The Sixers Need More Pieces
The Sixers have an interesting team balance this season. After losing Dario Saric and Robert Covington, two incredibly valuable rotation players, the Sixers inserted Jimmy Butler into the line-up, with mixed results, and are still third in the Eastern Conference.
The Sixers starting lineup is impressive to say the least. Sporting who is likely today’s best center Joel Embiid, Australian point-forward Ben Simmons, and the proven Jimmy Butler, Philly touts a big 3 that can match up with the best in the league. There are times where who has the ball needs to be defined, as each of those stars seem most effective in playmaking situations, but with outlets in J.J. Redick and Mike Muscala the Sixers aren’t starved for balance.
Once you see the Sixers bench, the concerns arise. Against Memphis, the Sixers only went nine deep into their bench. T.J. McConnell, Landry Shamet, Furkan Korkmaz, and Amir Johnson were the only bench players to see action Sunday against the Grizzlies. Yes, with Wilson Chandler out the Sixers are limited. But the inclusion of Chandler doesn’t inspire much in terms of spelling the first unit. Perhaps Shake Milton or Demetrius Jackson will get a call to contribute off the bench. McConnell is a gritty guard, but his inability to shoot and aptitude finishing at the rim does more to crowd the court than balance it.
Can the Raptors Stop the Sixers Inside?
The Sixers are team built to score in the paint. Between Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, the Toronto Raptors need to find a way to stop two players that can get to the rim at ease as well as dish it out to the wing for an open look.
Their versatility is made clear when you see the Sixers are 14th in the NBA at percentage of points as 2-pointers and 18th in the NBA at percentage of points from three. A big problem for the Raptors is that the Sixers almost reverse the roles of the big and small as a 6’9 Ben Simmons is the one attacking the paint allowing for Embiid to choose whether to be a roller or a cutter.
An easy statement is that the Raptors just need to switch well and crowd the dribbler so as to not allow easy kick-out passes. Unfortunately the Sixers are an incredibly difficult team to switch against as they maintain size and skill at almost every position. Don’t be surprised to see an incredibly fluid and deep rotation by Nick Nurse to challenge the Sixers versatility with his own.
Why has the Sixers’ Defence Regressed?
Last season, the Sixers were top three in defensive rating. Relying on the talents of Embiid, Covington, and Simmons, the Sixers were able to switch at a lot of positions. This year, even with the swap of Covington and Butler, the Sixers have fallen to eleventh in defensive rating and its head scratching as to why.
One clear point of weakness for the Sixers is their struggles defending the most basic play in basketball, the pick and roll. While off-ball screens are generally switched without hesitation, on-ball screens are played very conservatively by the Sixers as they drop the center deep to protect the paint. Embiid is an excellent defender but this conservative approach actually stifles his defensive ability, placing him in a no-mans-land in hopes of the perimeter defender recovering on to the ball.
With so many diverse skillsets amongst bigs and guards, the Sixers can no longer depend on playing conservatively. Coach Brett Brown acknowledged that he wants Embiid to defend higher on the ball, but match ups will always drive the defensive choice. There is absolutely a learning curve when a team loses an All-NBA defender, but with a quarter of the season gone the Sixers need to do their homework fast.
Are Ibaka and Valanciunas Enough to Slow Embiid?
The eye-test says the answer to this question is no. In a November loss to Toronto, Embiid shot 11-21, posting 31 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 assists while converting on 3-4 from range. But the Toronto Raptors players at the pivot position have shown value in versatility over the first quarter of the season that most teams would be spoiled to have.
They, Ibaka and Valanciunas, are two sides of a coin that the Raptors wish were their center of the future. Ibaka is athletic and has a feathery touch; his physical abilities allow him to recover quickly on defence while also play the switch on screens. Valanciunas is a more traditional, bruising big who can punish any player inside and has developed an outside shot. Unfortunately if he’s not guarding in the post, Valanciunas is taken advantage of anywhere outside of five feet.
Splitting the minutes at center almost entirely (27.8 MPG for Ibaka and 19.2 MPG for Valanciunas) the pair cumulatively contribute 28.6 PPG, 14.7 RPG, while shooting over 55% from the field. If they were one player, those are all-star numbers. It will depend on Embiid’s versatility offensively to take advantage of both players where they struggle, while also balancing the teams spacing on the court, for the Sixers to succeed in the frontcourt.
What’s at stake?
The Sixers are coming off a win against a tough and gritty Memphis Grizzlies team and with that inspiration want to take a win off the Toronto Raptors. Sitting in third place in the East, behind Milwaukee, a sole win will simultaneously put them ahead of the Bucks and increase their win streak to five.
The Raptors were embarrassed at home against the Nuggets. Don’t let the 106-103 score line fool you, the Raptors were clawing to keep up with an undermanned Nuggets team who ran them out of the gym and beat them on the glass. This will be a redemption game for the Raptors against a team everyone was betting to be their superior at the beginning of the season.
Questions to answer:
Can the Raptors stop the Sixers’ Big Three?
Will the Raptors stay hot from the arc?
Can Ben Simmons beat the Raptors perimeter defenders?
What bench unit will step up?
Philadelphia 76ers at Toronto Raptors Predictions and Odds
The odds makers have the Toronto Raptors favoured over the Philadelphia 76ers by 6, with an over/under of 110.