Somebody on the NBA’s schedule-making team has a healthy distaste for media narratives. How else to explain the timing of this Saturday’s matchup between the Sixers and the Heat? Rather than granting all of us the time we need and deserve to work ourselves up into a rich, foamy lather about Jimmy Butler’s return to the Wells Fargo Center, the league decided to stick it on the back end of a stretch of three games in four days, with both teams playing the second night of a back-to-back.
One would assume that Brett Brown and Erik Spoelstra will manage the loads of their respective rosters in such a way that will enable them both to be at full strength for the showdown, given what’s at stake. Come April, there’s a realistic chance that the conference standings look similar to the way they do now, with the Heat and Sixers both sitting among the East’s top five teams. In which case, the outcomes of games like Saturday’s would play a significant role in sorting out the seeding of the playoff field. If Butler or Joel Embiid were to sit one out this week, Friday would be the most obvious night, with the Heat visiting the 4-10 Bulls and the Sixers hosting the Western Conference’s 5-9 Spurs. At least, one would hope. This isn’t the sort of game where you want to see Al Horford and Bam Adebayo on the marquee.
Whatever the case, Butler will remain a relevant name around these parts for as long as the Sixers keep struggling to replace him. In case you haven’t been paying attention, that’s exactly what has been happening over the last two or three weeks with this team. Since their 5-0 start to the season, the Sixers have struggled to put the ball in the basket from the perimeter or off the dribble. Turns out, those are helpful skills to have on the court when the goal is to win games. They are also skills that share a complementary relationship with each other -- the better a team is in one department, the more opportunities it gets to succeed in the other.
Twelve games into the season, the Sixers are on the wrong side of that symbiosis. On a per-possession basis, they rank 19th in scoring, 20th in three-point shooting, and 27th in turnovers. Over their last 13 games, they have been outscored by about a half-point per outing, and they’ve failed to eclipse 98 points in three of their last six (it happened just six times all of last season). In short, they’ve looked a lot like the team they were before they decided to reorient their offense around Butler as a primary ballhandler last postseason.
That’s understandable, at least to a certain extent.
“We’re still trying to understand everything that we all need to do," Horford said Tuesday, "how to play with one another.”
Their win over the Cavs on Sunday was just the fourth time this season that the Sixers started and finished a game with their entire starting five intact. They’ve played nine of their 13 games on the road. That 14-point win over the conference-leading Celtics might feel like it was months ago, but you can’t forget that it happened.
Mostly, though, the Sixers have looked like a team in need of the sort of player that they spent two straight seasons attempting to acquire. While history will not look kindly on the decision to trade up for Markelle Fultz, the intervening years have at least served to validate the underlying rationale. The Sixers seemed to have a pretty good sense of the player that Ben Simmons would end up being, and they knew that the best way to maximize such a skill set was to pair him with a guard who could be all of the things that he wasn’t.
Here, the conversation always turns to shooting, for valid reasons. But just as much of the appeal of the player the Sixers envisioned in Fultz was his ability to create off the dribble. As glaring as the Sixers’ shooting woes have been this season, their most concerning deficiency might be their struggle to get to the rim. They rank 21st in the NBA in attempts inside 3 feet and have the league’s 10th-longest average shooting distance. That latter number is particularly emblematic of their struggles given that they are not a three-point-shooting team (their attempt rate from long range ranks 22nd). So, too, is their free-throw rate, which ranks 23rd.
Butler profiled differently from what the Sixers thought they had in Fultz, and there is plenty of reason to doubt whether that sort of player would have fit alongside Simmons in the long term. But that still leaves Brown with a problem to solve: How do you generate space and movement with the personnel at his disposal?
“It needs to be well thought through because it is a challenge," Brown said. “When you get into who your pick-and-roll guys are, there are some decisions to be made. Who are your pin-down guys? ... There’s some discussions there. So, this is exactly my point. I think that this team is built for April and May. I think that it’s certainly built for defense. It’s my job to shape it offensively and put them in positions where they can do well.”
It would certainly help if Simmons could expand his shot repertoire beyond the paint, but it is unreasonable to expect him to transform into a traditional break-'em-down ballhandler. And while Joel Embiid’s decision-making and offensive instincts can improve, the real question is how to generate rhythm around him.
“It’s an interesting team to put together with different skill sets, and that’s my job,” Brown said.
Last year, the answer was put the ball in Butler’s hands. Now, with his return to the Wells Fargo Center looming, Brown’s job looks much harder.