TORONTO — It was ‘Halloween night’ at Scotiabank Arena and the Philadelphia 76ers came dressed as contenders. Like a kid who drapes a bed sheet over their head and says they’re a ghost, the costume wasn’t very convincing.
The Sixers entered the 2018-19 season as a bona fide threat for the East’s top seed and a real championship contender. When betting lines were first released earlier this summer — before the Raptors traded for Kawhi Leonard — the Sixers were given the third-best odds to win it all.
Despite featuring a young core centered around 22-year-old Ben Simmons and 24-year-old Joel Embiid — two players with less than 200 games experience — it wasn’t altogether crazy. After all, this was before the Raptors traded for Leonard, and when the health status of Celtics’ stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward was up in the air. Not to mention the team expedited their “Process” by reaching the second round of the playoffs last season after finishing the regular season with 52 wins.
The team could flirt with 50 again, but still have a ways to go to be taken seriously as a contender in the East — a fact certainly true if Tuesday’s 129-112 Toronto Raptors win is any indication.
The loss brings the Sixers’ early record to 4-4. They remain winless on the road.
Philadelphia has the talent to be a force, and probably will be as they continue to progress and add pieces. But, as currently constructed, their ceiling feels limited. Much of that comes due to one fatal flaw: a lack of floor-spacing, an integral ingredient to success in today’s NBA.
Although the team brings one of the NBA’s premier gunners, J.J. Redick, off the bench, the Sixers have just one capable three-point shooter in their starting lineup — Robert Covington.
Centre Joel Embiid did most of his damage in the paint on Tuesday, scoring 31 points, and while he can stretch the floor — he had a pair of triples — is shooting only 23 per cent from deep this season.
Dario Saric, who’s supposed to be a stretch-four, also entered the game shooting just 23 per cent from deep, which is down from 39 per cent last season.
Simmons has yet to hoist a three in his career and a whopping 85 per cent of his shots come from within ten feet. He’s shooting just 12 per cent on the few jumpers he has attempted this season.
And Markelle Fultz, well… don’t even go there. He’s shooting 33 per cent from deep which, hey, is an improvement on last season when he knocked down zero with one attempt in the 14 games he played, notoriously gun-shy following a shoulder injury.
Covington shoots a respectable 40 per cent from deep — he hit four threes on Tuesday — but is less effective without other threats on the floor. He entered the game first in the NBA in contested threes attempted, and it’s no wonder why.
Philadelphis shot 33 per cemt from deep at halftime — aided greatly by Covington’s 3-4 shooting. The Raps didn’t fare much better early on Tuesday (they’d finish at 40 per cent), but at least between their starting unit of Danny Green, Leonard, Kyle Lowry, and Serge Ibaka there’s at least a threat.
Redick, who is second behind Embiid at 19.3 points per game, is seemingly at least part of a solution. The difference it makes when he’s on the floor alongside Covington is night-and-day. After checking into Tuesday’s game he hit a three within ten seconds. As Green got caught running around screens, Leonard was forced far out of the paint to help, which created space for his matchup, Simmons, to operate inside where he’s most effective.
But at the centre of the Sixers’ shooting issues are its two first overall picks, Fultz and Simmons. One refuses to shoot, and the other only recently warmed to the idea.
You can understand why the team and coach Bret Brown want to get Fultz on the floor. His spot in the starting lineup, despite not performing like a starter so far in his career, is meant to provide him both minutes and a boost in confidence. But it feels more and more like his inclusion in the starting five and as a legit rotation player is holding the team back from their win-now goals.
The book is out on Simmons. He is a jaw-dropping athlete and potentially transcendent talent — he flirted with another triple double in the loss with 11 points, 10 assists, and eight boards. He was also a minus-13, and so long as he refuses to even pretend to care about extending his range, he’ll be predictable (if, yes, still difficult) to defend. The Raptors’ defence was able to sink into the paint often on Tuesday and play off of him. It wasn’t hard to anticipate when Simmons would drive, and Lowry picked up at least one charge beating him to the restricted area under the hoop.
This could just be an ill-timed cold stretch for the Sixers’ shooters. Fultz and Simmons aside, the rest of the team isn’t hesitant to let it fly and are in the top 10 in three-point attempts at just over 35 per game, but 20th with a 33 per cent success rate.
It’s just not a feasible way to win big in today’s NBA, a statement that seems truer with each passing day as three-point records continue to topple.
Their three-point issues are that much more frustrating given Philly’s off-season. They had ample cap space, but following the bizarre Bryan Colangelo sideshow that cost him his job, the Sixers were without a general manager for much of the summer.
When we asked Embiid where the Sixers’ shooting issues lay his explanation was, well, simple.
“Last year we had some really good shooters and this year we don’t have them,” he said.
It’s true that the team’s current three-point problem was exacerbated by several key departures. Marco Belinelli, in particular, along with Ersan Ilyasova gave the Sixers a dangerous lineup with multiple shooters and helped propel the team to a stellar close to the 2017-18 season.
Forward Nemanja Bjelica, a capable stretch-four, verbally agreed to join the club before changing his mind and signing with the Sacramento Kings. He scored 21 points — including three triples — in the Kings win over Orlando on Tuesday.
After the game, several Sixers players we spoke with echoed the same sentiment: It’s early, give us time.
But it’s hard to see an obvious solution around the corner, and until then it’s hard to take Philadelphia seriously as a legitimate contender.