Sixers’ road trip will reveal whether they’re rusty or stagnant
Was the team's dud against the Celtics rust or lack of improvement? We'll find out soon enough.
No disrespect to the rebuilding Chicago Bulls and Orlando Magic, but they aren't a barometer for the 76ers. So we won't know if, or how much, the Sixers improved this offseason at least until back-to-back road games against the Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks.
The Sixers (2-1) will visit the Pistons on Tuesday and the Bucks on Wednesday. They should beat the Magic on Saturday night at the Wells Fargo Center on talent alone. That's what they did Thursday night in a 127-108 victory over the Chicago Bulls in their home opener.
No Bulls players who dressed was better than Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and even arguably JJ Redick. The Magic were more competitive in a game that Simmons played only 7 minutes, 41 seconds due to back tightness. The Sixers surprisingly squeaked out a 116-115 victory thanks to a combined 63 points by Embiid (32) and Redick (31).
The Pistons and Bucks present solid tests, although maybe not quite on a level with the one provided Tuesday in a 105-87 loss to the Celtics in Boston to open the season. But the upcoming games will answer a burning questions: Have the Sixers — and, most important, their stars — made any improvements since last summer?
They'll tell you their lackluster performance against the Celtics had a lot to do with rust. The Sixers are also still without their top three offseason acquisitions — Wilson Chandler (strained left hamstring), Mike Muscala (sprained right ankle), and Zhaire Smith (broken left foot) — along with reserve guard Jerryd Bayless (sprained left knee).
The Sixers are high on Chandler and Muscala. They might not have made much of a difference against the Celtics in Boston, where the Sixers didn't have any answers. In fact, they made the same mistakes they often made against elite opponents last season.
We were told that Embiid would refrain from chasing guards on the perimeter this season. We were told that he would play "bully ball" on the other end, rack up fouls on opponents, and reduce his turnovers. We were told that Simmons worked on his foul shooting. We were also told that Markelle Fultz was confident and an improved shooter after working with Drew Hanlen all summer.
But none of those improvements were visible in the season opener against a quality opponent.
Simmons recorded a triple-double against the Bulls and is averaging 16 points, 14 rebounds, and 9.5 assists through two games. And he's been without question one of the NBA's most dominant players through the first week of the season.
However, he made just 5 of 11 foul shots (45.5 percent) against the Celtics and was 3-for-3 against the Bulls.
Weeks ago, the team said Embiid would be stationed close to the basket while the other four players would guard the three-point line. However, Boston was able to take advantage of mismatches with Embiid defending guards on the perimeter after switches.
Embiid shot 9-for-21 — including 1 for 4 from three-point range — en route to finishing with 23 points to go with 10 rebounds against the Celtics. But he had his shot blocked four times and turned the ball over five times.
Embiid was more focused against the Bulls and he dominated on the block. He finished with a team-high 30 points to go with 12 rebounds, four blocks, and just two turnovers. But again, he was 0-for-3 from three-point range, and some of his long-range attempts were untimely.
Early on, Fultz passed up several open looks like he did against Boston. It was obvious that the Bulls didn't respect his ability to make shots from the outside, sagging 14 feet off him. A chunk of his points and shot attempts (six) came in the fourth quarter, after the game was all but decided. It was evident that coach Brett Brown kept him out there as a way to help build his confidence.
But will the coach have enough confidence in Fultz to play him in the fourth quarters of close games against the Pistons and Bucks?
And what about the Sixers' 16 turnovers and 5-for-26 three-point shooting against the Celtics? They looked just like the turnover-prone and sometime poor three-point shooting team of a year ago.
So a lot of questions will be answered in the back-to-back games, after which we will have a better idea if it was rust or lack of improvement.