By Connor Thomas
It has been a bad stretch for the Sixers over the past couple days, and it appears that the James Harden honeymoon phase is officially over. Since starting his Sixers career 4-0 (with a loss in a game that he did not play), Harden and company have now dropped 2 of their last 4 games, both in brutal fashion. Both losses came on the national stage, and both may have done their part in revealing a fatal flaw in this year’s Sixers roster. The first of the two crippling losses was in Ben Simmons’ return to the Wells Fargo Center, as the Brooklyn Nets embarrassed the Sixers to the tune of a 129-100 victory. There were two things from that game that stood out in what was an all-around terrible performance: the perimeter and transition defense were absolutely non-existent from start to finish, and the ball movement on offense was not remotely good enough. Those are a couple issues that are absolutely worthy of setting off alarms for Sixers fans, but are they enough to be fatal? Well, not in a vacuum, but the combination of deficiencies that Philly has shown recently might just be enough.
Last night was another example. The much anticipated matchup between Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic started well for the Sixers, but their lack of bench help and role player performance allowed the Nuggets to make a 19 point comeback to knock off the Sixers at home. There were a lot of problems in the 2nd half of the game, mainly with a lack of scoring off the bench, but those same trends from the Brooklyn game were evident against Denver. Doc Rivers acknowledged as much postgame, taking fault for a lack of ball movement on the offensive side of the floor and saying that transition defense was a crushing deficiency for the Sixers as well. He should’ve taken credit for even more, as another huge home lead dissipated, now a hallmark of the Rivers tenure here in Philly. These aren’t new problems; if these sound like lamentations similar to what you heard at the end of last year’s Hawks series that ended the Sixers season, then you’ve got a great memory. These are the reasons that the Sixers went home last year, and they look to be the reasons why they could face the same fate once again. This isn’t just a one off game, and it isn’t an overreaction to be losing significant faith in this roster right now.
Speaking of the roster, how can the Sixers possibly remedy their issues? Well, they can’t. There is no changing this roster anymore. The veteran buyout market has closed, and for the 2nd straight year, Daryl Morey failed to make a splashy addition. He deserves credit for the James Harden trade, but also blame for what this bench unit currently looks like. Danny Green looks lost at points, Furkan Korkmaz has become unplayable, Shake Milton is not a playoff caliber bench option, DeAndre Jordan is a big body, but is not the player he was in his younger years. The best option appeared to be Georges Niang, but he showed last night just why there should be significant concern about him as well. With the game clock winding down, and the Sixers trailing by 3, the ball found Niang in the corner for the game-tying shot. With James Harden and Joel Embiid on the floor, that is a near impossible strategy to wrap your head around. But it got worse. Niang then shot a ball that went off the corner of the backboard, and followed it up with a rebound and a short floater that would not have tied the game. It was a perfect example of why one of your superstars needs the ball in their hands, and how big the drop off is between them and even the top bench player on this team.
It’s not fair to call the Sixers season over. I understand that this is what the term “fatal flaw” implies. However it is also fair to be significantly worried about Joel Embiid and company’s potential to actually win it all. They went all in by trading for James Harden, and after just about two weeks’ worth of games, that gamble is not looking safe by any means. Things could certainly turn around, but it won’t come by roster additions. The only way the Sixers can pull out of this downward spiral is by working with the guys and coaches currently in the building and overcoming what appear to be fatal flaws if they continue. Do they have the ability to? Well, most championship teams in the NBA are not the ones that overcome flaws of this magnitude. They are the teams that address these immediately and build a roster that fixes, or at least covers, those problems. To this point, the Sixers have not proven that they can do that. The panic button should be close to being pressed for Philly, because if things don’t change, it could be a much shorter postseason than what we imagined it would be.