Sunday, December 31, 2017

Riflery and the Process

When I was a kid, I was a pretty good shot.  My day camp had riflery, and I shot .22's, pretty well, too.  I remember the range master and how he ran the range.  You were given a rifle, and the first round was for practice.  Correcting for bad sighting was easy if, for example, your first five shots ended up in the upper right hand quadrant of the target.  He'd tell you to adjust your sight two clicks to the left and two clicks down.  Then, when you shot your next round, presumably you would place your bullets in the area of the bulls eye (which actually happened much more often than not).

Contrast that with the shooter who misses the target or places shots in each quadrant.  That shooter is so inconsistent he probably is not controlling his breathing, is jerking the trigger and has no idea whether he will hit the target or not.  The problem is so bad if so fundamental that it is hard to correct.  You need to tell the shooter to control his breathing, but not to stop it, and not to jerk the trigger, etc., etc., etc.  The point being that it is much harder to correct this problem because the problems are manifested all over the place.

And that leads me to the Philadelphia 76ers.  The good news, if you can call it that, is that the team's problems are consistent, analogously in the same quadrant.  They are the following:  1) Ben Simmons right now is either unable or unwilling to shoot the ball enough and well enough to take over a game, for all of the hype behind him; 2) the team has a penchant for blowing big leads in the second half; 3) the team turns the ball over too much; 4) the team has too many one-dimensional guards and cannot guard another team's star guard; and 5) it still does not know whether for all the money they are paying him they can have a healthy and in-shape Joel Embiid on the floor for 75 games a season.

The bad news, if we go back to the rifle range analogy, is that the range master could be dealing with a shooter with an out-of-date gun or bad eyes, as the problems the team is dealing with, while fixable, are pronounced, especially for a team that is in year 5 or so of "The Process."  Problem #6, if there is one, is that there have been a lot of misses in the draft, for all of Sam Hinkie's stockpiling of draft picks (and, to his credit, Hinkie warned that not every move would work).  Michael Carter-Williams was a miss, as were Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor, the latter somewhat glaring because the league has almost totally morphed away from needing the type of player Okafor is, which is a throwback to the days where you couldn't win without a center who could dominate in the low post.  And it is hard to say right now what the team has in Simmons, who admittedly missed a season in his formative years and has shown signs of brilliance, and this year's first overall pick, Markell Fultz, whose grade must be an incomplete.

So, how to fix things?  As for #1, Simmons needs to spend the summer working on his jump shot.   His 103 or so touches a game, which the last time I looked were 20 more than the next guy, seem excessive when you consider his overall production.  Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, and Russell Westbrook he is not.  To me, the more touches a player has, the easier it can be to defend his team.  So, patience has to be the watch word.  As for #2, part of that is personnel, part of that is leadership and part of that is coaching.  Robert Covington and Embiid are defensive stoppers; the team has no such stopper at guard and seems to present an opportunity for an opposing guard -- the other night it was Shabazz Napier because the Trail Blazers were without Damian Lilliard -- to show his stuff.  But given that this is a persistent problem, coach Brett Brown, for all of his positivity, has to be held accountable too, as does the front office.   If for no other reason, get a guard who can come off the bench and given  you 15-20 minutes a night of the type of pain-in-the-neck defense that helps define a winning team.  That could help the team prevent some awful skids in the second half.

As for #3,  that's a hard one, but it seems like there are certain players for whom this problem persists -- Embiid, perhaps because he is not in optimal shape or because he has yet to fully realize that backing in and putting the ball on the floor can be problematic and shooting guard J.J. Redick, who the team signed to a one-year, $23 million deal to shoot better than he has, turn the ball over less and defend better than he has.  Again, this has to be a matter of concentration and having the players become more familiar with one another more than anything else.  Coaching figures into this too -- there just are too many mistakes for a team that should make the playoffs but right now does not look like it is going to.

#4 seems like one of the biggest problems.  The guard corps simply does not defend well.  That's why the team drafted Fultz, a comprehensive guard whom they hope can bring the mojo the way the elite guards in the league do.  Teams salivated over him, and it seemed clear from mid-season last season that he was the consensus #1 pick.  But he has missed a lot of time, and other guards in the draft (think Donovan Mitchell) have distinguished themselves, as has Celtics' forward Jayson Tatum, who can flat-out shoot the lights out.  So, the pressure mounts, and given some of the things that manifested themselves when the team shelved Fultz only a few games into the season, you have to wonder what is ailing him.  This ownership group is notoriously non-transparent about player issues, so is it just Fultz's shoulder or did his machinations in trying to play in pain create a hitch in his shot that the team has struggled to correct?  Many questions are out there, but presumably if the team were to get the Fultz that they thought they drafted, they would have an outstanding piece who could help cure some of their core woes -- well-rounded back court play.

As for #6, the team cannot afford the magnitude of mistakes it has made with its top draft picks.  As they go forward, they need to find the right pieces to fit in with some potential superstars.  The future still has a bright tint to it, but now that the misses seem to be consistent and falling into a pattern, they should be easier to correct.  Each and every one of them presents a unique problem.  Fixable?  Sure, but the fixes for some require some depth and consideration in approach and do not suggest that they can be quick.  Are they possibly quick enough to turn around this downturn and enable the team to make the playoffs?  Perhaps yes, perhaps not.

The Process has hit a bump in the road.  The team is not as good as people thought it could be at the season's outset or when the team when on a good run in the early fall.  That said, it is not as bad as its recent play has suggested and the schedule seems to get easier in the second half.  Optimists suggest that the process still has a way to go and that fans should be patient.  Right now, that is all that they can be; they have no choice.

Should the team go on a run, Simmons assert himself more, Fultz become healthy, Embiid stay healthy and the team go on a roll, all will be rosy, the team will make the playoffs and things will be looking up.  And the team might have another key draft pick and will have the most money to spend on free agents, who, presumably, will be willing to come to Philadelphia and help forge a squad that can make a deep run in the playoffs.

Should Embiid's back continue to balk and he miss games, Fultz look more like Carter-Williams and less like a potential Harden or Westbrook or Irving, the team continue to blow leads and the team spiral into a sub-.500 season, perhaps significantly so, then the picture will be different.  Will the fans -- who clearly bought into the hype -- return to the level they upped for season-ticket packages this year?  Will Simmons and Fultz project out to be more than starters, even if pretty good ones?  (The team needs stars, absolute stars -- to contend for at title).  And will Embiid end up on the list of big men who could have been something and could have contributed heavily to a contender but for persistent maladies?  That is the nightmare scenario.

The stakes are higher.  The pressure is greater.  The shine is off.  Potential means, as Michigan State football coach Duffy Daugherty once said, "that you ain't done it yet."  The clock keeps on ticking; other teams do not stand still.  With each game, the scrutiny intensifies, the patience diminishes.  The Process once was cool, funky, mysterious, intriguing, in vogue.  Right now, it is a bit like yesterday's fashion hit, the car of the year a couple of years back.  Still cool, but neither the latest nor the greatest.

The fans are waiting for it to break out, to yield the harvest that was predicted for it, even if those doing the predicting were those doing the hyping in order to create some magic beyond the fellows who do amazing things with drums during timeout at the Wells Fargo Center.  The place is festive, and there are moments of brilliance.  But that's all they are -- moments.  Not win streaks, not seasons, not eras.  Moments.  The fans like the moments, to be sure.  But they are waiting for what was promised -- the momentous and, ultimately, monuments to those who win championships.

Moments help sell tickets for a season.

The momentous lasts forever.

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