“EAT A CHEESESTEAK, YOU COWARD!!!”
Yes, we have no Belinellis. We have-a no Belinellis, today!
I am so sorry, Philadelphia 76ers, that my visiting Atlanta Hawks (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; NBC Sports Philadelphia) can’t be of assistance in your quest to contend for the Eastern Conference banner. Not right now, anyway. But you know what? Check back with Travis Schlenk in a few months. Even after the holidays, he may be in a gift-giving mood!
The new larval stage for coach Brett Brown’s ballers is called the Grow-cess. They’re not quite done snagging first-rounders from other teams, as newly-named GM Elton Brand could have the Kings’ 2019 and the heat’s 2021 picks at his disposal. But after all their ups, and mostly downs, Philly’s got the sifted lottery fruits of their tanking past – Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz – all healthy, all available, all set to play together from the jump for the first time.
Sixers fans could have been just fine holding out a couple more years as these youngsters (throw in the injured Zhaire Smth, and fellow guard Landry Shamet, from 2018’s draft if you wish) developed together. But in the middle of last season, Schlenk’s Hawks put a lead foot on Philly’s accelerator, guiding a pair of freshly bought-out NBA vets to the City of Brotherly Shove.
It’s fair to note that the Sixers were already emerging from their mid-season funk and cementing themselves as a .500 team around the All-Star Break, and it’s reasonable to believe that Philadelphia would have reached their first postseason since Brand was on the Sixers’ roster, back in 2012, without Marco Belinelli and, shortly thereafter, Ersan Ilyasova washing ashore on the banks of the Schuylkill.
But without that pair, it’s hard to envision last year’s edition becoming much more than first-round fodder. There is no 23-5 run, including a 16-game win streak, to close out the regular season. There’s no Game 1 series-establishing romp over Miami without Ersan and Marco going bananas in the second half. There’s no premature confetti in Game 3 against the Celtics without Belinelli’s buzzer-beating jumpshot momentarily saving Philly’s bacon.
Even though the Celts ran away in the conference semifinals with a 4-1 series win, there were enough competitive finishes to believe the Sixers could supplant the Raptors and run alongside the Celtics atop the NBA East, especially once LeBron announced he was crossing the Mississippi. No more wait-and-see, the Phuture is now!
Well, hold the Cheez Wiz. Belinelli scampered back to Coach Pop in San Antonio, while Ilyasova took his talents back to Coach Bud, who’s now in undefeated Milwaukee. They were replaced by, well, Wilson Chandler, whose hamstring has had him out of action to start the season. Oh, and our old friend Mike Muscala, who needs no re-introduction around here.
Organic growth among the more talented youngsters may eventually yield championship-contention results. But not right now, not just yet. And no, I’m not just talking about the Hawks (2-3). Not with the anemic offense Philadelphia (3-3) has had, guided by a 6-foot-10, 230-pound version of Ason Kidd.
Ben Simmons is in the gym, working feverishly on expanding his range out to the three-point line. But he has yet to put the results of that offseason work on the NBA court (0-for-0 this season; 0-for-12 last year, incl. playoffs), the point-wing’s reticence likely attributable by one teammate’s father to some kind of Australian-American mental illness.
Simmons instead continues to dazzle in the same ways he did in his Rookie of the Year campaign, using his height to his decided advantage in the paint (10.6 RPG) while drawing extra defenders and dishing beautiful dimes (7.8 APG, 8th in NBA). But for the Sixers to assert themselves as an upper-echelon team in the East, he must improve his interior scoring (5-for-28 2FGs beyond 3 feet from the rim) and his free throw accuracy (56.0 FT%, equivalent to last season).
Coach Brown’s insistence on getting Fultz in the starting lineup has 2017’s top draft choice, the one with the notoriously janky jumpshot, playing as the 2-guard alongside Simmons, then shifting to a bench role behind Redick in the second halves of games.
The “shooting” guard has made half his threes thus far, which would be encouraging if he was taking more than one attempt per game. Fultz (39.2 2FG%) has been solid as a secondary passer, which is great, since what else is he supposed to do with the ball in his hands? Give Fultz a clue, and you’ve got T.J. McConnell right now.
They’re getting next-to-no help so far from Saric (38.2 FG%; 27.0 3FG%), whose slow start has been ascribed to him wearing himself down for Croatia during the offseason FIBA qualifiers. Among the Grow-cess quartet, the most reliable perimeter threat, as of the moment, just might be Embiid, their MVP-caliber center. And Joel (7-for-28 3FGs) just gets bored standing out there, when he’s not busy trolling fools around both rims (29.2 PPG, 12.7 RPG, 2.3 BPG).
Previously an assistant under Brown, Lloyd Pierce had a front-row seat to the young Clankadelphians for quite some time. The Hawks’ new head coach knows that, until the young guns catch up, the Sixers really go as far as their vets can carry them. Namely, Redick (41.8 3FG%), the sharpshooter who can be a defensive liability at times, and Robert Covington, the D-and-occasional-3 forward (43.6 3FG%) who needs to stay out of foul trouble for the Sixers’ offense (107.0 O-Rating, 20th in NBA) to spread out and find some balance.
Here at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday, Philly barely edged a Charlotte team, 105-103, that was traveling off a back-to-back, a situation quite akin to Atlanta’s failed test at State Farm Arena this past weekend.
Pierce and his Hawks know the deal, that trying to outplay your opponent at their own game, instead of scratching out your own identity, rarely ends well. That was the case on Saturday, as Atlanta’s offensive leaders engaged in too much one-on-one and isolation shooting, allowing Zach LaVine’s and Jabari Parker’s Bulls to hang around until they ran away with the sloppy 97-85 victory at The Farm. It will be the case today, again, if all they can respond to Embiid (who Pierce expects to hear a lot from during the game) with is more boorishness.
When returning Big Five alum Omari Spellman (0-for-5 FGs) leads your team in assists, with four in under 15 minutes off the bench, you know you’re setting yourself up for trouble. Ball movement is essential for Atlanta tonight, particularly among the starters (NBA-worst minus-21.7 Net Rating in 1st Quarters), to avoiding settling for well-contested shots in the halfcourt. Aside from the roving Covington, Philadelphia has been gun-shy so far (11.3 opponent TO%, 29th in NBA) in prying the ball free from opponents.
Spellman’s 8 rebounds versus Chicago were only behind benchmate Dewayne Dedmon (13 points, 13 boards, 5 blocks), who is likely to soon reclaim his starting center gig in lieu of the occasionally flummoxed Alex Len. The Hawks will need more than Spellman’s fellow Big Fiver DeAndre’ Bembry (3 steals vs. CHI) forcing shooters off the perimeter and getting stops on the defensive end.
You can’t choose your parents (right, Muskie?), but you do have a say in the type of person you to whom you get hitched. A disaffected ex-Sixer fan, PoppaWeapon3 averages about three keystrokes per year, never using a computer and rarely even using a phone, smartphone or otherwise. So believe me when I tell you, PW3’s progeny had a grand old time this spring, going through the blow-by-blow of how burner accounts work, and how the poor Colangelos got burned by using them.
Patience is a virtue, yet Philly phans are not well-renowned for such virtuosity. The clamoring, maybe even a bit of boo-bird chirping, will get louder as the season wears on if the 76ers continue to tread water in the Eastern Conference standings through mid-season, and the front office will be sure to hear it. This was a situation created by Brand’s predecessors, but it is one a relevancy-starved fanbase will expect him to fix. So, Elton, if you find yourself in a pinch around February, be sure to holla at ya boi. Travis just might have the hook-up!
Let’s Go Hawks!