likely to see the Sixers bring in a back up 5
- TJ is a smart player. TJ McConnell does not have the physical assets to turn the tide. He is a liability on defense. But TJ can provide energy and smarts in given situations.
- Last, the Sixers may consider acquiring a young, agile 4. That person might be used to back up Bolden — or better yet, a more seasoned player who Bolden can back up.
So my revamped bench looks like this — TJ as the anchor. Markelle playing significant minutes for defense if nothing else. Zhaire filling in when the wing looks weak. Spacing from Shammet and Korky. A new back up 5. A new back up 4. And Muscala and Chandler playing a few minutes to spell the bigs.
Meanwhile, there is some good news about the Sixers current status. Even with their weaknesses, they are not that bad. They nearly beat the Celtics on Christmas eve (losing in overtime) and just had a good game against the Suns (where Embiid embarrassed Ayton). And being short handed has is advantages. Brett can give Bolden, Korkey, Shammet, Muscala and Chandler lots of minutes. Those minutes offer those dudes a chance to level up in ways that they could not get if they just rode the bench
So there is hope here. The keys however are (1) Simmons continues to improve his outside game. If Simmons can hit an occasional 3, this will totally change the Sixers offensive profile (2) Bolden proves he can play the 4. Bolden does not need to be a star, but if he can rebound and defend, that will be enough. He might also be able to play a few minutes at a small ball 5 (3) Markelle comes back. Not as a starter, but to provide defense and spark to the bench (4) the Sixers acquire a back up 5. and a starting 4. The Sixers need the 5 and could use the 4. If all of the above happen, AND there are no serious injuries, the playoffs look interesting.
BTW, it is not likely, but the Sixers may decide to blow everything up and go for another lockbuster deal. They are positioned to do so,. Will they? My guess is “no”. Their core players are still too young to get a fix on their ceilings — individually and working together. Moreover, Butler is still a newbie. It might not be a bad idea to see how his addition affects the team before adding a major new personality.