The Philadelphia 76ers avoided their first three-game losing streak of the season Sunday, beating the New York Knicks 108-105.
Ben Simmons led the way for Philadelphia (28-16) with 20 points, 22 rebounds and nine assists, while Joel Embiid (26 points, eight rebounds), JJ Redick (22 points) and Jimmy Butler (16 points, eight rebounds) all had nice games for Philly.
It wasn't always pretty for the Sixers, who blew a 16-point halftime lead and nearly blew another lead late in the game. Emmanuel Mudiay's desperation heave at the buzzer after the Knicks gathered the rebound on a Damyean Dotson missed free throw would have tied the game, though it came up short.
Rookie Kevin Knox continued to show his upside in the loss, leading the way for the Knicks with 31 points, seven rebounds and two steals.
For a Sixers team that came into the contest fresh off losses to the Washington Wizards and Atlanta Hawks, both games they would have expected to win, Sunday's victory was important. And after giving up 123 points in each of those losses, the defensive intensity was ramped up against New York, another positive sign for a Sixers team that has regressed on that side of the floor since a season ago.
The Knicks, meanwhile, have now lost four straight games and 19 of their last 22, tying them for the second-worst record (10-33) in the NBA with the Chicago Bulls.
Ben Simmons' Increased Offensive Aggressiveness is Key for Sixers
A lot of the coverage revolving around the Sixers of late has focused on the team's concerns and the various reasons the team isn't amongst the NBA's elite just yet. There are still more questions in Philadelphia than answers.
Can Embiid, Simmons and Butler coexist? Is Butler's personality going to sour the team's chemistry? Will his preferred style of play (isolation, pick-and-roll scoring) ever fit in Brett Brown's motion offense? Will Simmons ever shoot from the perimeter? Will the team ever improve its atrocious depth? Will the defense become a strength again, like it was last season? What the hell is going on with Markelle Fultz? Will Zhaire Smith play at all this year?
But for all of the questions, one incredibly positive development is that Ben Simmons has ramped up his offensive intensity of late.
No, he isn't shooting threes just yet, but he has started expanding into the midrange, attempting more turnaround jumpers out of the post. While that shot can still look somewhat wonky, his willingness to add that tool to his game is a positive sign.
Simmons often comes out with his shorts on fire only to ramp down the offensive intensity later in games. Lately, however, Simmons has continued to look for his offense throughout.
In seven January games, he's averaging 19.7 PPG and 9.5 APG, above his season averages coming into Sunday of 16.5 PPG and 8.1 APG.
Another positive sign is that the Sixers are running more offense through Simmons in the post, especially when he's on the court without Embiid. Simmons is a brilliant passer, and defenses can't collapse the paint around Simmons like they often do against Embiid since Simmons almost always makes the right pass.
If defenses stay home, Simmons can either lower his shoulder into smaller defenders and bully them down low or use his speed and athleticism to create space on bigger defenders. Surround him with shooters, and it's nearly impossible to defend.
Simmons has always been a danger in transition, using his speed to pressure defenses and his vision to find open shooters for three. But as Simmons becomes more dangerous in the team's half-court offense, he presents another variable for opposing defenses to solve.
Jordan Schultz @Schultz_Report
In the midst of another #Pats’ playoff beatdown, Ben Simmons just amassed an insane 20 points, 22 rebounds and 9 assists - w/only two TOs - all while taking just 13 shots. At 22 years old, Simmons continues to do things on a basketball court that simply defy logic. @sixers #76ers
That also means that Embiid and Butler—two traditionally high-usage players—have to adjust to sometimes playing on the perimeter as spot-up shooters. Whether they are willing to do so continues to be a question mark.
Embiid is always going to be at his best when he's allowed to play bully ball in the post. Butler works well as an iso scorer (though he's more than capable of being effective as an occasional spot-up shooter, despite his recent reluctance to do so). Simmons thrives when he's allowed to quarterback a pace-and-space attack.
Brown's task is making sure each player can play their respective styles while keeping an offensive philosophy and uniformity in place. But the fact Simmons is developing on offense and staying in attack mode throughout the game is still an incredibly positive sign for the Sixers, giving them another angle to attack defenses from as they build toward the postseason.
Time for Knicks to Enter Full Tanking Mode
The Knicks deserve a ton of credit for battling the Sixers every step of the way Sunday after amassing a big deficit in the first half. Even trailing by eight with 20.3 seconds remaining, the Knicks continued to fight, nearly tying the game at the buzzer.
That's a sign of a team that hasn't lost its spirit despite a rough season and an indication David Fizdale is getting his message across and coaching up his team well.
Fizdale shouldn't change his approach. There are young players to develop who could be key pieces for this team going forward, namely the impressive young Knox. Mudiay has been a bright spot and could be a nice piece for the future. Frank Ntilikina and Mitchell Robinson remain works in progress.
But the front office has to look toward the future. The Knicks may be gunning for big free agents this summer and will have the cap space to chase more than one, especially if they move off some salaries. But they also should be accumulating draft assets if possible, and in a lost season, that means trading off some solid players that playoff contenders will have interest in landing.
Tim Hardaway Jr. and his $18.1 million in salary for next season (and $18.9 million 2020-21 player option) should be on the market. The Knicks have done a solid job of continuing the development of players like Trey Burke, Noah Vonleh and Mario Hezonja. None should be untouchable ahead of the deadline.
Granted, the Knicks will want to keep some of these players for next season. It's important to have a solid group of role players around any stars you might sign (or draft). The Knicks may be reticent to give up on younger players like Mudiay (22), Vonleh (23) and Hezonja (23), though all three will be free agents after this season anyway (Mudiay will be restricted).
If teams come calling for these players, in other words, the Knicks should be sellers, especially since they won't be able to retain all of them if they are able to sign a pair of superstars.
To New York's credit, they've made this season about player development, finding some diamonds in the rough, even when it hasn't gone over smoothly with every player in the locker room, as Ian Begley of ESPN.com noted:
"Not all of the Knicks have handled demotions as well. [Enes] Kanter voiced displeasure with his decreased role earlier this month, and other veterans have privately grumbled about their minutes.
"These issues certainly aren't unique to the Knicks, though. They creep in on most teams committed to developing younger players at the expense of winning games.
"'We're still chasing wins, but player development is a huge part of this deal,' Fizdale said."
The other aspect of tanking the season is letting Kristaps Porzingis remain on the sidelines. The Knicks aren't set to update his status until mid-February anyway, and at that point, there's little reason to bring him back for more than a handful of games. Porzingis remains the face of the franchise, and the Knicks can afford to be overly cautious with him this year.
The Knicks are still on Zion Williamson/RJ Barrett watch, after all, and if nothing else, a top-three pick is an asset they could use to add another superstar in a trade. The dream remains Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, or some other combination of stars, joining Porzingis. But Williamson in Madison Square Garden sure would be fun.
The Sixers host the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. ET, while the Knicks next host the Wizards on Thursday at 3 p.m. ET.