For as vital as Joel Embiid is to the Sixers, games without him aren’t irrelevant.
He’ll be back soon, it appears. The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported there’s “optimism” Embiid will play Saturday against the Timberwolves after nine games out following a positive COVID-19 test.
Before Embiid’s return, let’s get into six thoughts on the Sixers’ Embiid-less 2-4 road trip:
1. This roster has a lot of legitimate NBA players. That’s not to say the team is neglecting development — two-way players Aaron Henry and Grant Riller and 19-year-old rookie Jaden Springer are with the Delaware Blue Coats — but there’s ample depth beyond the traditional rotation when everyone’s healthy. Isaiah Joe scored 19 points over the trip’s final two games, nailing four three-pointers. Charles Bassey was a standout in the Sixers’ win over the Nuggets, displaying both enticing physical skills and relatively advanced real-time processing of the action. Paul Reed won G League MVP last year and still picked up DNPs on the trip despite the Sixers being so shorthanded. Even if none of those players wind up making regular contributions in this year’s postseason, the state of the team beyond its stars is encouraging.
2. On one hand, Tyrese Maxey’s progress feels stunningly rapid. On the other hand, much of the improvement he’s exhibited through 19 games has simply been building on strengths and learning precisely what works for him in the NBA. One example: Maxey played 210 minutes on the trip and only turned the ball over four times. He was also a low-turnover player last season, though. After recording a 7.6 turnover percentage as a rookie, Maxey’s 6.9 percent mark thus far is best among all point guards, per Cleaning the Glass. He’s still risk-averse and has understood the undermanned Sixers generally can’t afford to cough up possessions often. Maxey’s growth drawing fouls strikes us as perhaps the most “new” tool in his game. While it’s intuitive that a player who habitually blows by defenders and reaches the rim should manage to accumulate a decent number of free throws, Maxey’s become better at knowing how to force whistles. He spent fewer plays trying to finish through or around contact on the trip’s final three games, taking 27 free throws and making 26 of them.
3. Andre Drummond shot 38.5 percent from the floor on the road trip, putting him at 44.6 percent on the season. That figure would be the worst of his career. Drummond doesn’t need to score to be valuable; his nine points in the Sixers’ win over Sacramento were almost an afterthought, overshadowed by his 23 rebounds, three blocks and strong play on both ends. Still, signing him as Embiid’s backup on a veteran-minimum deal would look savvier if he shoots at his typical level. These past six games confirmed Drummond is well suited for certain matchups and potentially vulnerable in others. As he showed in Wednesday night’s loss to the Warriors, head coach Doc Rivers is open to playing small ball and using Georges Niang at center instead of Drummond.
4. The common-sense explanation for the Sixers’ outside shooting drop-off is they’ve struggled to generate as many good shots without Embiid. However, that doesn’t tell the full story. In Games 1 through 10, the team made 39.4 percent of its long-distance tries. Per NBA.com, the Sixers were a league-best 44.6 percent on “open” threes (closest defender four to six feet away) and 39.5 percent on “wide-open” threes, which ranked sixth. Since Embiid entered health and safety protocols, they’ve sunk to 12th and 24th in those categories, respectively. Overall, the Sixers have made just 32.9 percent of their threes over the past nine games. The big takeaway? “Make-or-miss league" is a true cliché. Sometimes unfortunate, simultaneous mini-slumps like Seth Curry and Furkan Korkmaz’s happen.
5. While we’re in cliché land: it’s obvious the Sixers enjoy nothing-to-lose, nobody-gives-us-a-chance situations. They believe wins are possible regardless of who’s on the court and, with the exceptions of defeats to the Knicks and Jazz, have been competitive in every game this season. Almost nothing can be consistent about the identity of a team which has employed 11 starting lineups in 19 games, but that’s a nice foundation and reflects well on both the coaching staff and players.
6. Zero profound conclusions would be honest at this stage, but we’re confident the Sixers are a better team when Embiid is healthy. We’re also sure a major Ben Simmons-related move — be it a trade, a return to play, or a surprise twist — would have an enormous impact. The Sixers haven’t seemed shaken or distracted by that reality, though. If the Simmons limbo continues, all the team can do is try to pile up wins and creep back up the standings with Embiid in the lineup. Not an easy task, but an achievable one based on what we’ve seen without the MVP runner-up.