November 2, 2018, 2:39 pm
Last season, when the Philadelphia 76ers’ process finally paid off with results in the standings, Brett Brown played his starters for 601 minutes, the sixth-highest total of any lineup in the NBA. While the impact of late-season additions Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli gave widespread legitimacy to the Sixers’ hopes of winning the East, those aspirations would never have materialized in the first place without the collective dominance of Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Joel Embiid.
Philadelphia’s starters finished the season with a +21.0 net rating, not just the top mark in the league, but the third-best differential of any high-minute unit over the past five years, per NBA.com/stats. They didn’t have the cachet or résumé of the Golden State Warriors’ death lineup, but like that game-changing quintet, the Sixers’ starters seemed to possess every attribute necessary to thrive at the highest levels of the modern NBA: star power, shooting, positional versatility, and the means to employ whatever two-way style circumstances of time and score dictate. Philadelphia’s five-game loss to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals did nothing to change that perception, either. Simmons and Embiid were a long way from finished products, after all, and Boston’s surprisingly easy victory was as much about exploiting the Sixers’ physically-limited reserves as any unfixable chinks in the starters’ armor.
Nine games into 2018-19, the lineup that propelled Philadelphia to the franchise’s first 50-win season since Allen Iverson won MVP is still its best. Confident in the Sixers’ surefire standing as a playoff team in the East, though, Brown has decided to replace Redick as a starter with Markelle Fultz, assuming any early-season struggles stemming from that change will be worth the potential late-season payoff. So far, there hasn’t been much reason more than stubborn optimism to suggest that will ultimately prove the case.
“We’re not used to it,” Embiid said of his team’s new lineup after a season-opening loss to the Celtics. “It’s gonna take time…We just gotta trust the process, and we’ll figure it out.”
Any examination of Fultz’s early reintegration must begin with any related effect on Simmons – and most every means of analysis indicates it’s been detrimental. To be clear, blaming Fultz alone for the reigning Rookie of the Year’s widespread labors thus far is unfair. Simmons, in 250 minutes of play, has yet to connect on a single shot outside the paint, and his mediocre accuracy in the restricted area thus far – after shooting 71 percent from there a year ago, right on par with Giannis Antetokounmpo – has come both with and without Fultz shrinking the floor next to him. It’s one thing when a star rookie fails to build on his greatest weakness; it’s quite another when one of his greatest strengths suddenly becomes no longer.
It’s early. Statistical anomalies abound across the league, and it’s hard to believe a player possessing Simmons’ unique blend of power, touch and body control around the rim forgot how to finish. He’ll come around. But just as certain for the Sixers, unfortunately, is that playing two ball-dominant playmakers who defenses can ignore away from the action and dare to shoot from the outside has sapped them of the space and continuity that became a hallmark of their offense in 2017-18 – and was increasingly driven by Simmons as the season wore on.
The Sixers’ offensive rating with Simmons and Fultz on the floor together is 87.6, per NBA.com/stats, an easy team-worst among the 31 tandems that have notched at least 50 minutes of court time. That dismal number spikes all the way to a respectable 104.1 when Simmons plays without Fultz, an uptick explained by massive increases in team-wide true shooting percentage, 3-point attempt rate, assist percentage and, perhaps most indicative of the endless ripples associated with putting a capable shooter in place of Fultz, offensive rebound percentage.
But Philadelphia doesn’t just bring in some run-of-the-mill specialist for Fultz, of course. Redick shoots accurately from pretty much every launch point and angle imaginable, moves better without the ball than any player in the league and has somehow further expanded the limits of his floor game at 34. The more he runs dribble hand-offs with Embiid and flies around screens away from the ball, the more attention from multiple defenders he yields, creating bigger swaths of floor for his teammates to attack – an especially key component for an offense that so heavily relies on a player with Simmons’ abject lack of shooting range and Embiid’s steady diet of post-ups. The presence of Fultz, by contrast, only exacerbates the existing issue of a cramped court that Philadelphia will always need to mitigate given the inherent playing styles of its two franchise cornerstones.
Case in point: Watch how the Toronto Raptors react to Embiid dribbling into a staggered hand-off with Redick, compared to how the Atlanta Hawks react to him running the same action with Fultz.
Brown has made a habit early in the season to ensure Fultz feels involved offensively even when he’s not the primary ball handler. All too often, though, that’s meant possessions like the one above, in which Fultz methodically uses a ball screen, watches his defender go under the pick, then settles for a pull-up mid-ranger before probing the defense any further. He’s shooting an ugly 24.1 percent on twos outside the paint, and those naturally inefficient looks account for 31.1 percent of his overall field goal attempts, a ratio higher than that of Victor Oladipo, who came out of nowhere to emerge as one of the most reliable off-dribble shooters in the league last season.
Philadelphia is obviously hoping Fultz enjoys a similar evolution with his jumper, and the fact he’s taken multiple threes in more than half his games this season is a sign that’s indeed a possibility going forward, even if a remote one. Oladipo spent an entire summer training like he never had before to become a quality jump-shooter. It didn’t happen overnight for him, and it definitely won’t for Fultz. In the interim, the Sixers are trying to soften the blow of playing a complete non-shooter on the perimeter – at least when not directly fostering his development – by changing their rotation in second halves and often slotting him in places on the court normally reserved for big men.
Brown, trying to strike the awkward balance between empowering an uber-talented 20-year-old who lost his jumper and ensuring his young team improves on a game-by-game basis, has started Redick rather than Fultz for the second half of each game the Sixers were at full strength. By no coincidence, the third quarter is the only one in which Philadelphia has a positive raw plus-minus this season. Fultz typically enters for Simmons with a few minutes left in the third, finishing out the quarter as the Sixers’ lead guard before opening the final stanza next to Embiid, Redick and two bench players. He hasn’t played a single minute of crunch time, despite Simmons missing a pair of one-point games – a split between the Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons, hardly surefire playoff contenders – with lower back tightness.
When Fultz plays without Simmons but is nevertheless a bystander, like on post-ups or two-man games between Redick and Embiid on one side of the floor, he mans the “dunker” spot, one normally occupied by non-stretch bigs – and increasingly less so altogether as teams prefer to dot the floor with five 3-point shooters. Simmons is routinely stashed there, too, but unlike Fultz, is big enough to use that proximity to the basket to his advantage with quick duck-ins, drop-offs and early position on the offensive glass. Would it be optimal if he were standing at the arc, hands ready to catch and launch? No doubt. Still, Simmons is a much bigger threat to defenses as a “dunker” than Fultz, who does little more than muck up spacing on the weak side of the floor.
Where else is Brown supposed to put him? Not on the wing, where it’s easier for his man to offer useful help, and not stashed far back in the corner, allowing defenses to both overload the strong side of the floor and recover to the flight of the ball on a cross-court pass. The Atlanta Hawks and new coach Lloyd Pierce, an assistant under Brown the previous five seasons, proved that latter strategy feckless earlier this week, instructing Kent Bazemore to basically ignore Fultz away from the ball.
“It was some aggressive double-teams,” Brown said after the game. “Coach Pierce’s schemes made us think a little bit.”
How many other guards in today’s league could be treated with such disrespect as to be completely un-guarded, with his man’s back turned to him all the way at the nail, when waiting in the weak-side corner?
There may be no better distillation of Fultz’s pervasively negative influence on his teammates than a comparison to Landry Shamet. When Simmons isn’t running roughshod in transition and Embiid isn’t wrecking overmatched defenders on the block, Philadelphia’s offense is all about exploiting small, fleeting creases that quick-hitting ball and player movement create. Redick has rejuvenated his career playing in the Sixers’ system, and Belinelli and Ilyasova did the same over the final six weeks of last season.
Shamet, a late first-round pick from Wichita State, wasn’t expected to be a part of Brown’s rotation. Due to injuries to Wilson Chandler and fellow rookie Zhaire Smith, however, he opened the regular season as the Sixers’ second small off the bench, an opportunity he’s taken and ran with over the first two weeks of his career. How? In addition to pleasantly surprising defensively, with his light feet and dogged demeanor, Shamet is already capitalizing off scoring opportunities that come again and again within the flow of Philadelphia’s offense.
Fultz isn’t anywhere near ready to splash pull-up threes on the move after taking a dribble hand-off. Even more debilitating for Philadelphia as a whole is that his primary defender never needs to trail him over the top of screens, or pressure him at the arc when making entry passes to the post.
Incorporating Fultz is an ongoing experiment, without a scheduled timetable for completion. Brown was never under any delusion it would be easy, and three weeks into the season, has as strong a grasp on the complications of doing so as ever before. The Sixers have been flat-out bad when Fultz shares the floor with Simmons, and it’s not like he’s been consistently dynamic enough as a lone wolf point guard to clearly justify his place in the rotation ahead of T.J. McConnell.
For every handful of dazzling plays Fultz makes with the ball that help swing a game, like those from the second half of Thursday night’s win over the Los Angeles Clippers, there will be many more this season that make it seem like Philadelphia’s young big three will never figure it out. Can two shooting-challenged floor generals really coexist with a superstar center who demands and deserves touches on the block?
Not for now. But Fultz might as well be a rookie, the regular season doesn’t end for five and-a-half months and the Sixers’ title window is just beginning to open. Time remains on their side, and Brown, as long as Philadelphia is firmly on track for another playoff berth, will continue trying to win while enduring the growing pains necessary for this team to reach its long-term ceiling.
“Although it’s early days, I’m aware of the numbers,” Brown said earlier this week of playing Simmons and Fultz simultaneously. “You could just keep burying your head in the sand and just keep doing it and doing it — you could do that. I choose to walk that line of trying to grow it and win. That’s part of my challenge.”
March 21, 2019, 10:18 pmJohn Collins - F/C - Atlanta Hawks
John Collins fouled out of Thursday's win over the Jazz, delivering a fairly quiet night of nine points, eight rebounds, a steal, a block and a 3-pointer in 27 minutes.
Collins struggled with a burly Utah frontcourt, and he won't be the last guy with that issue. Fantasy owners can take some solace in the fact that he came through with defensive numbers tonight. That's been the only weak spot in Collins' game so far and we're hoping he starts posting numbers more in line with his rookie season going into next year. He's already a top-40 guy with disappointing steals and blocks totals.
March 21, 2019, 10:16 pmDonovan Mitchell - G - Utah Jazz
Donovan Mitchell scored 34 points on 15-of-32 shooting while adding four rebounds, two assists, a steal, two blocks and two 3-pointers in Thursday's game against the Hawks.
Mitchell continues to roll, but the Jazz as a whole fell short tonight. The Jazz have the sixth best offense since the ASB and it's mostly due to Mitchell's ability to create and make shots. Since the ASB, Mitchell is averaging 28.0 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.7 blocks and 3.3 3s on .464 shooting.
March 21, 2019, 10:15 pmRudy Gobert - C - Utah Jazz
Rudy Gobert scored 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting while adding 11 boards, three assists and a steal.
Gobert has been doing everything we expect from him this week except block shots. He's swatted two shots in three games this week, but faces the Bulls on Saturday, who have been giving up the most blocks against opposing centers over the past month.
March 21, 2019, 10:15 pmJae Crowder - F - Utah Jazz
Jae Crowder had a dud on Thursday, scoring two points on 0-of-6 shooting while adding two rebounds and a steal.
Crowder fell off a cliff in today's game, but coming into tonight he had nine consecutive games scoring in double-figures with at least one 3-pointer. He gets the Bulls on Saturday so if you're in need of triples, he's still a viable option.
March 21, 2019, 10:14 pmRicky Rubio - G - Utah Jazz
Ricky Rubio scored 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting while adding five boards, seven dimes, two steals and two 3-pointers on Thursday.
After a couple rough games re-integrating into the lineup, Rubio has finally meshed with the Jazz's offense and is producing at a steady rate. He's worth grabbing for dimes and steals, but don't expect the shooting lines to always be this pretty.
March 21, 2019, 10:14 pmJoe Ingles - F - Utah Jazz
Joe Ingles stayed hot on Thursday against the Hawks with 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting to go with two rebounds, seven assists, two steals and three triples.
Ingles is getting hot from deep as of late, hitting 3-for-5 from beyond the arc and the assist numbers haven't waned which has been a recipe for early-mid round value. There was never any doubt here at Hoop Ball that he'd figure it out in time for owners.
March 21, 2019, 10:13 pmDerrick Favors - F/C - Utah Jazz
Derrick Favors double-doubled on Thursday with 15 points and 15 rebounds to go with an assist, two steals and a block.
He went 6-for-10 from the floor and hit all three of his free throws. Favors continues his strong run of play and he took care of an advantageous matchup tonight. The Jazz play once more this week and have a three-game week coming up so plug him in your lineups.
March 21, 2019, 10:13 pmThomas Bryant - C - Washington Wizards
Thomas Bryant moved back into the starting lineup in Thursday's 108-113 loss to the Nuggets and had a huge game with 22 points on 9-for-11 shooting, eight rebounds and two blocks in 35 minutes of work.
Bryant had played only five minutes with Bobby Portis prior to tonight but Washington's new starting frontcourt looked good and Scott Brooks said after the game that Bryant will continue to start moving forward. He's got top-140/100 value (8/9-cat) in 19.3 mpg on the season and had middle-round runs in his last stint as a starter, so this is an easy must-own, must-start situation.
March 21, 2019, 10:08 pmTomas Satoransky - G/F - Washington Wizards
Tomas Satoransky continued to cruise on Thursday night, going 5-of-7 from the field while posting 16 points, four rebounds, 10 assists, a steal and two 3-pointers.
Satoransky might be the most quiet top-75 fantasy player around, but owners aren't complaining. The efficient scoring is a nice wrinkle to his game and he's going to be someone to track closely in draft season. He's looking at the starting PG spot as things stand right now and the hype has yet to catch up to his production. Bradley Beal continued his torrid run with 25 points, eight dimes and three steals while going 10-of-19 from the field in a losing effort.
March 21, 2019, 10:04 pmJeff Green - F - Washington Wizards
Jeff Green moved to the bench in Thursday's loss to the Nuggets and responded with five points, two rebounds and a 3-pointer on 1-of-6 shooting in 21 minutes.
Thomas Bryant is going to keep starting going forward and Green just isn't a priority given the end of Washington's playoff chase. He gave them some good minutes this season and was a steadying presence in fantasy as well, but his low upside and decreasing role make him an easy drop candidate.