Five thoughts on the Sixers through five games. . .
1. Earlier this week, somebody was talking about watching JJ Redick take a shot. Whenever the ball leaves his hand, this person observed, it just looks as though it is going to end up in the hoop. It's true, and whatever this sensation is called, its antonym is the way one feels when Dario Saric shoots a basketball. There is something effortful about his release — too much elbow, not enough wrist, the ball flat and heavy out of his hand, its trajectory more linear than parabolic. From start to finish, the mechanism bears a subtle resemblance to a poorly calibrated catapult that releases its payload a split second too late.
All of this might be grounds for concern if we did not have a prior body of work to incorporate into our evaluation of the Sixers' 2-3 start to the season. Through five games, Saric's performance has been one of the most significant differences between the team we saw over the last three months of last season and the one that has inhabited the court over the first couple of weeks of the 2018-19 campaign. Of his 34 attempts from three-point range, the 6-foot-11 Croatian has connected on just nine, a .265 shooting percentage that is more than 50 percentage points lower than any other player with as many shots.
In the Sixers' 133-132 overtime loss to the Pistons on Tuesday, Saric connected on just two of his 11 attempts from downtown, including a wide-open shot off the front of the rim at the buzzer in regulation and an air ball with a hand in his face at the top of the arc with 1:28 left in overtime and the game tied.
Saric's struggles have been particularly acute given the absences of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova and injuries to the two players who were brought in to replace them. With Redick coming off the bench and Markelle Fultz starting at the two spot, the first unit is relying almost entirely on Saric and Robert Covington to stretch defenses to the three-point line. One year after finishing ninth in the NBA with a .369 shooting percentage from downtown, the Sixers' .343 mark ranks 21st.
The good news is that we've seen this act before, and it turned out OK in the end. In his first five games last season, Saric shot just .214 from three-point range. Then came a 4-of-7 performance against the Mavericks that seemed to ignite his season. He shot an even .400 from downtown the rest of the regular season and was one of the few Sixers who maintained that success in the playoffs, where he shot .385.
It's hard to overstate the dimension that Saric's long-range stroke adds to the Sixers' offense. Last season, he was one of only eight players to have 500+ rebounds and shoot better than 36 percent from three-point range on at least 200 attempts. Getting him back on track is the single biggest short-term issue facing the team.
2. Maybe this was just a lucky call, but the Bucks as a 3.5-point favorite at home against a struggling, short-handed Sixers team playing on back-to-back nights certainly seemed like one of the safer bets of this young NBA season. After an easy 123-108 win on Wednesday moved Milwaukee to 4-0, the real question might be whether the Sixers are suddenly facing some renewed pressure from the rear in their bid for a top-four playoff seed.
Internally and externally, this Sixers season has been framed as an attempt to close the gap between themselves and the conference front-runners in Toronto and Boston. Given this upward-facing orientation, it was easy to overlook a team like the Bucks, who finished eight games behind them in the standings but were just a game back with 15 to play.
In Giannis Antetokounmpo, they have a young superstar who is every bit the game-changer that Joel Embiid can be, as evidenced by his 32 points, 18 rebounds, and 10 assists against the Sixers. In Khris Middleton, they have an underrated second option who is in the process of adding volume to a quietly efficient game. They upgraded their center position with the addition of Brook Lopez, an accomplished scorer who can stretch a defense from behind the arc. And new coach Mike Budenholzer has the Bucks playing an offense that is averaging 38.8 three-point attempts per 100 possessions, an increase of more than 50 percent over last season, when they attempted the sixth-fewest in the NBA.
3. One area in which the Sixers have made significant improvement is turnovers. In five games, they are averaging 12.4 turnovers per 100 possessions, 10th-best in the NBA after a season in which their 16.4 per 100 possessions were the most in the league.
4. In terms of grading, it will be difficult to give the Sixers anything other than an incomplete before we see what Wilson Chandler brings to the rotation. The Sixers have seen significant regression on the defensive end of the court after a year in which they boasted the league's fourth-best unit, holding opponents to 105 points per 100 possessions. This year, that number is up to 110. Chandler should help in that department.
5. It has been a long time since an NBA team had an offense that features a big man the way the Sixers have been featuring Embiid this season. At his current pace, Embiid would become just the third center since 1982 to average 21 shots per game. The other two: Hakeem Olajuwon, who did it twice; and Shaquille O'Neal, who did it once.