Forgetting about basketball and worrying about other issues in the world would be a very rational response over the past three months.
Perhaps you hadn’t been thinking much about the Sixers but found the team crossing your mind again with the news that the NBA’s owners and NBPA have approved a 22-team plan to resume the season on July 31 at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
Let’s look at three key questions to consider for the team:
How large of a load can Embiid carry?
At 26 years old, Joel Embiid has yet to experience anything resembling a normal NBA season. After a suspension, injuries, a proclamation that load management was “BS” and a public dialogue with Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal about maturity and dominance, Embiid started a third straight All-Star Game. However, he wasn’t pleased with his play for much of this season.
“First part of the season, it wasn’t up to my standards — not even close,” he said last month in an interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Marc Zumoff. “I was on the path to just changing all that and making it happen.”
Embiid on Feb. 5 said he’d “sacrificed a lot, trying to make everybody feel comfortable, and that's normal.”
That assertion seems like an exaggeration. Embiid has played 3.5 fewer minutes per game than in the 2018-19 season, but his usage rate, post-ups per game and three-pointers attempted per 36 minutes are all very similar to last year.
Brett Brown said on May 15 he’d want to play Embiid about 38 minutes a game in the playoffs. The question of whether Embiid will be physically able to handle that playing time is central. And, though his self-assessment is perhaps a bit harsh, the Sixers will likely need Embiid to increase his production during those minutes to make a deep playoff run.
Who’s going to provide the complementary offense?
There are a lot of layers to this topic. One angle is simply whether individual players like Al Horford, Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson can score enough to help out Embiid.
Another question is whether Ben Simmons, returning from a lower back injury, can be effective screening, rolling and facilitating from the elbow in lineups with Shake Milton (including, one would think, the starting lineup). While that pairing makes intuitive sense, it has a lowly 102.9 offensive rating in 223 minutes.
Even if Simmons is still reluctant to shoot jumpers, can he knock down free throws late in playoff games? He’d made 73.9 percent of his foul shots in the 11 contests before his early exit against Milwaukee on Feb. 22.
The composition of the team’s playoff rotation is still to be determined. With Furkan Korkmaz in particular, the Sixers would love his shooting and scoring bursts but might be wary of the defensive drop-off.
Looking deeper, the Sixers must quickly determine reliable offensive roles, pairings and actions. In what situations is it worth abandoning the Horford-Embiid pairing? Should Brown focus on giving duos that have been successful like Embiid-Richardson and Horford-Harris even more minutes together?
Brown and his coaching staff have had ample time to dissect these sort of granular issues.
How good is this defense?
Since beating the Bucks on Christmas, the Sixers have a 110.7 defensive rating, 13th in the NBA. That’s a disappointing statistic for a team with so much apparent defensive talent.
Through 65 games, a glaring problem was how frequently players were forced to assume uncomfortable roles. Horford looked too slow to hang with anyone possessing a modicum of agility. Harris, while appearing to be a sharper defender than last season, often drew difficult perimeter assignments.
In theory, Simmons’ capacity to guard stars of all sizes and Embiid’s rim protection nullify those concerns. In reality, the Sixers’ defense had been good but not great.
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