The left knee injury to Joel Embiid in the 76ers 127-101 win at Washington on Friday will almost certainly increase the role of backup Dwight Howard.
On Saturday the Sixers announced Embiid was out with a left knee bone bruise. No structural damage was revealed from the MRI and he will be re-evaluated in two weeks.
While Embiid has enjoyed an MVP-type season, Howard has performed well as the backup center. Third center Tony Bradley has had his moments, most notably in Thursday’s 127-105 win at Chicago when he scored 14 points, making all seven shots from the field.
Yet it has been the play of the 35-year old Howard that has been a major bright spot for the Sixers. Howard and his Los Angeles Lakers teammate of last year Danny Green, have been the only two who have played in all 38 games for the 26-12 Sixers, who host San Antonio on Sunday.
Howard is averaging 6.4 points and 7.5 rebounds in 16.2 minutes per game. These are seemingly modest statistics, until shown in context.
Among players who have played in 10 or more games, Howard is fifth in the NBA in rebounds per 100 possessions (21.1).
He is fifth in offensive rebounding per 100 possessions (7.3) and seventh in defensive rebounding per 100 possessions (14.7).
In Thursday’s win, Howard had a season-high 18 points, along with 12 rebounds. He added six points and 10 rebounds in Friday’s win at Washington.
“We’re starting to finally trust the lob pass, we’re finally finding him in the post a little bit, we’re finally getting him more involved in the offense which is kind of energizes him defensively,” Green said of Howard after Friday’s win. “As long as he stays out of foul trouble and doesn’t have any turnovers for us and we find him with the lob, I think we are going to do great.”
Howard scored on a lob from Green against the Wizards, one of his two field goals. Against Chicago, three of his baskets came on lobs, including one from Green.
As for foul troubles and turnovers, Green makes a good point. Howard is averaging 3.0 personal fouls and 1.7 turnovers. He is fifth in the NBA in most fouls per 100 possessions (8.6) among players who have appeared in at least 10 games.
He is 11th in most turnovers per 100 possession (5.0).
So those are two areas that must be cut down.
Still, Howard, while sometimes too aggressive in committing fouls, has brought the Sixers energy off the bench.
During the first four games that Embiid missed this season, Howard was the starting center. Coach Doc Rivers then decided that Howard brings such energy off the bench, that he didn’t start the last three times that Embiid was out.
Bradley was the starter on Thursday against the Bulls. The two combined for 32 points, 17 rebounds and five blocked shots.
Right now Howard has been effective in his role and has emerged as one of the leaders of the team despite his limited minutes.
“He is somebody who brings it every single night, works his tail off, is always in the young guys’ ear, and telling them and getting their focus level where it needs to be and in the last few games you have seen all that come together,” forward Tobias Harris said. “He’s been playing great basketball and he has been all year and this is really what we expect out him.”
Howard has played 20 or more minutes eight times this year.
That will likely be the norm while Embiid is sidelined.
Whether Howard can play more minutes and remain as effective in this, his 17th season, will be the big question moving forward.