Sixers head coach Doc Rivers bristled at the question.
It was a fair topic to inquire about, though. And the matter of too-tight wins against undermanned opponents wouldn’t even be especially pertinent for the Sixers if not for Joel Embiid.
Here was the exchange between Rivers and The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Keith Pompey:
To briefly support Rivers’ “side” (and not the ad hominem remarks): It’s been a bizarre season for every NBA team. COVID-19 has swept through the league and made the notion of passing definitive judgements on any team borderline foolish. Play the games on your schedule, win as many as you can, move on. Missing Danny Green, Shake Milton and Andre Drummond on Tuesday night because of health and safety protocols, the Sixers earned a 114-109 win over the Raptors to improve to 18-16. Toronto’s Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, Precious Achiuwa and Khem Birch were in protocols.
But Rivers himself has been critical after wins and complimentary after defeats. He praised Tyrese Maxey for “sensational” play in a loss to the Bucks without Embiid, Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle and Isaiah Joe, and he called a victory over the Magic “not inspired.” There’s nuance here, but the simple truth is that each win is different, as is each loss.
So, what do we know about the Sixers? They’d be in a darker place without Embiid.
He scored nine points against Toronto in the final 5 minutes and 26 seconds, as well as contesting a Gary Trent Jr. layup that would’ve lifted the Raptors into the lead with about 20 seconds left. Embiid only needed 16 field-goal attempts for his 36 points.
Tuesday night wasn’t the first time this month he pulled off a rescue act or put the Sixers on his back. Embiid made game-tying and go-ahead shots in Atlanta, posted a 43-point, 15-rebound, seven-assist stat line in an overtime win over the Hornets, and drilled three mid-range jumpers down the stretch of another 40-and-10 night in Boston.
Embiid’s 55 points in the clutch — defined by NBA.com/Stats as the final five minutes of games in which the point differential is five or under — lead the league this month, 17 ahead of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at No. 2. He’s shot 55.9 percent from the floor, blocked three shots, recorded five assists and only committed one clutch turnover.
Could Embiid be even better? Sure. If he’d made the open jumper he got against the Hawks last week, perhaps Rivers would’ve been discussing the Sixers’ “very casual” approach following an overtime victory, not a bad loss. And, though it seems mismatches are omnipresent when Embiid’s on the floor, his best games this month haven’t involved players equipped to contain him. The Hornets and Raptors were seriously undersized, while the Celtics' Al Horford was on the sidelines for that Dec. 20 game because of COVID protocols.
Embiid’s done a little bit (or a lot, really) of everything, though, and no player in that position is perfect. He’s more comfortable and adept than ever as a passer; per Cleaning the Glass, the only “bigs” with a higher assist percentage than Embiid in December are Draymond Green, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Robin Lopez. The energy he’s expended on defense hedging ball screens and protecting the rim hasn’t stopped him from taking rebounds and then steaming down the floor on fast breaks. The Sixers ask him to create offense from both the post and the perimeter, and he’s been doing so efficiently despite opponents often knowing precisely what’s coming.
The positive slant is that Embiid’s been great and, though the rest of the Sixers haven’t, games like Tyrese Maxey’s 2-for-11 performance against the Raptors are aberrations.
However, just like Rivers’ defense of the “a win is a win” concept, it’s a difficult idea to buy.
While Embiid’s excellence is worth appreciating, it doesn’t mean everything is copacetic for the Sixers.