It was all going too well, I guess.
The Philadelphia 76ers were tenderizing fools to a degree they hadn’t in decades, winners of eight in a row and owners of a 20-6 mark since the beginning of February, the fourth-best record in the league in that span. Only the Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors have outscored opponents by more points per 100 possessions than the irrepressible Sixers, who had risen from the depths of the league’s basement all the way up to the No. 4 spot in the Eastern Conference.
Joel Embiid was still doing all of that, for 30 minutes a night in twice as many games, without falling off. Ben Simmons was the absolute truth. Dario Saric was exactly where he needed to be when he was supposed to without Brett Brown having to ask. And holy [expletive], you guys, MarkelleFultz is back! And maybe he’s just the second-unit drink-stirrer this team needs! Suddenly, the question wasn’t whether the 76ers could give somebody a scare in the playoffs; it was how many of the other top teams in the East really had the horses to scare them.
And then, in an exceptionally cruel twist of fate, Fultz’s haunted shoulder met Embiid’s sainted skull, and while it initially looked like the Sixers had dodged a bullet, we learned Thursday that they hadn’t: orbital fracture, surgery required, concussion protocol, likely two-to-four-week absence.
Joel Embiid update at the hospital pic.twitter.com/eglT8XYlqA
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) March 29, 2018
Agreed, JoJo: not good. Like, aggressively not good. There is no way to spin “we are losing our All-Star center for up to a month when the playoffs start in two weeks” as a positive. There’s no silver lining to being without perhaps the sport’s most dominant low-post scorer and a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate, a player without whom you’re 3-8 on the season, at the most important time of the season. Just about the best you can do to put a brave face on it is say, “Well, at least it wasn’t his feet or his knees or his back.” (Which, in fairness, is pretty lucky, all things considered.)
With Embiid in the lineup this season, the 76ers have scored like a top-four offense, prevented points like the league’s best defense, and outscored opponents at a clip dwarfing even the league-best Rockets. When he’s off the floor, they’ve been outscored by 3.9 points per 100 possessions; the Embiid-less Sixers, over the course of the full season, have been Basically The Knicks. Per Ben Falk’s numbers at Cleaning the Glass, Philly has performed like a 68-win team in Embiid’s minutes, and like a 28-win squad without him. That does not seem like an ideal recipe for a team that’s about to start a playoff series in two weeks!
Within the Joy Division-toned noise of those numbers, though, there are some reasons to be cautiously optimistic that the Sixers might be able to at least stay afloat in Joel’s absence. No. 1 with a bullet: they’ve still got an operational Simmons.
The Aussie has been brilliant throughout his injury-deferred rookie season, and has been even better of late, averaging 14.1 points, 10.6 assists and 8.6 rebounds in 32.3 minutes per game since the All-Star break while shooting a blistering 57.9 percent from the field despite … um … not being able to shoot.
It’s not surprising to learn that Simmons’ production has dipped when he’s played without Embiid. This kind of thing tends to happen when you remove one of the best players in the league from the lineup, allowing defenses to better key in on the remaining talent. But you’d be forgiven for finding cause for concern in Simmons making 60 percent of his field goals with Embiid around and just 49 percent when he’s not.
The gap’s narrowed quite a bit of late, though — Simmons has shot 55.3 percent from the floor in non-Embiid minutes since the break — and we’ve seen examples of Simmons being able to dominate with Embiid out of the lineup:
Having Simmons — a 6-foot-10, 230-pound skeleton key who runs point, muscles in the post and can switch virtually any defensive assignment — can mitigate the pain of losing Embiid, if only because his staggering versatility can unlock options for Brown that other coaches simply wouldn’t have. And while the full-season numbers when Simmons plays without Embiid aren’t pretty — Philly’s been washed by 4.9 points-per-100 in 1,191 such minutes, according to NBAwowy.com’s lineup data — again, that trend has changed of late, with Simmons-led lineups looking much sturdier as the season’s gone on:
Sixers net rating with Simmons on floor without Embiid:
– Oct/Nov: -4.6
– December: -8.9
– January: -4.2
– February: +4.5
– March: +7.2
There is hope of getting by with riding Simmons.
They were getting scary though. +27.8 in 262 minutes with both on floor in March.
— Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13) March 30, 2018
The Sixers actually have a +3.5 net rating in the 312 minutes Embiid has been on the bench in the month of March, compared to a borderline absurd +17.6 net rating when he’s been on the court. Outside of the rest of the team picking up its play, that number is also likely heavily influenced by the Sixers’ easy schedule of late.
Good news, then, that Philly wraps up the season with games against the bottom-feeding Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets and Dallas Mavericks and about-to-be-eliminated squads like the Charlotte Hornets and Detroit Pistons, with only a pair of postseason opponents — an April 6 meeting with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, and a season finale against Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks — standing as real trouble spots between now and the start of the second season.
The biggest question, of course, is just how long the Sixers would be able to stick around in the postseason should Embiid be unable to return by the end of the opening round.
The middle of the East is thickly settled, with only a half-game separating the third-seeded Cavs, fourth-seeded Sixers and fifth-seeded Indiana Pacers. With Embiid, Philly seemed to have a solid shot of overtaking Cleveland for the No. 3 spot and having home-court advantage against whichever team lands sixth (one game separates the Washington Wizards, Miami Heat and Milwaukee Bucks). Without Embiid, even against a friendly closing slate, it’s more possible that Philly drops a line or two on the bracket, putting a young and inexperienced team in the unenviable position of opening a playoff series on the road. (As the great Andrew Unterberger of The 700 Level notes, while a trip to Cleveland to take on the King would obviously not be ideal, traveling to Indiana wouldn’t be a picnic, either.)
It’ll be interesting to see how much Brown wants to reveal over the balance of the regular season about what an Embiid-less postseason scheme might look like. For now, veteran reserve Amir Johnson will step into the starting lineup to provide stability, screen-setting, rebounding, defensive positioning … and, of course, nowhere near the offensive firepower or interior deterrent that Embiid could. Perpetually intriguing No. 3 center Richaun Holmes, who got a longer look after Embiid went out against New York, could soak up minutes down the stretch, but the young big man’s occasional defensive absentmindedness could leave him on the outside looking in come the postseason.
A couple of more interesting rotation options: playing “small” by shifting Saric or veteran shooter Ersan Ilyasova to the five spot. Neither one provides anything approaching rim protection or paint-patrolling menace. But Saric is a strong rebounder at the forward spots and an incredibly deft passer who might able to approximate some of Embiid’s back-to-the-basket attention-drawing and playmaking, and Ilyasova’s a proven floor-spacer that defenses have to honor outside, and who could be a valuable pick-and-pop partner for Philly’s ball-handlers, opening up more room inside for Simmons and perhaps Fultz to operate.
In all likelihood, Brown’s approach will be dictated by the Sixers’ eventual matchup. If the Sixers draw Cleveland, and he feels it’s unlikely they’ll be able to meaningfully generate stops against a LeBron-and-shooters offense, maybe he rolls the small-ball dice and decides to try to go bucket-for-bucket. If you’re drawing dead, you might as well try to have fun along the way, right?
“I don’t feel the need to feel like I am handcuffed to anything, really,” Brown said Friay, according to Jessica Camerato of NBC Sports Philadelphia. “You want to try to find some semblance of order for sure but you might see different things now without Joel.”
Those different things could include, as Kyle Neubeck of Philly Voice suggests, an exploratory look at what an all-No.-1-pick backcourt of Simmons and Fultz might look like, given that the Sixers could wind up needing to get as much offensive firepower, playmaking and talent as possible on the court to try to bridge the yawning chasm left in Embiid’s wake.
Brown will have to get creative. Simmons will have to be enormous. Saric will need broad shoulders. Fultz will need to stay the course. J.J. Redick, Johnson, Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli will have to lead a bunch of pups through their first run through the postseason crucible. At the start of this month, the 76ers knew exactly who they were; now, on the eve of the playoffs, they’ll have to figure something else out on the fly.
It won’t be easy, but there’s enough talent and smarts on hand to do it. And if the Sixers can pull it off, weathering the storm and making their way through the first fortnight of the playoffs, they could find themselves in a pretty amazing position: as the team nobody wants to play and everybody’s rooting for, playing with house money and welcoming back one of the NBA’s literal and figurative biggest difference-makers.
The odds might be against it playing out that way, but Philadelphia’s got a pretty good thing going these days when it comes to bucking the odds. And besides, everybody even tangentially invested in the Sixers’ success has spent the last few years adhering to a mantra that’ll remind them to be patient and keep believing. Things looked grim on Thursday night, but the 76ers are still going to the playoffs, and that means there’s a chance we still haven’t seen the last of Joel Embiid this season. That’s a chance worth sitting tight and waiting on.
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