The Sixers are going to find out more about themselves against the Knicks on Tuesday night than they did in their first three games combined. With or without Ben Simmons, they are a less talented team than the Nets. With or without Simmons, they are a more talented team than the Pelicans and the Thunder. Where they rank between those two extremes is a question they’ll begin to answer on Tuesday night.
The Knicks are an interesting test case for a number of different reasons. The Sixers have dominated them since the start of the Simmons-Joel Embiid era, winning 15 straight games. The pairing may not have produced a championship, but it did consistently dominate teams like the Knicks, drawing a solid line between the Sixers and the bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff field.
Daryl Morey’s hardball stance with Simmons’ trade request is predicated at least in part on the belief that the Sixers can survive without whatever players they would recoup by dealing their disgruntled point guard. Tuesday’s game in Madison Square Garden will give him a good chance to evaluate that belief.
Here are three things we’ve learned about the Sixers so far:
1. The Sixers still need to show they can survive defensively without Simmons, given the obvious limitations of a lineup that includes Seth Curry, Tyrese Maxey, and Tobias Harris.
Against the Nets and the Thunder, the Sixers had a defensive rating of 122.3 in the 56 minutes that Curry, Maxey and Harris were on the court together. In those minutes, they were outscored by an average of 8.1 points per 100 possessions. That’s especially concerning when you consider that the Nets and Thunder shot just 28.6% from three-point range, while the Sixers shot 41.9%. Here, more than anywhere else, is where you are likely to continue to see the impact of Simmons’ absence.
The Knicks will offer something of a measuring stick. In R.J. Barrett and Evan Fournier, New York has a couple of wings who hold 4-plus inches and 20-plus pounds on Curry. This, along with Kemba Walker. Factor in the bench presences of Derrick Rose, Alec Burks, and Immanuel Quickley, and the Sixers could face some problems on the perimeter.
2. Andre Drummond is better than Dwight Howard. That’s a bigger improvement than some might think.
The uncomfortable truth about the Sixers is that they are built around a player who has been limited by injury in every postseason of his career. It’s the central paradox of this roster: Embiid is one of a small handful of players who can turn a team from a fringe No. 8 seed to a potential No. 1 seed simply by stepping on the court. Yet his singularity makes his injury history that much more detrimental. His strength compounds the effects of his weakness.
That’s not a criticism of Embiid, nor of the Sixers for casting their lot with him. It’s just reality, as is the fact that there is little Doc Rivers or Morey can do other than accept his absences as the cost of doing business. Somewhat ironically, Embiid’s injuries have not been the sort of chronic, wear-and-tear breakdowns that many expected out of him back when he was drafted. By and large, they haven’t been the product of overuse.
The knee injury that hampered him during last season’s Hawks series happened when he landed awkwardly after getting blocked by Robin Lopez. In 2020, he missed 14 of the Sixers’ last 35 games with a dislocated finger and a shoulder strain, both suffered in (separate) on-court collisions. Same goes for the broken facial bone that sidelined him for the start of the 2018 playoffs.
At this point, the conversation should be less about how the Sixers can prevent Embiid’s injuries — i.e., by limiting his minutes — and more about how they can remain competitive even when he isn’t at full strength. The signing of Drummond was a notable step in that philosophical shift. The Sixers needed a big man who could be something more than a placeholder, and they have found one in the longtime Pistons star.
In the Sixers’ four losses to the Hawks in last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, Atlanta outscored them 79-43 in the 36 minutes Howard was on the court. When Embiid was on the court, the Sixers were plus-21. When Howard was on the court, the rebound count was 37-37. With Embiid, it was 149-129. Howard was a serious problem. Drummond does not need to be an All-Star to fix it.
Throughout his career, Drummond’s solid stat lines have rarely been commensurate with his impact on the win/loss column. But he has two things the Sixers have never had behind Embiid: versatility and individual scoring ability.
The early returns have been positive. In a season-opening win against the Pelicans, the Sixers outscored New Orleans by 22 points when Drummond was on the court. In their five-point loss to the Nets, he was a minus-one. Heading into Tuesday night’s game against the Knicks, Drummond had grabbed 27 rebounds in 37 minutes of court time. That’s a lot of boards.
Between Drummond and new backup four-man Georges Niang, the Sixers have put themselves in a much better position to weather whatever minutes there are without Embiid. Of course, it would be nice if Embiid could figure out a way to limit those minutes.
3. Niang could be this year’s Curry.
Like Curry, Niang arrives in Philadelphia as a relatively anonymous role player whose efficiency makes you wonder what he might do with more regular minutes. And, like Curry, he has a skill set that could thrive alongside Embiid. In four seasons in Utah, Niang connected on 41.1% of his three-pointers while attempting an impressive 11.6 per 100 possessions. In his first three games of this season, he is shooting 7-of-13 (.538) from deep. His 17.3 minutes per game would be a career high, as would his 19.4 points scored per 100 possessions.
The prospect of playing a Curry-like role had Niang salivating before the season.
» READ MORE: Developing bench an early priority for Sixers
“If that’s the case, I’m gonna go home and celebrate right now,” he said. “Playing with Joel, I’ve said it before, when he walks onto the floor, he attracts a double team, so to have him on the court at the same time is a joy for sure.”
It’s early, but Niang clearly gives the Sixers an element off the bench that would have come in handy last postseason, when Rivers simply did not have many viable options to replace Simmons as he struggled down the stretch.
Niang’s ability to space the floor and guard big bodies on defense gives the Sixers a versatility they simply did not have last season. He’s finished in the plus column in each of his first three games and is coming off 20 minutes against the Thunder when he was plus-6, scoring 12 points and hitting 3-of-4 from three-point range.