This week, all the speculation stopped. Well, most of it did anyway, at least the valid questions about what the Sixers would look like when Joel Embiid returned.
The Sixers (44-25) were far from perfect, but they still pulled off a 3-0 homestand with wins Sunday over the Pacers in Embiid's first game back, Tuesday vs. the Cavs in an uncomfortably close matchup, and Friday against the Kings.
Here are a few observations on the week:
• We all know and understand, on an intuitive level, how large an impact Embiid has. This week helped put the abstract truism that Embiid matters into perspective.
There were issues with double teams, instances when his wires crossed with JJ Redick’s, sluggish stretches. But for the most part, Embiid was excellent for the Sixers this week. Not many players can return from an eight-game absence and average 23.7 points, 16.0 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game.
His versatility and low-post dominance expanded the possibilities for an offense that looked, at times, lethargic and limited without him. His late-game defense gave his teammates plenty of margin for error. His presence re-introduced a familiar spark to the Wells Fargo Center.
When Embiid is off the court this season, the Sixers have a minus-3.2 net rating, which would put them 26th in the NBA. When Embiid is on the floor, the team has a plus-8.3 rating. That would be second in the NBA, behind only the Bucks.
Embiid is a massively influential player, a special talent, an original personality, and a very compelling reason to watch Sixers basketball. Everyone associated with the team is grateful to have him back.
• Ben Simmons turned the ball over just three times this week. While there are bigger challenges in front of him Sunday against the Bucks and Wednesday vs. Boston, you have to be encouraged by the way Simmons conducted the offense. Brett Brown has mentioned Simmons’ open-court speed sometimes leads him to outrun the offense. These past three games, he initiated half-court sets when appropriate but also blew by the defense on the fast break when the opportunity presented itself.
He’ll need to keep doing a good job hitting that middle ground between full speed ahead and walking it up if he continues to play as much with Embiid as he did Friday. The duo played almost 36 minutes together vs. Sacramento, which is a significant bump up from the norm. Since Jimmy Butler’s first game as a Sixer on Nov. 14, Embiid and Simmons have shared the court for 22.9 minutes per game, which is just seventh highest of the team’s two-man pairings. With two potential playoffs opponents on deck over the next four days, it’ll be worth tracking how often Embiid and Simmons play together.
• It’s a relatively small thing, but I liked the call to rest Butler vs. the Cavs.
There’s this difficult, tenuous line Brown and the Sixers are trying to walk between pushing to win every game left and trying to put the team in the best shape possible for the playoffs. Do you experiment with new rotations? How much should you introduce new plays or concepts, and how much should you focus on fine-tuning what you already have?
The Butler decision was a situation in which the Sixers could focus on both priorities at once. Resting Butler didn’t seriously jeopardize the Sixers' chances against the 17-win Cavs, and Butler looked rejuvenated Friday night vs. the Kings in a stellar two-way performance.
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