Four Sixers Thoughts: Embiid's Evolution, Trade Options, Backup Point Guard, More Covington
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We’re somehow almost a sixth of the way through the NBA season, and I’ve got plenty of thoughts on how the Sixers have looked coming out of the gate. The vibes are good, their play style is new and exciting, and the new acquisitions are playing well. Let’s get into some analysis of how the Sixers have looked, and where they should go from here.
The latest evolution of Joel Embiid
Throughout the summer, I would’ve considered myself quite skeptical of the talk about transforming the way that the offense operates around Embiid. The comments from Embiid that he’d prefer to play more like Nikola Jokic, and the insistence from Nurse that the offense would operate with more off-ball movement, sounded more like a pipe dream than a genuine plan. Old habits die hard, I figured, and Embiid has spent the last several years playing – and dominating – in an extremely stationary and predictable offense. Sure enough, the offense has indeed evolved.
These are somewhat crude ways to measure the added movement to the offense, but last year, the Sixers ranked 28th in the league in distance traveled per game on offense, and this year, they rank 11th. Last year, they ranked 28th in percentage of offensive possessions that ended in cuts, and this year, they rank 10th.
At the center of all of that has been the way Nurse has used Embiid. He is operating far less out of isolations at the nail, and is instead being used as a hub for dribble hand-offs at the top of the key. He and Maxey have developed excellent chemistry in those situations, and even when they don’t result directly into shot attempts, they’ve been flowing these back into opportunities for Embiid to attack against a recovering defense, and he has been decisive when looking for chances to drive. He is averaging 8.2 drives per game this year compared to 6.3 last year.
Plays like that are the embodiment of how Embiid has decided to play this year – he is operating with more decisiveness, more verve, and more pace, and those changes have infected the offense as a whole.
Individually, looking at his play type stats, his isolations and post-ups are both down considerably from their respective peaks – something that should come as a surprise to many considering that they just removed a heavy-duty shot creator from the roster.
20-21: 3.1 isolations, 9.3 post-ups
21-22: 4.4 isolations, 7.8 post-ups
22-23: 6.6 isolations, 4.5 post-ups
23-24: 4.3 isolations, 6.5 post-ups
You can certainly feel the decrease in those numbers when watching them this year compared to last year. Gone are the days of Embiid getting the ball at the nail over and over again, and surveying a stagnant defense for 10 seconds before ultimately making his move. The Sixers are playing with lots of pace and movement once again, while also not adding too much complexity to their offense – which is something that, in my opinion, came as a detriment during Brett Brown’s time as head coach. Nurse has struck just the right chord with his changes to the offense, and has helped the team arrive at just the right identity.
The Sixers must be extremely selective with their trade targets
That word there – identity – is something that I stressed throughout the off-season as something that the Sixers desperately needed to establish. It’s the reason I was so hellbent on them needing to trade Harden, and it’s the reason I wanted them to hire Nurse.
The vibes are very good right now, and that is because they have a team with an identity on both ends of the floor; the team has become more than just the sum of its parts. Both for basketball reasons and non-basketball reasons, ditching Doc Rivers and James Harden has paid dividends – I think it absolutely helps the psyche of the team that they can shed some of the psychological weight of their past playoff failures by looking around and going, “OK, those guys were the problem.”
All of that is to say that the Sixers have a very good thing going right now, and should be extremely selective in who they pursue in trade discussions. As Spike said a couple weeks ago, no selfish assholes allowed.
I would take that a step further, though, and say that there should be no minus-defenders allowed; a key part of this team’s success so far has been the fact that they are tougher, bigger, and more athletic than the vast majority of teams that they play. Just as Harden was a singular limiting force for their defensive identity, so, too, would be Zach LaVine. If there is a big move to be made this season, it must be someone of the ilk of OG Anunoby, who would fit perfectly within their present identity while also augmenting some of their need for more shot creation.
Anunoby, if signed to a max-level extension, would absolutely be an overpay, but he’s a top-5 defender in the entire league who fits their timeline and identity. They should not hesitate whatsoever to acquire and re-sign him, if he becomes available.
As good as last year’s team was, they were absolutely maddening in a number of ways. They no-showed a ton of games, had major effort-based flaws including disgustingly bad transition defense, and lacked a ton of cohesion outside of the Harden-Embiid two-man game. This year feels like an extremely rare season in which the Sixers are both good and very likable, and compromising on that to bring in more talent would be an infuriating mistake.
Whether or not to trade for a backup point guard
With how ugly the Embiid-on, Maxey-off lineups have looked this year (the Sixers have a very underwhelming 111.5 offensive rating in those lineups), there’s been a lot of chatter as to whether or not the Sixers should trade for a backup point guard.
Here’s my take: I think the Sixers may be in a unique situation this year in the sense that they could afford to be both buyers and sellers at the deadline, and if they were able to swap, say, Danuel House and/or Furkan Korkmaz for a backup point guard, they should do that. If they can’t facilitate such a trade, they should pass. Maxey is going to play 40+ minutes per game in the playoffs, and there isn’t a ton of value in making the 2023 version of Jerry Colangelo’s Ish Smith trade.
With the depth that this team has, they could easily afford to shed House without skipping a beat. And if I’m a playoff team thin on wing depth (say, Milwaukee?), I would absolutely give up a second round pick for half a season of House. If there’s a three-team deal to be worked out where the Sixers can re-route that pick for a playable backup ball handler, then sure, they should happily swing that trade.
The other factor to be considered here is that if the Sixers make a bigger trade for a player with shot creation abilities, the need for another ball handler naturally decreases. Ultimately, I just don’t see the value in giving up multiple second round picks for a player who will have a small, 8-10 minute per game role when it matters most.
The rotation needs more RoCo
Ten games into his second stint with the team, I remain baffled as to why Robert Covington is only playing 15 minutes per game – especially given that Kelly Oubre and Nic Batum have missed time. Covington has been excellent during his time on the floor, and his defensive style is a perfect fit in Nurse’s aggressive scheme; any time Covington gets blown by on the perimeter, another wing defender is already sliding over to help, and his ability to slide in create turnovers with his off-ball help is something that Nurse’s scheme empowers him to do more of.
Enough with the Marcus Morris experiment. Danuel House has been good, but Covington is simply a better player. I’ve enjoyed the Furkaissance, but he shouldn’t be eating into Cov’s playing time. There’s absolutely no reason Covington shouldn’t be playing more, and these back-end rotation decisions are my one small gripe with Nick Nurse so far.