Cooney: Sixers must address lack of outside shot

APTOPIX Hawks 76ers Basketball
Sixers' Joel Embiid blocks a shot by Hawks' Dwight Howard on Saturday.

IN SATURDAY'S 32-point loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the 76ers did something pretty well for a bit of the game. Honestly. But it only lent to exposing what the team's biggest weakness is right now.

On multiple possessions, especially in the first half, the ball moved like it was encased in a pinball machine - from side to side, inside out, outside in. And that led to many open shots. And that's where the weakness was exposed.

As much as the play of Joel Embiid has brought a true sense of excitement surrounding the team, it is still blatantly clear that without any consistent shooter lining the perimeter, not much is going to work. It means that defenses will now collapse on the 7-2 rookie, looking to dig the ball away from him as he readies to make post moves. And though it's only two games into the season, if there is not a perimeter threat to knock down shots, Embiid's offensive life is very soon going to become pure hell.

In Saturday's loss, starters Robert Covington (0-for-5), Gerald Henderson (0-for-5) and Dario Saric (2-for-9) combined to make just two baskets. Add to that the combined 3-for-11 performance by subs Nik Stauskas (2-for-7) and Hollis Thompson (1-for-4), two players who will be counted on for some outside threat, and you see a real problem forming.

This isn't a new problem. It is something that has haunted the team throughout this rebuild and wasn't addressed this past offseason. Yes, Jerryd Bayless is waiting in the wings for his sore left wrist to heal and he is a capable shooter. But the need is so much greater than that.

For the first time Saturday, Brett Brown teamed Embiid and Jahlil Okafor on the court at the same time. Although it was for just over two minutes of playing time, it is the most interesting experiment Brown has conducted. But it's going to be difficult to see positive offensive results if the team can't make shots from the outside.

On their first offensive set together, Okafor and Embiid each set a high pick for backup point guard T.J. McConnell. As the point guard made a move, Okafor slipped down to the post while Embiid flashed out to the three-point line at the top of the key. Embiid became wide open because Atlanta did what every team in the league will do against the Sixers - crowded the lane and forced the Sixers to look elsewhere.

So sad is the state of the Sixers' perimeter game that Embiid, who hasn't played in more than two years and is one of the tallest players in the league, is probably the team's biggest outside threat.

And when you see that the team has combined for just 16 fastbreak points in the two games, you understand why the offense has all the fluidity of a frozen river.

"I think when we don't run we're really, really, really easy to guard and I just don't think we're running right now," McConnell said. "As a point guard you want to push the pace and get us to run and we're just not doing that. We'll have to watch film and figure out what we need to do.

"We're not forcing a lot of turnovers so we're not able to get out and get easy buckets. We have to get ready on the defensive end and get some stops. When we're in the halfcourt and stand and watch Joel, we're just so easy to guard. We have to get better pace and better movement when we're in the halfcourt. You can feel it, you can see it. When we get the ball to him and they double him, we just stand and don't help him. We've got to do a better job as a team to move, move without the ball and screen.

"It's early. We're going to make shots. If we can just knock down some shots we'll be in games."

Brown is looking for a balance between getting the ball to Embiid and playing at his desired fast pace. So far, trying to get the ball to Embiid has been the priority. And that also becomes a problem because of the lack of shooting to spread the defense.

"Our pace is just not close to where it's been," Brown said. "We had seven fastbreak points (Saturday) and nine the first game. Trying to have that balance of pace and post is the Holy Grail, and we've got to find that.

"I wished we turned people over more. We need to be more committed to doing that, to running to the rim, to hit your outlets. We've talked about it, we've drilled a lot, we've discussed about the purpose of coming in in career-best fitness, but right now we're not playing with the pace that we need to."

The pace he so desires is an attempt to get some easy baskets. By doing that, it would help mask the team's biggest problem, one that doesn't seem to be getting any better as of now.


cooneyb@phillynews.com

@BobCooney76

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