Three thoughts from the Sixers’ 106-86 win over the Pistons, which moved them to 4-0 on the preseason.
1) Now might be a good time to savor the thought that we have yet to see the best version of Joel Embiid. There were seven minutes left in the second quarter and the fourth-year big man had already scored 18 points, all but six of them coming on a variety of shots from the field. On the Sixers’ third possession, Embiid buried Thon Maker deep underneath the rim, collected a bounce pass from Furkan Korkmaz, took a drop step, and laid in the sort of easy bucket that Brett Brown hopes can come in bunches during the regular season. He was just as deadly when facing up to the basket, hitting four of his six mid-range jumpers, including a trio of pull-ups from 18 feet.
In fact, that mid-range performance might be worth a closer look. While Embiid’s three-point shooting dominates most of the conversation around these parts, Embiid’s mid-range game regressed in a rather significant way last season. He shot just .366 from 10 to 16 feet in 2018-19, down from .431 the season before. Likewise, his shooting percentage dropped from .420 to .352 on twos from 16+ feet. While neither of those distances are the bread and butter of his game, they accounted for nearly a quarter of his shots in 2018-19. So even a modest improvement from that distance would pay huge dividends, especially if combined with a renewed dedication to the low post.
The big caveat, of course, is that Embiid was facing Thon Maker, who was physically overwhelmed, regardless of spot or situation. Still, Embiid’s first half performance was a reminder that, as impactful as he has been over the first three years of his career, we have yet to see him put it all together for an entire season. Listening to the Sixers talk, there’s plenty of reason to wonder whether this might finally be the year. Brown has spoken positively about Embiid’s conditioning since the start of training, including his media session prior to Tuesday night’s game.
Embiid’s final line: 22 minutes, 28 points, eight rebounds, one block, 8-for-18 from the field.
2) We saw two different types of backup point guards in Josh Richardson and Trey Burke, with Richardson growing into the role as the game progressed and Burke looking like the shifty offensive sparkplug that he has long been. Brown and his coaching staff are still very much in information-gathering mode, so it made plenty of sense to use Ben Simmons’ night off as an opportunity to get an extended look at Richardson in that role. Brown said he was intrigued by what he’d seen out of Richardson with the ball in his hands in previous circumstances and wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to experiment.
The verdict all depends on your expectations.
From the standpoint of a pure point guard, Richardson looked perfectly capable of getting the ball safely up the court and making the first pass of the offense, but there wasn’t much about the offense that sizzled during his opening shift of about nine minutes. It was an isolation-heavy half court attack throughout the first quarter featuring equal parts Richardson, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid, the latter of whom was the overwhelming reason the Sixers held a 24-21 lead at the end of Richardson’s first shift.
Contrast that with Burke, who checked in for Richardson late in the first quarter and took charge of a half court offense that looked markedly different with him on the court. Early in the second quarter, he had a nifty, weaving dribble drive that caused the defense to collapse. He finished with a scoop layup, but you could see his eyes were everywhere even after he got into the paint. The next time down the court, he beat his man to the left and missed a floater that an unchecked Embiid easily tapped in for the finish.
That being said, Richardson and the Sixers’ offense looked much more comfortable in the second half, and you can see why Brown would love to use him in that role. There were a few moments where he flashed as a creator, including a nice look off a dribble hesitation to a back-cutting Mike Scott that should have gone for a layup late in the third quarter. There were plenty of occasions in which you saw his potential as a scoring option in the mold of Jimmy Butler in the postseason.
“In general, I’m excited to continue to look at him as a back-up point guard,” Brown said.
From a style standpoint, there was a clear contrast between Richardson and Burke, who played with a nice rhythm throughout his 15 minutes of action. Just before the end of the third quarter, he got to the basket, missed a layup, ended up with the loose ball, and then drove again, finishing this time for his third bucket of the game. He definitely looked like a player you could envision coming off the bench for a nice change of pace for a shift or two a game. At the same time, Richardson’s length and athleticism on both sides of the ball would maintain a unique dynamic at the position whenever Simmons heads to the sidelines.
3) Even without Simmons and Horford, you saw the Sixers’ length on display throughout the game. In the starters’ first shift, there did not appear to be a Pistons shot that wasn’t contested, with Detroit missing six of their first seven non-transition shots. It’s pretty clear that opponents are going to be shooting through a thicket of arms this season. In the second quarter, the second unit forced a five second call on a Pistons inbounds. A few minutes later, they forced Tony Snell to force up an ugly pull up from the top of the arc with the shot block running down.
4) The Sixers missed 16 of their first 21 shots from three-point range, with the three projected starters combining to go 2-for-11. The shooting is going to be one of those things that will be very interesting to watch early in the season.