12 games are in the books and we're going to examine what has been a somewhat unexpected start to the season.
We knew the schedule was going to be brutal for the first month and a half and for a young team with new pieces on the roster. It was going to take some time, but the team is 6-6 after losing/giving away some close games, winning 5 in a row before losing a stinker in the Sacramento --a game I was in attendance for-- and then getting Warrior'd on Saturday. It's a bit unexpected and there are some interesting developments. There are some things I noted during the first twelve games of the season.
1. Ben Simmons is really good
Hot take, I know. But truth be told I didn't expect Ben Simmons to be this good already, especially in the scoring department. Same thing happened with Joel Embiid last year, everyone had a certain stat line in mind and maybe he would show flashes, but then JoJo blew everyone's expectations out of the water no matter how wild they were.
Simmons might not just win Rookie of the Year, which is already locked up barring health.... or someone playing more games because there is a made up number now.... but he might secure a spot on the Eastern Conference all-star team.
He is producing a stat-line that puts himself with historical company, averaging 17.4 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists a game while shooting 49% from the floor. Although he hasn't been scoring at the normal clip he has been in the last three games, his scoring has probably been a little bit unexpected considering he has a lot of questions about not only shooting the ball but whether or not he is shooting with the correct hand. He has also impacted the game as a play-maker and attacking the glass.
More importantly, he has been a plus defender which is something that was somewhat of a surprise. Brett Brown said that Simmons was the best defender in last year's training camp before he broke his foot, and it was met with skepticism considering Simmons hardly got into a defensive stance at LSU. We all knew Simmons had the tools to be a versatile impact defender and as it turns out when you're not getting pimped by the college system, you have the incentive to try harder on defense.
2. Good players = An Improved offense
It's funny how adding talent and getting players back from injury can do wonders for an offense. Brett Brown's coaching philosophy has had three staples he has always repeated since he was hired. Pacing. Spacing. Defense. He has installed those principles over the years despite not having the proper talent to run that system, and now, through development, a key free agent signing, and getting key players back from injury, the Sixers offense has looked crisper than it has in the last four years.
First, the three-point shot has always been a staple in Brown's system and while they ranked in the top half of the league in attempts and makes, they always ranked near the bottom in percentage. Add in 5 players who are shooting over 40% from three on more than 3 attempts -- with JJ Redick and RoCo taking 6.5 and 7.3 attempts respectively-- and the three-point shot turns into a deadly weapon. Look at the stark difference in percentage.
Sixers' Three-Point Shooting.
The Sixers have also become one of the best passing teams in the NBA, ranking second in assists per game (26.3) behind the Warriors who are in a whole other class by themselves historically when it comes to passing the ball (31 assists per game). They ranked in the middle of the pack in Browns first year but the passing has improved drastically over the last three seasons.
This play featured some of the best ball movement I have seen in a long time.
The offense is making steady improvements and if the young players stay healthy, the offense will only get better.
3. Embiid is clearly not himself...yet
Which is insane to say because before the clunker versus the Warriors game he was averaging 20.7 points/10.7 rebounds/3.4 assists on 50% shooting, but he is clearly not in the best physical condition after not having played real basketball for 6 months before training camp started. I wonder if something happened at some point over the summer because even with rehabbing the knee he should've been participating in pretty much all types of basketball activities except for 5 on 5. Embiid said a few days ago that he weighed nearly 290 pounds going into the season and needs to get around the 270-275 range, which should help get his mobility and explosiveness back.
The Sixers are still really good when Embiid is on the floor, and even when he has games where he is clearly not the same player he was last year, he is still really freaking good. With that said, he is using games as the main method to get back in shape and it could be another few weeks to a month before we get this version of JoJo back on a regular basis.
With that said we shouldn't take for granted that he is healthy and playing.
4. Robert Covington is about to get paid
In what is one of the least surprising developments ever, Robert Covington and the Sixers will be able to officially agree to a renegotiated contract extension on November 15th, the day when Covington signed his four-year minimum deal three years ago.
Basically the Sixers can give Covington a four year extension that allows the team to pay the rest of the $15 Million dollars that remain cap space to him this year, raising his $1.57 million dollar salary of his minimum deal to $16.57 Million and then it would decrease by 40% the next year, when the extension kicks in and then it would decrease every year after.
The yearly salaries would look like this (Chart comes from Derek Godner).
Using the $15 million in cap space they have remaining, a renegotiated and extended contract can instead look like this:
2017-18: $16.57 million
2018-19: $12.8 million
2019-20: $11.8 million
2020-21: $10.8 million
2021-22: $9.7 million
Total: $61.6 million
Not only will the Sixers lockup one of the best 3-and-D players in the league, --shooting a scorching 49% from three on 7.3 attempts-- but the decreasing salary in his extension would give the team more flexibility with their cap space down the road. It's a win for both sides and it's definitely well deserved for Cov.
5. Dario in the starting lineup
Dario Saric has been in the starting lineup with Simmons and Embiid/Holmes for 1 game, for the last 7 games, and it has actually seen a decent return. Dario looked dreadful and lost the first 5 games coming off the bench averaging a dreadful 5.8 points per game/ 4.6 rebounds/ 1.4 assists on 33/21/60 shooting splits, but Brett Brown decided that Dario needed a jolt, and The Homie responded averaging 14/6/1.4 on 44/48/80 shooting splits.
I thought there would be some funky mismatches that would leave the Sixers at a disadvantage but in the small sample size, the Simmons/Redick/RoCo/Dario/JoJo lineup has produced an 87 defensive rating and are an overall +23. The two keys that would allow the lineup to work was Simmons ability to guard wings and point guards, and Dario's 3 point shot. Both have shown been positive signs. Dario has shot 48% from 3 since starting and the spacing has been there for a non-shooter like Simmons to operate and work his magic, and in addition, Simmons has shown the chops to stay in front of wings. Yesterday's game against the Warriors looked bad and exposed the flaws in that lineup.... but then again it's the freaking Warriors, and everybody looks bad against them.
Hopefully, this gives Dario confidence because when Markelle Fultz comes back healthy Dario won't be starting, but it could be the jump-start Brett Brown was looking for when he originally made the decision.
6. The Two Stars are aligning
Other than getting Markelle Fultz's shoulder and jump shot back to normal, the most important development this season will be establishing the chemistry between the two future franchise players Joel Hans Embiid and Benjamin Simmons. So far they have developed their rapport faster than anticipated and it makes sense when you see that JoJo has played 191 of his 278 minutes with Ben Simmons. Their pick and roll game has shown flashes of how deadly it could be. I'm not sure the defense has answers for a 6'10 point guard who can lob passes at a high point where only his 7'2 dance partner can go grab it in front of the rim....
It's also worked in reverse order. Embiid, while still turning the ball over at a high rate, has improved his passing, and there is going to be a lot of nasty high-low action for years to come.
They have also started to show flashes of working in tandem without saying a word. Watch closely as Embiid gives a subtle head nod to Simmons who throws a pinpoint alley-oop pass from the post.
One more because this pass is absolutely insane.
It's a great sign that these two are already starting to get on the same page, and it's only going to get better once Jo gets back in shape, and Simmons gets more and more comfortable with the NBA game. Sometimes it's still hard to believe that these two are on the court at the same time. Let's just soak this in and watch these two grow together for the next 10 years *knock on wood*.
Bonus: ENOUGH WITH THE "FIRE BRETT BROWN TAKES"
We can't be calling for Brett Brown's head every time the team loses a close game due to youth filled mistakes or when he decides not to call a timeout in a close game when it has worked plenty of times in the past. This is the first time in four years Brown has not only a stable roster with tangible talent, but a Point Guard who is going to be the long-term answer for the future. Brown had 15 point guards throughout the Process Era on top of an ever-changing roster, and through it all, he has kept the team playing hard and sticking to his principles.
Wanting Brett Brown to be fired every time the team loses implies that you had ridiculous expectations to start the season and didn't even bother to look up the history of how young teams improve record wise. Hell, the most recent example was last year's Timberwolves, most expected them to win 45 to 50 games and only won 31. This takes time. This isn't an easy bake oven. We are not winning the Championship this year and probably next year, you have to measure success by noticeable improvement year-to-year.
Now that Brown has a talented roster, he needs to be allowed to grow like this young team needs to grow. Get your head out of the sand.