There were a few reasons why the Wizards overhauled half their roster last offseason, one of them of course being Russell Westbrook's preference to play for the Lakers. Another was how much they were overmatched by the Sixers in their first-round playoff series loss. Team president Tommy Sheppard proclaimed afterward that they were not a "run-it-back team."
They made many changes, some of which seemed to better position them for when they would meet the Sixers again down the road. Yet in their first matchup of the 2021-22 regular season, the same issues that hurt them in that series were evident once again.
Just as they did in their six playoff games, the Wizards had no answer for both Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris. Embiid had 36 points, 13 rebounds, two blocks and a steal. Harris added 23 points, seven rebounds and three assists. They combined to make 22 of the Sixers' 43 total shots.
The Embiid conundrum was more understandable. The Wizards aren't the first team to be dominated by him. Perhaps his big night magnified their lack of a big center, but it's not like they could have easily found an Embiid stopper in the summer even if they looked for one.
Montrezl Harrell put it well after Sunday's loss. He's 6-foot-7, undersized for a center, and because of that really had no chance to guard the Sixers big man by himself.
"I'm not growing no more. At the end of the day, my height is my height," Harrell said.
Harrell did his best by keeping a low center of gravity and pushing back, but Embiid is just too crafty. Not only is he the biggest player on the floor, he has the agility and skills of a wing. On one of his first baskets, he grabbed a defensive rebound, took the ball coast-to-coast, spun around Daniel Gafford off the dribble and floated a layup high off the glass.
Harrell had such a difficult time against Embiid he lost his cool and was ejected for shoving him. Embiid seemed to bait him into it, too, judging by the smirk he flashed after Harrell was tossed.
Again, though, Embiid is a problem for everyone. The more concerning takeaway from Sunday's game is how much the Wizards struggled to defend Harris.
Back in the spring during their playoff series, the Wizards simply didn't have the personnel to match up with him. Deni Avdija had been lost for the year with an ankle injury and they were already thin at the three. They had to put smaller players on Harris and he ate them alive.
Over the summer, the Wizards helped that cause by adding Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Spencer Dinwiddie can guard some threes and Avdija came back a much-improved defender.
Caldwell-Pope was out due to Covid protocols, but Harris didn't find much resistance against those who were left. Even Avdija, who rates well in isolation defense and has shut down some very good players this season, had some trouble. In the second quarter, Harris played bully-ball to push Avdija towards the rim, missed his first attempt and then scored on a putback.
"He just kind of put his head down and played through us at times," head coach Wes Unseld Jr. said. "He's a tough player. Made some tough finishes. I think we got a little discouraged with that."
As for Embiid, Unseld Jr. called Gafford's performance against him a "learning experience." He said Gafford needs to get better at anticipating Embiid's moves and taking the right angles so he can be ready for the contact Embiid delivers with a size advantage of about 45 pounds.
But for both Embiid and Harris, the Wizards as a team need to come up with some answers. They may not be able to find silver bullet solutions at the trade deadline.
The Wizards will see the Sixers two more times this season and could cross paths once again in the playoffs. Other teams may also offer similar challenges.
"We need to find a way to match those elite players. Down the line in the playoffs, that's what we're going to see, so we have to be ready for that, understand what's coming and plan accordingly," Unseld Jr. said.