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.”
November 16, 2018, 2:01 pmAlex Abrines - G - Oklahoma City Thunder
Alex Abrines was held out of practice on Friday and will be re-evaluated before the game on Saturday.
Abrines is dealing with some flu-like symptoms and was held out of practice. He will travel with the team and get a designation before Saturday's tipoff. Check back in if you're in a position where the 3-point specialist is important enough to roll out.
Source: Brett Dawson on Twitter
November 16, 2018, 1:57 pmRussell Westbrook - G - Oklahoma City Thunder
Russell Westbrook practiced Friday but his availability for Saturday is still uncertain.
It seems like a long shot that Westbrook would be back for Saturday's game. Expect him to be unavailable for at least another week and plan accordingly.
Source: Brett Dawson on Twitter
November 16, 2018, 1:50 pmKyle Korver - G/F - Cleveland Cavaliers
Kyle Korver expects to play on Monday against the Pistons.
The Cavs have a long layoff between their Wednesday night game and this upcoming contest against the Pistons. This has given Korver time to get on the right track to play in the next one. He has almost zero fantasy appeal at this stage in his career. Check back on Monday to confirm his status. Ho, hum.
Source: Marla Ridenour on Twitter
November 16, 2018, 1:43 pmWesley Matthews - G/F - Dallas Mavericks
Wesley Matthews is doubtful for Saturday's game.
Matthews is secretly a valuable glorified 3-point specialist. He's sitting at 100 in 9-cat formats on a per-game basis as a high volume shooter and a decent scorer. His vacated minutes are probably spread through the rotation and there isn't one main beneficiary right now.
Source: Brad Townsend on Twitter
November 16, 2018, 1:37 pmAllonzo Trier - G - New York Knicks
Allonzo Trier will start over Noah Vonleh on Friday.
The master tinkerer is at it again. Coach David Fizdale is making yet another change to the Knicks lineup. Trier has been useful in deep leagues as a plug and play option but even with more deployment his upside is limited by his skillset. Noah Vonleh's top-160ish value may also drop off a little bit. Both are deep league fliers for now.
November 16, 2018, 12:47 pmKosta Koufos - C - Sacramento Kings
Kosta Koufos will be out again in Friday's game.
This is more of the same for Koufos. He has only played seven games this season and is barely a fantasy asset when he is on the court playing only 10-15 minutes.
Source: James Ham on Twitter
November 16, 2018, 12:38 pmDerrick Jones Jr. - F/G - Miami Heat
Derrick Jones Jr. is probable for Friday night's game.
Jones will likely return for this contest but after a hot start to the season he has really fallen off the radar. Wayne Ellington and Rodney McGruder are the hot wings off the bench that have flashed, so Jones is best left on the wire for now.
Source: Ira Winderman on Twitter
November 16, 2018, 12:34 pmJohn Henson - F - Milwaukee Bucks
John Henson will miss at least 12 weeks with a torn ligament in his left wrist as of Friday's update.
It's time for Thon Maker, people. This will put Henson out until at least mid-February, so we could see an unsightly amount of Maker and a Bucks team that might struggle against bigger squads. Keep an eye on Maker but there probably isn't much there for now.
Source: Shams Charania on Twitter
November 16, 2018, 12:22 pmDonte DiVincenzo - G - Milwaukee Bucks
Donte DiVincenzo suffered a quad strain in Wednesday's game and he will be held out for the next three contests.
DiVincenzo dealt with a quad injury earlier in the season and has been up and down throughout. He isn't a big fantasy factor at this point in under 20 minutes per contest, and his de facto role replacement in Tony Snell is even less of a factor.
Source: BucksPR on Twitter
November 16, 2018, 12:18 pmJohn Henson - F - Milwaukee Bucks
Per a report on Friday, John Henson will undergo wrist surgery and is out indefinitely.
This is a bigger blow to the Bucks rotation and center depth more than it is for fantasy purposes. Henson has been a useful fantasy option in the past because of his shot-blocking prowess. With Brook Lopez playing well, Henson just hadn't gotten the run to be successful (13.5 minutes per game). Ersan Ilyasova and Thon Maker are probably the beneficiaries for now.
Source: Marc Stein on Twitter