Seventy-six games down, six to go.
In our observations this week, we examine the Sixers' move to rest Joel Embiid and highlight a key question facing the Sixers following assistant coach Billy Lange's departure for St. Joe's and Jim O'Brien's return to the front of the bench to take charge of the defense.
• In my mind, there are a few potential downsides to the Sixers' decision to rest Embiid, none of which hold much weight when examined closer.
1. It could stunt the team’s growth as the playoffs approach
The Sixers’ new starting five has played just 10 games together, and they’ve gone pretty well — they’re 8-2. If Embiid plays the final four games of the regular season (along with the four other starters), they’ll have 14 games of experience together, which certainly isn’t a ton for a team looking to make a Finals run.
Still, it’s unlikely three more games would make much of a difference. As we touched on last week, Brett Brown isn’t a believer in installing new, exotic actions or strategies with the season winding now, so it’s not as if Embiid is going to suddenly have to play catch up as far as Xs and Os are concerned.
2. It could make Embiid sluggish in the playoffs
Embiid has said in the past that he feels he gets out of shape quickly, so this worry is understandable. That said, Embiid had 33 points and 12 rebounds on March 10 vs. Indiana after missing the past eight games — he’s proven he can be dominant even when not in perfect shape. His knee feeling as good as it can should be a higher priority.
3. The Sixers should worry about playoff seeding first
The Sixers are almost certainly going to be the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. They have a 4.5-game lead over both the Celtics and Pacers, each of whom have five games left, and they're not going to catch Toronto (see standings).
With the three seed secure barring a 1964 Phillies-like collapse, there’s plenty of value in a player like Jonah Bolden getting a chance to boost his case for postseason minutes.
• Though the Sixers’ defense regressed some this year compared to last, when the team had the third-best defensive rating in the NBA, it’s difficult to attribute much of that to Lange’s coaching. He was hampered by a perpetually rotating cast of players, many of whom were below-average defenders — you’ll recall a point when Landry Shamet, Furkan Korkmaz, JJ Redick and T.J. McConnell all had key roles.
With the personnel Lange had, the Sixers were inevitably in trouble when defenders failed to fight through screens and switches were required. Lange may not have minded switching one through four, but he wasn’t instructing his players to allow Joel Embiid to guard point guards (see film review).
One of the big questions Brown was frank in discussing before the season began was how Embiid would cope in a “five out” environment, when opponents drew him away from the hoop by removing a traditional center from the floor. Against the Bucks, it looks like the answer is having Embiid guard Giannis Antetokounmpo.
When the Nets used Rondae Hollis-Jefferson at center Thursday with Embiid on the bench, Lange and Brown decided to stick with Boban Marjanovic at center and asked him to take advantage of the matchup offensively.
Whether that’s a sustainable solution in a postseason series, and whether there are any new strategies O’Brien and Brown might use to counteract a “five out” look in the playoffs will be an important storyline to follow.
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