In a quasi-bubble at Disney World on Sunday night, the Sixers played a lineup of Alec Burks, Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz, Glenn Robinson III and Norvel Pelle.
Burks and Robinson were acquired from the Golden State Warriors in February. The well-traveled Pelle is a 27-year-old rookie, while Thybulle and Korkmaz are each 23 years old. It is not a group anyone could have anticipated the team playing in a game it was trying to win.
The Sixers, though, were missing both of their All-Stars. Ben Simmons is set to have surgery to remove a loose body in his left knee and Joel Embiid exited Sunday’s game in the first quarter with a left ankle injury. The hodgepodge of players felt fitting as the Sixers faced life without their two core pieces, a Swiss Army knife defender and a 7-foot embodiment of the team’s “bully ball” philosophy who also happens to be quite skilled.
Brett Brown has a go-to response now for these situations, of which he’s encountered many.
“You’re numb to it,” he said Friday. “You just move. It ends up, as I’ve said, like ready, fire, aim. You figure it out. You take something and you figure it out, you coach who you have.”
Last season for the Sixers included major trades for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, confusion over Markelle Fultz’s shot and medical condition and a Kawhi Leonard jumper that cinematically bounced and hung around the cylinder at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto before sending the Sixers home. This season has perhaps been more bizarre, and little of the weirdness has been positive.
Some of the unpleasant oddities have been self-inflicted. GM Elton Brand and the front office surrounded Simmons and Embiid with size and defense. The Sixers seemed confident in this unconventional team-building approach. Brown proclaimed in September that he wanted the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, an ambition that was an afterthought after a few months. Al Horford and Josh Richardson’s talents did not mesh as the Sixers had envisioned.
The Sixers’ performances at Disney World have only accentuated a cavernous home-road disparity. They’re an NBA-best 31-2 in home games and 11-26 in road games, the worst mark of any team currently in playoff position. Logically, this could be chalked up to year-over-year variance, a random phenomenon. It’s extreme, though, and it’s thus far carried over into a setting where the only fans are virtual.
No key player has been fully healthy, which is normal on the surface. What’s happened with the Sixers, however, doesn’t feel typical. Embiid has sustained injuries to his ankle and shoulder, in addition to a grotesque finger injury that prompted a visceral collective squirm from courtside spectators back when they were permitted.
Before his current knee injury, Simmons had a minor shoulder injury in November and a serious back issue after the All-Star break. A variety of ailments forced Richardson to miss 17 games. In July, Horford said, “I probably wasn’t where I wanted to be (physically).” He’s dealt with knee injuries the last two seasons. Harris, who is No. 2 in the NBA in minutes, was “battling through it a little bit” for a Feb. 24 game vs. the Hawks with a right knee contusion, and the decision to let him play was curious.
The accumulation of new obstacles with the season in its 10th month is a bit confounding, albeit not impossible to explain. The healthy version of the roster hasn’t looked like a veritable championship contender, with the lack of shooting and shot creation among the obvious flaws, but that doesn’t alleviate the frustration surrounding the injuries.
Players hope for the best, know the worst is a very real possibility and deal with it.
“It’s not positive, honestly,” Richardson said of Embiid’s injury after scoring 34 points in the Sixers’ loss Sunday to the Blazers. “We were kind of nervous, hoping it wasn’t too bad. Honestly, you never want any of your teammates to get hurt but when it’s your best player, it’s definitely a bigger hit. We just tried to pick the slack up for him.”
Brown addressed the idea of minutes limitations for the team’s final three seeding games in an attempt to mitigate the risk of further injuries. That’s clearly a greater priority now than overtaking the Pacers or Heat in the standings, even if doing so is still on the table.
“I think it’s true ... where you want an honest sort of medical assessment of anything that equals a potential problem — you just want to avoid (it),” he said. “And landing the plane and entering the playoffs from this vision line of a bubble and time off and tiptoeing on pins and needles where you don’t want people to get injured, and then still find a rhythm, that’s a slippery slope.
“You mentioned Jo. I think the question extends to people like Al Horford, as an example. Making sure Tobias is in a place where we can manage his minutes going forward and still find that balance of trying to compete and find a rhythm.”
He was asked whether the players he mentioned would play in the Sixers’ next game, a Tuesday afternoon contest against the Suns. His response would’ve been appropriate for many questions about this strange team and season.
“I don’t know,” he said.
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