The funny thing about being one of the NBA’s best teams is that it is easy to fool yourself into thinking that you are better than you are. There’s an old maxim that says a tennis player should never take the court against an inferior player. For most of us, that’s probably not the most relevant bit advice, since, in most situations, we are the inferior player. For the Sixers, though, it’s a very real aspect of their current condition.
The structure of the league is such that a team that exists among the top 20 percent in terms of talent can go weeks without facing an opponent that offers a legitimate test. The measuring sticks present themselves so infrequently that the lessons gleaned from one can fade from the memory by the time the next arrives. The result is a regular-season schedule that serves mostly to reinforce a team’s preexisting knowledge of its own strengths, interspersed with a handful of games that can actually reveal some actionable intelligence on said team’s true identity.
There’s an argument to be made, then, that losses like the one the Sixers suffered to the Nets on Wednesday night can actually serve as a furtherance to the greater good. Any time an opposing player drops 39 points in 30 minutes on 11-of-18 shooting, there’s an opportunity for a learning experience, and that’s doubly true when the player in question is Spencer Dinwiddie.
I do not say that to besmirch Dinwiddie’s talent. At 25, the fifth-year guard is in the midst of a season that should earn him a considerable chunk of cash on the free-agent market this summer. In fact, it wouldn’t be the most berserk line of reasoning to think the Sixers could be one of the teams vying for his services. After scoring 39 against the Sixers in the Nets' 127-124 win, Dinwiddie ranks among the top 15 percent of NBA players in scoring on a per-possession basis, his 28.9 points per 100 possessions ranking 37th among those who have played at least 400 minutes. Coincidentally, that’s the same mark that Jimmy Butler has posted this season, and Dinwiddie has done it even more efficiently, with a .555 effective field-goal percentage. In layman’s terms, that means Dinwiddie is averaging 1.10 points per shot attempt (Butler is averaging 1.06), to go with 8.4 assists-per-100 and a .368 shooting percentage from three-point range. Plug that sort of player into the Sixers' rotation and all sorts of possibilities arrive.
For the rest of this season, though, the Sixers' chief concern is getting themselves to a point where they are something better than spectators when someone like Dinwiddie is in the opposing back court. This is not a new concern, but Wednesday’s loss laid it as bare as it has been since Kemba Walker went off for 60 down in Charlotte a few weeks ago. There were plenty of mitigating circumstances this time around, starting with the absence of Jimmy Butler, who spent the night in a blazer and jeans while recovering from a groin strain that he suffered against the Pistons on Monday. Collectively, and from a long-term view, the Nets were not the most talented basketball team on the court at the Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday. But they also were not the team with Furkan Korkmaz, T.J. McConnell and Landry Shamet combining to play 84 of their 240 minutes. With Mike Muscala also sidelined, this due to a respiratory infection, Ben Simmons was forced to play bigger, and that further impacted the Sixers ability to contend with the Nets on the perimeter.
“I think it’s just communication on our end,” Simmons said. “I think we just need to communicate more when we play this team, same thing every time we play them.”
Mitigating as they were, these circumstances served as a lesson in themselves. While the addition of Butler has made the Sixers a better version of the team they will need to be to improve their postseason fate, the simple math of the trade has made their rotation thinner overall. Not only did they trade two starters to get back one, one of the starters that they traded was previously their best defender, limiting the net impact that the addition of an all-league defender like Butler would otherwise have had.
Had Butler been healthy, the matchup with the Nets would have been a good chance to evaluate how the Sixers' defense had progressed since his acquisition. Seven games earlier, Dinwiddie and D’Angelo Russell combined for 69 points on 27-of-43 shooting in a game in Brooklyn that required Butler to hit a last-second three-pointer to pull out a Sixers win. Since that night, the Sixers had been a different defensive team, holding opponents to an average of 101.7 points per game in the six games heading into Wednesday night.
Maybe things would have been different with a healthy lineup. As it was, the Sixers still looked like a team that is going to need significant improvement if it hopes to match up with either Boston or Toronto in a seven-game playoff series. It seems like nearly a given that they will look to outside sources for some of that improvement. That could come in the form of a three-and-D wing, or, perhaps, a back-up center capable of protecting the rim when Joel Embiid is on the bench (the Sixers were outscored by 10 points in the eight minutes that Amir Johnson was on the court against the Nets, while Embiid finished at +7).
Until then, the situation remains much as it did last postseason, when Terry Rozier’s ability to penetrate and create played a decisive role in their playoff loss to the Celtics.
As good as this Sixers' team is, they have a glaring flaw. Embiid put it best on Wednesday night.
“We seem to make every guard look like a freaking Hall of Famer,” the big man said.
This was just the latest reminder.