We’ve got a wonderful guest joining us for this installment of Five Questions to help preview Sixers-Grizzlies. Jackson Frank has become one of the great writers on the NBA, putting out work for Basketball News and Dime that is consistently excellent. Fortunately for us at SB Nation, he also works as part of the wonderful Liberty Ballers staff. He was kind enough to answer five of my questions regarding the current state of the Sixers and tonight’s contest with the Memphis Grizzlies.
1. Philly has had a lot of drama to deal with so far this season - how has it impacted the on the court product without Ben Simmons?
This team opened the year 8-2 and were rolling early before a wave of injuries and COVID cases buried them for a while. But since then, and in general, they’ve really missed Simmons’ defense, rebounding and transition playmaking. This team rarely runs, often struggles to defend at the point of attack and is routinely crushed on the glass. Simmons’ absence has opened the half-court offense for stretches and the defense has looked much better since Joel Embiid returned a couple weeks ago, but there are still clear areas Simmons is missed.
2. Joel Embiid remains awesome - but he seems to have really taken his off the dribble game to the next level. How has he gotten even better?
Embiid got off to a slow start as a scorer but has largely been excellent since returning from a three-week bout with COVID. His pull-up game took a huge step forward last season because of improvements with his footwork and handle, and garnering more touches in the middle of the floor rather than the mid-post. He hasn’t been as prolific in that regard as last season, but all of those factors continue to shine through when the pull-up is firing for him.
3. What players have stepped up most in the absence of Ben Simmons? How has Tobias Harris’ game changed without Ben?
Despite a recent lull, Tyrese Maxey is the obvious answer, averaging 16.4 points (8.0 last year) and improving his true shooting from 53.1 to 55.8 percent. Seth Curry has also helped carry the load, averaging a career-high 16 points on 63.4 percent true shooting. New additions like Georges Niang and Andre Drummond have also been quite good in their reserve roles.
Truthfully, Tobias Harris hasn’t altered his game much and has not been as good as he was last season. Harris can be a frustrating player on both ends and while issues persist, he’s still helped the Sixers, just not in some radically different way than prior years.
4. The Grizzlies are currently going through some injury issues. What currently active player scares you most going in to tonight’s game?
It’s gotta be Desmond Bane, I think. The Sixers lack a great off-ball chaser defensively in the starting lineup (unless Matisse Thybulle starts, which hurts the offensive flow considerably) and Bane is an excellent off-ball mover. He’s also clearly taken a leap in his on-ball ability and the Sixers lack depth on the wing. Bane is the guy who could really exploit some key weaknesses of this Philly defense.
5. For Philly to win this game, what must they do? And if they lose, what almost certainly will be part of the reason?
Philly has to find consistent offense outside of Joel Embiid and Seth Curry. Memphis has the top-ranked defense during its 7-1 stretch and over that span, Philly has the 25th-ranked offense. The Sixers have lacked dynamism and creativity, and are incredibly reliant on those two. Somebody else will need to step up, whether it’s Maxey getting back on track, Danny Green getting hot from deep or Harris regaining his 2020-21 form. If they don’t, a loss might be in the cards, unless Curry or Embiid go supernova, which is certainly possible.