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McCaffery: Strong Sixers start somewhat conceals concerns about the bench

PHILADELPHIA — The first time Nick Nurse asked for a 20-game run-up to any pointed critique of his 76ers, it was a reasonable, standard preseason request.

The second time, it was curious.

Was he sensing something?

While due credit for honoring the spirit of his initial request, the Sixers were 10-3 when Nurse asked again for the 20-game accommodation, passing on a bonus opportunity to perform a little early-season victory soft-shoe. The Sixers were hot, defending well on the perimeter and at the rim and moving more smoothly without the human offensive bottleneck that is James Harden. Looking good, they were.

Still, Nurse hedged.

“We’ve learned a lot about our team,” he said. “I think we’ve played a pretty good variety of teams. But I think we are going to see some different opponents and things coming up. So after 20 games, we will see if our stats hold up.”

So he was seeing something – and then, he would see more. That night, the Sixers would fall in overtime at home to the Cleveland Cavaliers, who would be without Donovan Mitchell and Caris LeVert. The next night, Joel Embiid didn’t play – so much for that nonsensical buzz that he was motivated to make 82 starts this season – and they lost by 13 on the road in Minnesota. With that, they had lost four of six, including a home game to the Celtics, who were without Jaylen Brown and Kristaps Porzingis.

None of that is a catastrophe – though it did conspire to bounce the Sixers from the money round of the in-season tournament, costing each player up half-a-mil apiece. But after that quick 8-1 start and the corresponding feel-goods, a predictable issue has begun to become a problem.

That bench.

What in the world is that all about?

In the 53-minute Cleveland game, on a night when both teams played with higher-than-usual-November fury in the in-season tournament spirit, the Sixers received six field goals and 16 total points from their reserves. That rose to 30 in the Minnesota game, but only because Nurse was willing to give more players more minutes on the second night of a back-to-back.

As they headed to Oklahoma City for a Saturday game, the Sixers were last in the NBA in bench offense, with an average of 21.7 points per game. That Boston was next-to-last did suggest that the stronger a starting lineup, the less likely a team is to require reserve scoring. But through 82 games, there will be injuries and managed loads and other reasons to require bench oomph – yet there is Nurse, stuck with half-a-G-League roster.

One reason for that is because Kelly Oubre is out with ribs broken in a reported hit-and-run accident, nudging the Sixers’ most valuable reserve – De’Anthony Melton – up to the starting five. But where is Nurse supposed to go from there? There’s Paul Reed, who can score a little whenever Embiid is resting. Danuel House Jr. appears to have some game, but he’s on his second Sixers coach who hasn’t been real quick to give him lengthy shifts. Then what? The Sixers like to tout Patrick Beverley’s understated values on and off the court, but stated values are consequential in the NBA too, and he can’t score. Robert Covington is not even what he was during the process tour. Marcus Morris is too old. Mo Bamba can not play. Furkan Korkmaz has missed too many chances to graduate from roster-filler to meaningful piece. Jaden Springer will never rise to his first-round-pick pedigree.

With Embiid dominant, Tyrese Maxey about to be an All-Star and Tobias Harris consistently supplying beautiful, fundamental basketball laced with contract-year jump, the Sixers can beat anyone. But with no support from the bench, the starters will be exhausted by Groundhog Day, the team that hasn’t won a championship since 1983 should pardon the expression. And Nurse has to know he is one unfortunate injury away from a flirtation with the draft lottery.

Fortunately for the Sixers, there are some escape routes. Zach LaVine has begun to wiggle his way out of Chicago, and there was a reason Daryl Morey brought back so many draft choices in the Harden yard sale. It’s almost certain he will move some of those and more for a high-scoring starter, if not LaVine, then someone else. That, with the anticipated return soon of Oubre, would add both Melton and Nicolas Batum to the bench. If Morey can pick up a veteran backup point guard at the deadline – and he must – then a bench that also includes Reed, Batum, Melton and House should begin to show value.

“You start kind of forming your identity and learning who we are,” Nurse said. “Then you start fixing some of the things you want to improve.”

That must begin with the bench. If not, a chance at a satisfying season will pass before that next 20-game checkpoint.

Contact Jack McCaffery at




Source: Berkshire mont

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