Philly Front Office

Sixers Can(not) Afford To Just Coast

There are just four games remaining for the Sixers until the playoffs begin and there a number of concerns facing the team. Joel Embiid has been sitting out, so a lot of these concerns could very well be addressed upon his return. That being said, the team’s recent stretch of bad defensive play should be addressed before the end of the season if the Sixers intend to go deep into the Eastern Conference playoffs. 

In this column, we will address why the Sixers shouldn’t be coasting and, at the same time, why it might be okay.

If you’ve watched any of the games since their big win against Boston a few weeks ago, it’s easy to see that the Sixers don’t really care and are coasting to some regard, especially on defense. 

They Shouldn’t Coast

Writer: Brandon Apter (@bapter23)

For a starting five that has played just 161 minutes over 10 games together, each and every guy on the floor should be giving effort leading into the playoffs. That isn’t happening though.

“Time is not on our side. The abundance of minutes with our starting group, we all get, isn’t going to happen relative to the teams we’re going to play. That’s just a fact,” Brett Brown told The Athletic

The Defense

Even with Joel Embiid sidelined, Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler should be leading the defense with some sort of ease. Instead, it looks like they are going half speed. As a result, the team as a whole continues to struggle with pick and roll defense (as seen against the Hawks on Wednesday) in addition to transition defense.

“The pick-and-roll defense was poor,” said head coach Brett Brown after Wednesday’s game. “I think in the first half our transition defense let us down. In the second half, pick-and-roll defense was challenged every time with Trae Young. Really, it’s one of our weaknesses.” 

An Deeper Dive Into the Numbers

Over the team’s last six games, since their big win over Boston, they are sporting a 116.5 defensive rating (26th) and a -4.7 net rating (22nd). Their offense isn’t really the issue (115.2 ORtG last 10 games), but the amount of points they are giving up on the defensive end keeps them from winning games that they should against lesser teams.  

“I don’t know,” said JJ Redick about the team’s recent defensive woes. “If I had the answer, I’d figure out a way to solve it.”

Individually, their starting five over the last 15 games has been poor defensively. I took at look at that stretch of games with starters that average 22+ minutes per game (via stats.nba.com).

  • Tobias Harris, an average defender at best, has a 110.7 defensive rating. NBA Rank: 148th
  • Jimmy Butler, a guy known for his defense, is at 110.5. NBA Rank: 145th
  • Joel Embiid, a guy known for his defense, has played in eight of the team’s last 15. He has a 109.2 defensive rating over that span. NBA Rank: 122nd
  • Ben Simmons, considered an elite defender by many, has a 107.7 defensive rating. That’s 108nd best.
  • Believe it or not, over the last 15 games, JJ Redick has the starting five’s best defensive rating at 106.2. NBA Rank: 84th.

Now, numbers are far from the whole story. While JJ has the best defensive rating, he’s far from their best defensive player. He’s actually one of their worst. If anything these numbers show that the Sixers’ better defenders just aren’t playing well on that end of the ball.

Inability to create turnovers

One of the other Sixers issues defensively is that they are not creating turnovers. Without doing that, they have less fast breaks and less opportunities for easier points.

It’s not a surprise that the Sixers rank 27th in the NBA when it comes to the opposition’s turnovers (12.9 TOpg, 27th). It also doesn’t help that they are also in the bottom six in the league when it comes to their own turnovers.

Flipping that proverbial switch

Less than a handful of games remain and the Sixers, at this point, look to be going into the playoffs with not a lot of momentum. Last season, they entered the postseason winners of 16 in a row. Heading into their last four games, they’ve dropped four of six.

“You want to be playing good basketball heading into the playoffs. The alternative to that doesn’t look as good, doesn’t feel as good, so you want to be playing good basketball,” said JJ Redick.

Many people believe the team will be able to flip a switch and be okay for the postseason, but their lack of attention to detail in the final weeks of the season is a valid concern, with or without Joel Embiid.

Coasting Isn’t A Big Deal

Writer: Ben Dunst (@bpdunst)

Everybody wants a good product. I get that. Coasting out the season in boring games with no effort is always going to ignite some passions from fans who want to see the team compete every night. But the core of the issue is that this is a good thing.

Joel Embiid needed rest

During the first half of the season, Joel Embiid played far, far too many minutes. Getting him out for a week gives him time to recharge his hunger and get his knee comfortable. This isn’t terriblly contentious – I think just about everyone agrees that Joel should be resting right now.

To me, this isn’t different from the guys coasting on the court. I see no reason for them to go at it 100% when there’s nothing to play for. If taking these games lightly defensively saves this incredibly top-heavy team from injuries, then the price is worth it.

Three Seed All But Locked Up

Pride and product aside, the Sixers are not catching the Raptors, and are all but mathematically safe from being passed by the Celtics. There’s nothing at stake. If this team were in the Western Conference where every game can be the difference between home court advantage or a first round matchup with Golden State, I’d be extremely nervous. But it’s not. The top 3 seeds in the Eastern Conference do not need to be concerned with these last few weeks. Optics are just about the only thing left.

This Isn’t Last Year

Last year, the Sixers went on that monster 16 game win streak to cement their playoff positioning. That was great – but last year, it was necessary. It just isn’t this year. They scrapped and fought all year to overtake Indiana and hold them, and Boston, out of arms reach for the 3rd seed. Of course, there’s a speeding advantage to it, but the other advantage is that they now are able to coast and get healthy going into the playoffs. This isn’t lazy, it’s smart. They’ve earned this rest, and they should capitalize on it. It’s nice to go into playoffs on a hot streak, but it’s better to go into playoffs healthy and well rested.

Flipping that proverbial switch

The big question here is “Can they flip the switch?” This is especially pertinent with the team’s defense, which has been downright horrible lately. There’s no definitive answer, but my instinct is that it will come naturally once we get into playoffs. If the source of the coasting is that they are unable to motivate themselves at the moment, the pressure and stakes of playoffs will offer external motivation that ultra-competitors like Jimmy and Joel with thrive off of, and the rest will follow. I have very few concerns about them being properly motivated in the playoffs.

Being bored by the games is understandable. Being annoyed at the effort the coasting players out in is natural. But at the end of the day, the team should be focused on whatever advantage they can get in the playoffs. If coasting now is one of those, then so be it. I’m okay with them coasting.

Brandon Apter

Brandon Apter writes about the Sixers and Phillies for 97.3 ESPN and Philly Front Office. A Philadelphia native, Brandon graduated from Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania in 2009. After working in Minor League Baseball for nine seasons, Brandon currently does Marketing & Social Media for Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

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