Before we bite into the meat of the discussion, let’s start with a few important pieces of context. It has been nearly two decades since the Sixers entered the All-Star break in as positive a position as the one they currently enjoy. Their 37 wins are the most through 58 games since 2000-01, which also happens to be the last time they advanced to the NBA Finals. They are five games ahead of where they were at this point last year.
The Sixers are a good basketball team, one of maybe six teams with a legitimate shot at competing in this year’s NBA Finals. Every question that currently confronts this team concerns its ability to eventually emerge from that pack. As Elton Brand and Brett Brown have said on numerous occasions, the timeline has shifted for this team. The goals have changed. No longer are expectations limited to a playoff berth. The hope is that these Sixers are championship worthy.
So that’s the context that surrounds the question of whether or not this Sixers team will be able to find itself defensively between now and the playoffs.
Even in Wednesday night’s 126-111 win over the Knicks, there were some concerning moments. Throughout the game, the Knicks’ rag-tag collection of perimeter players put far too much pressure on the Sixers for a team that entered the night 10-47. Rookie guard Alonzo Trier finished with 19 points on 5-of-9 shooting at a +9 in 27 minutes off the bench, while reserve point guard Kadeem Allen scored 13 on 5-of-11 shooting.
Therein lies the biggest problem that Brett Brown needs to solve. With JJ Redick, T.J. McConnell, and Furkan Korkmaz, he has a trio of backcourt options that all have significant limitations on defense. The addition of James Ennis and Jonathon Simmons gives the Sixers a couple of more options, but the overarching reality is that they simply do not have the sort of portfolio two-way guards and wings that might allow Brown to mix-and-match the way Boston does with Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Heyward.
It’s a problem even when Joel Embiid is on the court, as Boston showed on Tuesday, when it routinely used Smart to attack Redick. When Embiid is on the bench, that problem is only magnified.
Early indications are that gargantuan Serbian Boban Marjonovic will enjoy the same cult-hero status in Philadelphia as he has in previous stops. Against the Celtics on Tuesday, he received a standing ovation after making a one-handed, flat-footed rebound over Daniel Theis on the defensive end of the court and then drawing a foul at the opposite rim. That night, in a three-point loss, the Sixers were only outscored by two points when Marjonovic was on the court. On Wednesday, against the Knicks, he finished at +6 in nearly 14 minutes. On the flip side, he was -9 in a combined 28 minutes against the Nuggets and Lakers, games that the Sixers won by a combined 30.
From a pragmatic standpoint, the inclusion of Marjonovic in the trade that brought Tobias Harris to the Sixers can’t help but make them better. In their first two losses to the Celtics this season, the Sixers were outscored by 19 points in the 19 minutes that Embiid was not on the court. Conversely, they were -6 in the 77 minutes that he was protecting the rim, while Mike Muscala and Amir Johnson were a combined -21.
But while the Sixers might be better positioned to survive Embiid’s stints on the bench, what remains to be seen is if they are good enough.
Whenever Marjonovic checked into the game against the Celtics, Boston coach Brad Stevens responded by pulling Theis off the bench. The Sixers were largely able to weather those small lineups. But, keep in mind, Boston was playing without back-up five man Aron Baynes, whose 7-of-16 shooting performance from behind the arc was a significant factor in the Sixers’ loss last postseason.
The liabilities created by Marjonovic’s lumbering speed, have been evident on plenty of occasions during his first four games with the team. This has prompted some calls from fans for Brown make use of rookie Jonah Bolden, who has not gotten into a game since last week’s trade after averaging 15.6 minutes per night in 19 games between Dec. 22 and Feb. 5.
But those calls ignore the fact that the results have not been great with Bolden at the five this season. In 61 minutes as the primary big, opponents have posted a 115.5 offensive rating with a .550 effective field-goal percentage. Neither of those marks are ideal. Conversely, when Bolden has been paired with either Embiid or recently-traded big man Mike Muscala, the Sixers have posted a defensive rating of 88.1 while limiting opponents to an effective field goal percentage of .427.
“I feel that I need to learn — we need to learn," Brown said. "We want the regular season to do that. With Boban, I want to give him the chance more than go away from him, than not.”
No team in franchise history has scored more points through 58 games than 6,723 that the Sixers have scored this season. That’s nearly 500 more points than they’d scored through the same number of games last season. But along with that improvement has come some regression on the defensive end. It’s a balance the Sixers will need to better strike if they hope to finally be able to consistently beat a team like Boston or Toronto.
They have a couple of months to figure it out.