September 1, 2018, 5:24 pm
The Philadelphia 76ers won 52 games a year ago, an impressive total, but one that obscures crucial context behind their surprising level of success. Brett Brown’s team entered the playoffs on a 16-game winning streak, feasting on a regular-season schedule backloaded with underwhelming opponents. The Sixers faced just four winning teams over that month-long stretch, and two of them, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Cleveland Cavaliers, played without injured All-Stars. While any binge of victories that reaches double-digits deserves acclaim, Philadelphia’s was still less impressive than it seemed on the surface – especially considering that Joel Embiid watched the second half of it from the bench, sidelined by a facial fracture he suffered in a March 28 win over the New York Knicks.
The style of play stemming from Embiid’s absence relied heavily on the impact of Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli. Signed off the buyout market in February, they became cogs of the Sixers’ attack once Embiid went down, playing nearly 30 minutes per game as Philadelphia pushed the pace to a new extreme and routinely spread the floor with five 3-point shooters. The result? The Sixers posted top-three marks in offensive rating and assist percentage with Embiid out, after he’d previously proven his team’s panacea in a way Ben Simmons hadn’t. Following the additions of floor-spacers like Ilyasova and Belinelli, though, Simmons was able to keep Philadelphia’s head well above water without his All-Star teammate.
Before March 1, when Ilyasova made his Sixers debut, Simmons’ net rating with Embiid on the bench was -4.4. That number spiked all the way up to +12.2 over the season’s last six weeks, in 451 minutes of play – just nine fewer than Simmons accrued absent Embiid prior to Belinelli and Ilyasova coming aboard. Their departures, understandable as they were given Philadelphia chasing LeBron James and Paul George in free agency, have cast doubt on the franchise’s ability to build on its first winning season since 2004-05. Even teams led by superstar talents need experienced depth, especially when the players supplying it help usher in a style of play that wouldn’t be available otherwise.
That’s what Belinelli and Ilyasova did for the Sixers near the end of of 2017-18, and why many are skeptical they’ll be better this season despite imminent internal improvement not just from Embiid and Simmons, but also Dario Saric, T.J. McConnell and even Robert Covington, still coming into his own as a high-volume 3-point shooter. Conspicuously unmentioned so far? Markelle Fultz, the consensus top prospect in a draft that produced one of the most impressive rookie classes in recent memory.
Counting on Fultz for anything more than bench minutes this season is a gamble, but one Philadelphia, apparently pleased with the progress he’s made working with skills guru Drew Hanlen, is reportedly prepared to make.
On Fultz, I’m hearing the Sixers are encouraged by the recent clips and maybe even how the shot held up during live action. It’s not perfect and there may be some ups and downs but it’s made steady progress. The plan is for big minutes and a starting role from the jump.
— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) August 28, 2018
This rumor shouldn’t be considered anything more than that. Fultz and Hanlen this summer have opted against releasing footage of the former’s re-worked jumper, and it certainly isn’t revelatory to suggest that the number one pick of last June’s draft will be given every opportunity to carve out a niche in Brown’s rotation as a sophomore. But starting? That might be a bridge too far for the Sixers, whose opening unit last season posted a +21.4 net rating, easily highest league-wide among the 29 lineups that shared the floor for at least 300 minutes.
Starting or not, Fultz, if he’s indeed extended his shooting range to outside the paint, will give Philadelphia an element it sorely lacked a season ago. Simmons was the only player in Philadelphia’s rotation capable of consistently creasing the paint with the dribble, grabbing and going in transition and, just generally, occupying the role of dynamic playmaker. No longer. Fultz averaged an encouraging 9.6 assists per-36 minutes after returning to the court in late March, with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.2, just below Darren Collison‘s league-leading mark. The pick-and-roll triples and hang-dribble jumpers weren’t there for Fultz, but every other attribute that made him such a highly-touted prospect – the pace, the feel, the bounce, the wiggle, the vision, the anticipation – was on full display during his late-season audition, and clearly supplemented by the knowledge he gained spending most of his rookie year watching from the bench.
Still, it’s instructive that Brown drew a line in the sand when it came to playing Fultz and Simmons simultaneously. Of the 177 minutes he saw in the last 10 games of the regular season, Fultz played just seven of them next to Simmons. The uber-talented backcourt combination once considered an ideal blend of both players’ unique skill sets was so mismatched, at least in Brown’s mind, for it to be rendered essentially un-playable. It’s not hard to see why. The looming threat of 3-point shooting has never been more influential than it is today, and playing a pair of ball-dominant guards with no range whatsoever flies in the face of that reality. Brown, as cautious as he was prudent, chose to let Fultz get his feet wet in an ideal ecosystem, surrounded by veteran shooters without having to share the ball with another high-usage playmaker.
Assuming there’s some truth to summer murmurs of both Simmons and Fultz improving their jump shots, Brown will have less cause for concern about playing them together in 2018-19. But defenses will make Simmons and Fultz prove it – again, and again, and again, and again – before going over the top of ball screens, let alone paying them respect as spot-up options on the weak side of the floor. Those growing pains are inevitable, even if Brown does as assumed and staggers the minutes of Simmons and Fultz, a scaled-down version of how Mike D’Antoni deploys James Harden and Chris Paul.
The speed with which Simmons and Fultz learn to successfully coexist may be the biggest determining factor in the Sixers’ path to legitimate championship contention. As for the slightly more modest goal of competing with the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors for supremacy in revamped Eastern Conference, though, the development of Philadelphia’s young pillars, Fultz included, should loom far larger than the losses of Ilyasova and Belinelli.
New addition Mike Muscala isn’t an especially versatile shooter, but, like Ilyasova, still allows the Sixers to stretch the floor at center when Embiid goes to the bench. For everything Belinelli’s keen ability to hit wild, off-balance 3-pointers brought to the table offensively, he nearly gave it all back on the other end of the floor – and, memorably, did just that in a surprisingly brief second-round series against the Celtics.
Make no mistake: All season-to-season roster churn matters for contenders, and the losses of Belinelli and Ilyasova indeed rob the Sixers of the identity that propelled them to the second-longest winning streak in franchise history. But that success deserves the context of substandard competition, and non-Embiid lineups featuring Simmons, Belinelli and Ilyasova were played off the floor by Boston in the Conference Semifinals. There’s ample reason to believe those five-out lineups wouldn’t have been nearly as fruitful this season as they were in March and early April.
Most important to Philadelphia continuing its upward trajectory, though, is the simple fact that talent prevails in the NBA, and the Sixers, with even a limited Fultz in the rotation, are adding another impact player. Embiid is coming off the first healthy summer of his career, and mere incremental steps as a shooter will make Simmons even more dangerous than he was en route to winning Rookie of the Year.
Will Philadelphia win more than 52 games this season, or advance to the Conference Finals? That all remains to be seen, but won’t be decided by the absence of role players as much as it is the progress of stars – and the possibility that Fultz starts to play like one again.