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.”
January 17, 2019, 1:46 amLou Williams - G - Los Angeles Clippers
Lou Williams put up 23 points with six rebounds and six assists on 11-of-18 shooting in a loss to the Jazz on Wednesday.
He was easily the best player for the Clippers in this game and has provided late-round value this season after a career year last season. He should still be owned in all formats as he provides great value in points, assists and free-throw percentage. Avery Bradley was the only other Clippers' player to have a good performance in this one as he had 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting.
January 17, 2019, 1:35 amMontrezl Harrell - F/C - Los Angeles Clippers
Montrezl Harrell contributed 11 points with seven rebounds and four defensive stats in a loss to the Jazz on Wednesday.
He has been a pleasant surprise this season and is boasting middle-round value despite coming off the bench. He had five fouls in his 26 minutes of action and Marcin Gortat had four fouls in 15 minutes as Rudy Gobert was driving the Clippers' big men mad all night long.
January 17, 2019, 1:25 amDanilo Gallinari - F - Los Angeles Clippers
Danilo Gallinari shot 3-of-14 from the field to go for nine points with four rebounds in a loss to the Jazz on Wednesday.
Gallinari has been an early-round value this season, so chalk this performance up as a fluke. Tobias Harris, who is right next to Gallinari as an early-round guy, also had a less than stellar performance in this one with 17 points on 6-of-14 shooting. Both of these guys should bounce back next game and return to playing at a high level.
January 17, 2019, 1:21 amAnthony Davis - F/C - New Orleans Pelicans
Anthony Davis went for 30 points, 18 rebounds, seven assists, a steal, three blocks and a 3-pointer on Wednesday night but the Pelicans fell to the Warriors.
New Orleans was up by as many as 17 in the second half before Stephen Curry decided that playtime was over. AD was a bit off with an 11-of-26 mark from the field but obviously the counting stats were there. He'll remain fantasy's top player whenever he takes the floor, despite a miraculous charge from James Harden lately.
January 17, 2019, 1:18 amNikola Mirotic - F - New Orleans Pelicans
Nikola Mirotic looked like his old self in Wednesday's loss to the Warriors, popping off for 29 points on 9-of-14 from the field to go with five rebounds, three assists, a steal, a block and six 3-pointers in 29 minutes of action.
Mirotic probably had fantasy owners sweating after a 17-minute dud on Monday but everyone should be back on board tonight. The buy-low window is probably closed after this excellent performance so hopefully you were able to get him before this outburst. Mirotic will have a shot at early-round numbers from here on out.
January 17, 2019, 1:15 amJae Crowder - F - Utah Jazz
Jae Crowder put up 23 points on 8-of-15 shooting with five threes and three defensive stats in a big win over the Clippers on Wednesday.
Crowder is going to have his ups and downs, but he is ultimately their sixth man and will need to play well for them to make it to the playoffs. He is currently outside the top-150 value right now and is merely a 3-point specialist in deep leagues.
January 17, 2019, 1:15 amElfrid Payton - G - New Orleans Pelicans
Elfrid Payton finished Wednesday's loss with seven points, five rebounds, 12 assists, two steals, a 3-pointer and a 3-for-10 shooting line.
Payton also missed his only free throw and committed four turnovers, but this type of multi-cat line should drive him into the top-100 by season's end. You might be able to buy low in hopes that his minutes edge up above 30 going forward but he's not too far off the mark as is.
January 17, 2019, 1:13 amJulius Randle - F - New Orleans Pelicans
Julius Randle had issues with foul trouble on Wednesday, which limited him to 23 points, seven rebounds, three assists and three triples in 22 minutes.
Randle did well whenever he was on the court, hitting 6-of-8 from the field and 8-of-8 from the line, but availability was the big issue tonight. Niko Mirotic was also excellent tonight, which likely played a part. The line itself was fine but if you were wondering about the minutes, there you go.
January 17, 2019, 1:09 amRudy Gobert - C - Utah Jazz
Rudy Gobert put up a monster game on Wednesday as he had 23 points with 22 rebounds and four blocks in a 129-109 win over the Clippers.
He shot 7-of-10 form the field and went 9-of-10 from the line. The Jazz are on fire and it is due in large part to the stellar play of Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. Both guys are top-20 over the past two weeks and Gobert is actually top-20 for the entire season.
January 17, 2019, 1:00 amDonovan Mitchell - G - Utah Jazz
Donovan Mitchell put up 28 points on 10-of-22 shooting with six assists and three steals in a win over the Clippers on Wednesday.
Mitchell had a shaky start to the season, but he still holds top-70 value and is steadily rising as he is inside the top-20 over the past two weeks. He has the potential to be an early-round guy, so fantasy owners should could only hope that this hot streak lasts for the rest of the season.