The Philadelphia 76ers are thriving, the team is contending and the franchise is likely to boast three All-Stars for the first time since 1987 when the Sixers were represented by Charles Barkley, Maurice Cheeks and Julius Erving.
The faithful fans of the process era have every reason to be optimistic, and yet, the franchise is hounded by the storm clouds of social media. Cynicism reigns and a deep-rooted fear of the darkest timeline clouds the current success.
Philadelphia is now eight weeks into the Jimmy Butler era. The process has evolved through the Tomball, Texas product and is better for it. Since Butler's arrival, the 76ers are 17-8 and have the league's seventh best net rating (+3.7).
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It's befuddling - all surface indicators point towards a premium roster - but the masses are unable to revel in the relative greatness because of the uncertainty of how the trio fits or might fit on a grander scale. Does the talent of the Sixers big three out weigh the pitfalls of their shortcomings is a valid question but also one that shouldn't need to be answered eight weeks into the trial.
Ben Simmons is the piece most scrutinized, the player most pointed to as the linch pin responsible for this team going from good to great. Head coach Brett Brown has said as much:
Brett Brown on Ben Simmons shooting jumpers:- Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) January 3, 2019
"It's always been an emphasis. It's always been on him. We have felt like this would come on his terms ... It's always recognized that we will not go any place that we need to get to without him doing it."
Right now, Simmons simply doesn't look to shoot jumpers. It's no secret. He doesn't want to shoot, that too is no secret - a reality Brad Stevens and the Boston Celtics exploited en-route to the playoff sendoff last season. However, with the Achilles heel noted, Simmons' propensity to mirror the Lion of Oz is overstated. He's averaging 16.3 PPG, shooting nearly 58 percent from the floor.
There are worse things than not shooting from range. But little-by-little, Simmons is feeling out his flaws and he's doing so while dominating in other ways.
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Believe it or not, the Sixers still shoot better from 3-point range when Simmons is on the floor. It's a marginal difference and teams are playing off him more than they did his rookie season, but his ability as a playmaker is still a factor in the spacing. Simmons is fifth in potential assists a game (15), and fifth in assists to 3-point shooters a game (3.58).
More than Simmons' own lack of shooting, the Sixers just lack spacing. The departed Robert Covington and Dario Saric were each taking over five catch and shoot attempts a game and their absence has been felt.
In the coming years, Elton Brand and the Sixers brass will have to plug shooters in every corner of the lineup around their super-trio, but Simmons may one day ease the deficiency if he finds his feet as a shooter. It's a transition that has started but will have speed bumps and should not be treated as a crime against humanity.
Joel Embiid's health is always going to be a worry but in terms of his on-court production, there's little to criticize. He's been a plus-player at both ends and he's getting to the line at a ridiculous rate. A legitimate case for him to be in the MVP running is at hand.
Joel Embiid is close to officially averaging 10 free throws per game. He would be just the fourth center since 1998 to do so.- Justin Jett (@JustinJett_) January 3, 2019
Butler is a pending free agent and his shooting has been a point of contention for years, but over his last three seasons, Butler is shooting just a touch over 36 percent from deep. Not yet a strength, it's no longer a weakness. Butler's competitive spirit, tenacious defense and aggressive style with the game on the line have been an asset even if his fit has been messy to this point.
So far, the trio have a shared net rating of +4.2 when occupying the floor together.
As for Butler and Embiid without Simmons? +20.8. What about Butler and Simmons without Embiid? +5.4. And Embiid and Simmons without Butler? +23.4
At first glance, it stands to reason with Simmons offering nothing individually as a floor spacer and Butler being an on-ball wing, they might cannibalize each other's value some. As noted earlier, the sample size is small, but the talent may very well exceed the fit.
Looking back over the last 12 years of public data, I compiled a list of teams to boast a trio of All-Stars and how their relative net ratings compare to the current Sixers.
The talent level varies, trio-to-trio, team-to-team, but the Sixers grouping sits comfortably at the bottom.
Going forward, it'll be worth watching the metrics and body language of the Sixers big three. Butler, Embiid and Simmons don't have to be best friends - we've seen stars succeed without those ties - but in an NBA where relationships sculpt landscapes, camaraderie may never be more valuable.
Perhaps the Philly big three will never fit like a glove, a group that may offer more value staggered than they do in unison, but the ceiling is not yet in view. While the numbers above may come off as discouraging, that's a select list and an excess of star talent is a problem many franchises would gladly inherit.
The Sixers should encourage Simmons to keep plugging away on the shot but either way, stars win series. If Simmons becomes a floor-spacer over the next couple years, he catapults into the absolute elite. If he falls short of that goal, the Sixers still have three top 25 players to help shape the future.
The darkest timeline is still a promising vision.
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