Sixers Concern Levels: Mediocre Defense, Simmons Stagnation, Turnovers
So how much should we be freaking out?
Mike O’Connor is the best O’Connor in basketball writing. Previously of The Athletic, you can find Mike on Twitter @MOConnor_NBA.
In my viewing experience, it’s been somewhat remarkable how most NBA teams seem to not have missed a beat after a nearly five-month layoff. The Raptors look like the same buzzsaw they were before the COVID break. The Lakers have the same palpable chemistry and cohesion that they had all season, as well. Even the Blazers, who are integrating Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back after extended absences, look like a team that’s played together for years and is feeling a renewed sense of life.
And then, there’s the Sixers, who can best be described as a group of 15 people who vaguely resemble a basketball team. Throughout these first two games, one would guess from watching them that none of the Sixers had ever met before. Players are fighting with each other. Defensive assignments are being botched left and right. No one is sure who the point guard is. Every offensive possession looks like each player heard a different play call.
It’s only been two games, and the Sixers have some runway to tighten things up before the playoffs. But with all the chaos that unfolded in these opening games, I felt it was necessary to go through each development and assess the level of concern that should be given to it. The complex and nuanced scale we’re using is “big concern,” “medium concern,” and “no concern.” Let’s begin.
The suddenly mediocre Sixers defense: medium concern
The single biggest reason for the Sixers’ slow start has been their discombobulated, porous defense. They’ve given up a 121 offensive rating to the Pacers and a 124 offensive rating to the Spurs -- two shorthanded teams who were mediocre offensive teams to begin with. Both teams carved them up both in transition and in the half court.
The Sixers have instituted some new defensive schemes that will take some getting used to; they are helping more aggressively off of shooters and going under more ball screens. (Welcome to 2020, Sixers’ defense.) But for better or for worse, many of their issues thus far have resulted from simple miscommunications or sheer lack of effort.
Ben Simmons has been absolutely torched by T.J. Warren and DeMar DeRozan -- more on him in a bit. Josh Richardson has been paying the price for over-aggressive ball pressure repeatedly. Matisse Thybulle has only made a minimal impact. And Shake Milton and Tobias Harris have coasted around off the ball consistently. When you’re not getting positive production from a single guard or wing on the roster on defense, it’s hard for them to stay effective.
What’s most concerning about the Sixers’ wings looking impotent on the defensive end is the looming potential matchup with Boston in the first round. The Sixers don’t stand a chance in the world if Simmons isn’t able to make Jayson Tatum’s life difficult. The same goes for Richardson and Kemba Walker.
At the very least, there are clear and simply avenues for improvement -- acclimate to the new schemes and tighten up the effort. But all season long, we’ve known that the Sixers’ only ticket to a long playoff run is if their defense is truly dominant. With six games to go, they’re nowhere near that level.
The continued stagnation of Ben Simmons: big concern
Simmons was the center of much pre-restart hype, and has delivered on none of it. Between the quotes about his shot, changing his position to power forward, and the sheer amount of time off, we were promised a further-evolved version of Simmons -- one who no longer plays strictly point guard and shoots every once in a blue moon. Instead, what we’ve gotten has been more stagnation, and in the case of these first two games, regression.
I’m not saying Simmons has suddenly forgotten how to play basketball, or that he can’t be his usual self in this bubble. The reason this is a concern is because I do believe that Simmons and the Sixers were expecting to see some progress on his jumper. I do think Simmons has put in the work. It’s concerning because despite cleaning up his form, putting up thousands upon thousands of shots, taking them in 5-on-5 in practice, and outright saying that he’s going to shoot, he still won’t do it. And if after all that, Simmons still won’t shoot, then what will it ever take for him to get to a place mentally where he feels willing to shoot?
There is clearly a jumper in there that’s ready to be showcased. But his refusal to do it is just another sad indicator that whatever mentally blocks Simmons from shooting, may be damn near impossible to tear down.
Simmons’ defense and overall offensive play should come around; I’m not worried about those things. He’ll likely continue to be the same player that he’s been all season. But what stinks about the jumper is that Sixers fans have to endure another round of woefully unfulfilled promises. The hopes that Simmons will one day commit to shooting, fix the Sixers’ offensive issues, and ascend to top-15 player in the league status have dwindled even further. Somehow, Sixers fans have been misled for the umpteenth time, with each one being more crushing than the last.
Milton’s inability to break a press: some concern
Boy, was it rough watching Shake Milton get his lunch money taken by T.J. McConnell over and over again against Indiana. Milton essentially couldn’t afford to dribble within five feet of McConnell for the entire duration of the game.
I sort of poo-pooed this issue in my piece last week, but I’m raising the level of concern a bit here. My primary fear is what happens in the playoffs. The Raptors like to spring backcourt presses from time to time. The Bucks have a pest who likes to hound the ball in Eric Bledsoe. The Celtics have Marcus Smart, who might be able to prevent Milton from ever crossing half court. More and more, it’s looking like there’s going to have to be at least a little bit of Raul Neto involved.
I can hear you groaning as you read that, but look: the Sixers don’t have anyone else who can dribble! Simmons has been solid at breaking a press in the past, but he’s not as sure-handed as you’d like a point guard to be. Neto is not good, but if the Sixers can’t get the ball across half court, they’ll need to call on him.
This is a truly bizarre problem to have, but this is the life this team lives. It’s one of their many quirky vulnerabilities, similar to their 2-3 zone issues early in the season. I’d love for Milton to prove me wrong, but I’m worried that he’s having nightmares about Marcus Smart already.
Turnover issues: no concern
A major reason for the Sixers’ loss to the Pacers was their 21 turnovers, and they followed it up with a better but not perfect 14 against the Spurs. Still, I’m not buying that this is any new trend worth sweating over. The Sixers have actually been decent at taking care of the ball this season -- a first in the Brett Brown era -- ranking 12th in the league in turnover percentage.
Many of their turnovers against the Pacers were simply due to errant or lazy passes, which is certainly a characteristic of this team, but Saturday was an outlier performance. The Sixers do not run a frenetic offense that sprays the ball all over the gym; their turnover woes will not last.