Nothing about what happened in the middle of the first quarter on Wednesday night came as a surprise. Not to Brett Brown. Not to Joel Embiid. Not to any of the Sixers defenders who were left on the coastline without their barrier island. Embiid went to the bench, and the Knicks attacked. Emmanuel Mudiay backed down Landry Shamet. Tim Hardaway Jr. backed down T.J. McConnell. Enes Kanter backed down Mike Muscala.
In the 3 1/2 minutes that Embiid spent on the bench in the middle of the opening period, the Knicks were a different team, scoring 11 points with an offense that was predicated on attacking the paint after having spent the game’s first 5:15 resigned to the mid-range and beyond.
For the Sixers, this is life, and there is a certain part of it that is inescapable. When you have one of the best defensive big men in the game, you’re a fool if you do not rely on him. But the Sixers are a team that has championship aspirations, and in order for them to come closer to fulfilling them than they did last season, they need to find a better way to limit their opponents in those excruciating minutes when Embiid is not on the court.
That’s something to consider as the NBA trade market continues to take shape in the coming weeks. One of the more interesting numbers to come out of last year’s playoff loss to the Celtics was the one that said the Sixers actually outscored Boston by an average of 5.3 points per 100 possessions when Embiid was on the court. The most noticeable difference came on defense, where the Sixers held the Celtics to a respectable 102.5 points per 100 when Embiid was on the game but an unwieldy 112.4 points per 100 when he was on the bench.
This season, that disparity remains. Opponents are averaging 6 percent fewer points when Embiid is on the court than when he is off of it: 110.2 points per 100 possessions compared with 116.8 points per 100. Their effective field goal percentage is 34 points lower.
There are two ways to address this sort of thing, and the conventional wisdom says that the Sixers' primary focus will be to find a player capable of preventing opposing guards from getting to the rim, thereby limiting the need to protect it at the point of attack. This is a philosophy to which Brown subscribes, something he left little doubt about on Wednesday evening when somebody asked him to identify the need that sat at the top of his wish list.
“A perimeter defensive player interests me the most,” the coach said. “If you box me in, I’d give you that answer. ... Can you guard a pick-and-roll? Can you guard just me and you on a live ball? Can you guard just me and you on a close out? ... Those three things are areas that we have been hurt by when people hurt our bench.”
There’s an economic element to that thinking, of course. The NBA has more wing players than it does big men, and that advantage of supply generally means that it is easier for a general manager like Elton Brand to acquire one at a reasonable price in the middle of the season. That said, the Sixers' rim protection behind Embiid has been suspect enough to create a relatively expansive pool of candidates capable of improving it. Asked to evaluate the performance of his backup bigs, Brown offered a grade of C-plus, a mark that speaks for itself when you factor in the unrelenting positivity of the proctor in question. In recent weeks, the coach has moved away from Amir Johnson as Embiid’s primary backup, choosing to utilize Mike Muscala in that role despite his acknowledgment that the former Hawks center is more suited to a role as a stretch-four.
A perfect world would see the Sixers add both a wing and a backup center to fortify the second unit. They could have several options to fill that latter role. Among the big men who fit the profile that the Sixers would likely be seeking -- a veteran on an expiring contract who plays for a rebuilding team -- are the Hawks' Dewayne Dedmon, the Bulls' Robin Lopez, and even Kanter, who is set to hit free agency after this season.
There are a lot of factors that have played a part in the Sixers' lack of depth this season, from the absence of injured first-round draft pick Zhaire Smith, to the two-for-one trade that brought Jimmy Butler to Philadelphia, to the ongoing Markelle Fultz situation. But part of the problem is roster construction, and the Sixers' inability to address at least one of their current needs back in the offseason, when their prioritization of luring another star to the roster might have impacted their ability to recruit talent in the lower reaches of the market.
In a lot of ways, the story this season is the same as it was at this point last year, before the Hawks bought out Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova and the Sixers' front office struck some much-needed midseason gold. It might be wishful thinking to plan on that sort of thing happening once again. But there is no doubting the need.