76ers

How to manage Joel Embiid's health while pushing for playoffs

How to manage Joel Embiid's health while pushing for playoffs

CAMDEN, N.J. — In some ways, Joel Embiid is a dream to coach. You can go to him in the post whenever you need a bucket, rely on him to erase defensive mistakes, sit back and watch as he takes over games.

But in other ways, coaching Embiid is not an easy job. Brett Brown has to constantly weigh Embiid’s health with the immediate desire to win. That balancing act has never been more difficult for Brown, who commented Wednesday on how he plans to manage Embiid with the playoffs in sight.

“Everything is still, and it should be, delivering him to a playoff round,” Brown said. “It’s not cramming for the exam and doing whatever you can to get home court, it’s not that at all. And so I feel like the path that we’re all on is both professional and responsible. So it’s that more than trying to cram for an exam.”

The Sixers have six back-to-back sets in their final 27 games. Embiid played his first ever back-to-back on Feb. 2 vs. Miami and Feb. 3 at Indiana. Since then, he’s had an injury scare with his right knee (on Feb. 10 vs the Clippers) and missed the Sixers’ final game before the All-Star break with a sore right ankle.

That said, Embiid’s obviously taken major steps forward. After being sidelined for his first two NBA seasons and playing just 31 games (and only 25.4 minutes per game) in his rookie year, he’s played in 44 of the Sixers’ first 55 games, and is averaging 31.4 minutes per game.

But the Sixers are 3-8 when Embiid doesn’t play. Without Embiid, the Sixers don’t look like a playoff team. With him, they look like a team which could earn home-court advantage. The Sixers are currently seventh in the Eastern Conference at 30-25, two games behind the fourth-seeded Washington Wizards.

When asked how he’ll generally manage his players’ minutes in the final third of the season, Brown referred to his time as a Spurs assistant, implying that the Sixers will approach things more aggressively than a championship contender.

“In my old life, when you felt like you were going to be in the finals and win a championship, you definitely started managing stuff differently in this final third,” Brown said. “That’s not where we’re at now. We are fighting to get in the playoffs.

“And we’re in a fist fight, we want a little bit more than that. And we’re going to play with that in mind, and when the opportunity arises when I can rest some of our guys, I will. But it’s not about being conservative right now or feeling like we’re entitled and we’re in the playoffs; we aren’t. So we’re still fighting to do that, and I’ll coach it accordingly.”

It might sound like there’s a contradiction between that desire to fight for the postseason and Brown’s goal of “delivering [Embiid] to a playoff round.” The Sixers probably need Embiid to play the majority of their final 27 games to make the playoffs in the first place. On the other hand, nothing in Embiid’s past suggests that he’s capable of playing all six remaining back-to-backs and suiting up fully healthy in Game 1 of the postseason.

The key for Brown is finding the perfect middle ground between riding Embiid hard every night and babying his 7-foot-2 star to the detriment of the team. With the playoffs finally in sight after five seasons of processing, that’s going to be one of Brown’s greatest challenges in the home stretch.  

Sixers weekly observations: Joel Embiid's Hall of Fame prospects and Brett Brown's 'perfecting vanilla' philosophy

Sixers weekly observations: Joel Embiid's Hall of Fame prospects and Brett Brown's 'perfecting vanilla' philosophy

The Sixers took down the team with the best record in the NBA, pushed aside questions about the Celtics having their number and beat the Hornets behind JJ Redick’s first career double-double. Though the week ended on a low, with a loss Saturday to the 26-48 Hawks, the Sixers hold a three-game lead over the Pacers for the third seed in the Eastern Conference (see standings). 

Here are a couple of observations from the week:

• Joel Embiid averaged 34.7 points, 16.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game this week. His stats sometimes creep up on you, but it feels like his numbers don’t even properly capture his contributions, especially against Milwaukee and Boston.

After Friday’s practice, Embiid said he not only wants to be the best Sixer ever, but “the best to ever do it" (see story). He mentioned wanting to eventually shoot 90 percent from the foul line and later added he’s “sure he’s going to get to a point” where he’s a 40 percent three-point shooter. To have a realistic chance of being the best player ever, Embiid may very well have to reach those absurd marks. Dirk Nowitzki, the best big man shooter ever, only hit marks of 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the free throw line once, in the 2006-07 season.

Embiid’s ambition of being the greatest of all time might be a stretch (though there’s certainly nothing wrong with his drive to be great). The thought that he could one day be a Hall of Famer, though, is not anywhere close to delusional. If he can stay healthy — which, for the sake of the sport of basketball, let’s hope he does — the Hall of Fame looks downright probable. His consistent dominance and special skills suggest as much, and so do the stats. 

Our Reuben Frank found an incredible stat on Embiid. Only nine players in NBA history have had 3,500 points and 1,500 rebounds through their first 150 career games, per Basketball Reference. One of them is Embiid, and the other eight are Hall of Famers. 

• Brett Brown likes to talk about “perfecting vanilla” — sharpening the basics and avoiding overcomplication. The wins over the Bucks and Celtics are good arguments for his approach, illustrations of how the Sixers have the talent to beat elite teams without doing anything too exotic.

But perfecting vanilla doesn’t necessarily exclude incorporating subtle wrinkles. Brown told NBC Sports Philadelphia last week the Sixers are interested in more “slashing” around Embiid in the post, more off-ball movement against “blind” defensive players (see story). We’re also starting to see more pick-and-rolls between Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. For the most part, though, the offense has a few fundamental actions that work.

You can’t say the same about the defense. 

The strategy of putting Embiid on Giannis Antetokounmpo and living with the other Bucks taking threes was ultimately effective, though Milwaukee still put up 43 points in the fourth quarter Sunday. The defensive effort in the first half against Charlotte was mediocre, and the Sixers were fortunate the Hornets missed a number of open threes late. Kyrie Irving and Terry Rozier had their way Wednesday for the first two quarters. And in Atlanta, the team’s pick-and-roll defense was not pretty — miscommunications, players getting caught on top of screens without much resistance, inconsistent help defense.

Though the Sixers’ offense appears to have the freedom to expand a little beyond the basics if they’d like, the defense doesn’t have that same luxury. 

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Jimmy Butler isn't freaking out over Sixers' loss to Hawks and neither should you

Jimmy Butler isn't freaking out over Sixers' loss to Hawks and neither should you

NBA teams don't go 82-0.

The Bucks lost their season series to the lowly Suns. The Raptors were swept by the Pistons. The Celtics have lost both of their matchups to the Magic this season.

So when the Sixers fell to 1-2 against the young Hawks this season after a 129-127 loss Saturday night (see observations), it was disappointing, but not completely surprising.

These types of games happen. The Sixers had finally beaten their boogeyman Boston, their sixth straight win. They were 7-1 with their new-look starting lineup intact. They couldn’t afford to rest on that and overlook a hungry Atlanta team.

But they did.

I think it’s the fact that we think we’re a really good team so we can just come in and do whatever we’re going to do and still going to win,” Jimmy Butler said. “I don’t think we can fall into that trap. I’m telling you, I think that’s what it was. Thinking, ‘Yo, we won [six] in a row.’ That’s from everybody. From top to bottom. I don’t think you can play like that in order to go where we want to go.

Give credit where it’s due, former Sixers assistant Lloyd Pierce has his Hawks buying in and playing much better basketball recently. 

With their win Saturday, they’re now 7-8 since the All-Star Game. That may not sound like much, but when you consider they were just 18-40 before the break, it’s a stark improvement.

Rookie Trae Young abused the Sixers all night. He exploited their weak pick-and-roll defense in route to 32 points — including the game-winning floater with .01 seconds left —  and 11 assists.

Though Young was a handful, the Sixers didn’t offer much resistance. After going on a 15-3 run to close out the third to tie the game and eventually take the lead in the fourth, they were also sloppy down the stretch.

“The game at stages was bizarre to me, really,” Brett Brown said. “Some of the turnovers in the fourth period were head scratching. I think some of that, some of the defensive lapses we had in the first half, were head scratching. Then you put it into the melting pot of them playing good basketball — they had some offensive firepower to sort of punish those areas that I just mentioned.”

And before the #FireBrett crowd comes charging with its pitchforks, Brown did try to make adjustments. It wasn’t a matter of game plan. It was execution.

“We had probably three or four different things from blitzing to switching to hedging to dropping,” Brown said. “If you really dug in and looked at that you would have seen that. I can’t say that any of them were incredibly effective, but they did force us to try and make different adjustments in the pick-and-roll.”

These types of games are going to happen during an 82-game season. With just nine games left in the regular season, the Sixers have one of the easier remaining schedules in the league.

But as the Hawks proved Saturday, any team can beat you on a given night. For the Sixers, it’s just a matter of learning whatever you can from a disappointing loss and getting ready to take on Orlando in a couple days.

This game surely will not define their season or the potential of their new starting five.

“We’ll be alright,” Butler said. “We got nine more left. We good, man. Forget about it. We got another one coming on the road [Monday]. 

“So let’s go to dinner. Forget about it. I’m not drinking right now so I can’t have no wine, but I can damn sure eat.”

Yeah, the Sixers are going to be fine.

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