Joel Embiid could have sat this one out, and maybe he should have, and maybe the old version of himself would have. But he didn’t, and even after a 114-110 Sixers loss to the Denver Nuggets in which he was plagued by foul trouble and fatigue and a loud, flagrant fall flat onto his back, you got the sense that Embiid would not have decided differently even if the result had been preordained.
“We have to measure ourselves against these types of opponents,” Embiid said after the loss on Monday night.
Whether he meant that in the informal or royal sense is for you to decide, but the measuring tape tells a vastly different tale depending on which one you choose. By the end of the night, two things were clear: The Sixers had the best player on the court, and they were the second-best team. That’s a good news/bad news sort of thing that may not augur well for the fast-approaching postseason.
In scoring 34 points on 11-of-20 shooting with his usual 36 minutes of elite rim protection, Embiid didn’t tell us anything new. But the same cannot be said for the Sixers, who every night seem intent on teaching us something new about the precariousness of their depth situation.
The suddenly shaky ground on which the Sixers stand can’t help but be the biggest takeaway, despite their big man’s performance. By the end of the night, Embiid had left little doubt that he was the best player on the court. That made this night like a lot of nights, except for the fact that the court included the opponent who might be the biggest impediment standing in the way of his first career MVP trophy.
Plenty of people will line up to argue the opposite, and plenty more will meekly call it a draw. But as good as the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic was Monday night, and as much as the final score might offer an easy out for those too timid to render their own personnel judgments, Embiid was indisputably That Guy. Individually, he outscored Jokic 34-22. As a team, the Sixers outscored the Nuggets 62-48 when Embiid and Jokic were on the court together.
Say what you will about Jokic’s improved defense, or his passing. The impact of the latter is hard to exaggerate. Against the Sixers, he made three beautiful full-court passes that single-handedly created fast breaks and garnered easy buckets. As Embiid himself said, “He’s been a monster all season.”
But even if you assume that all eight of Jokic’s assists were similarly singular and led to buckets that the Nuggets would not otherwise have gotten, his offensive production would not come close to making up for Embiid’s otherworldly impact on the defensive end. Again, look at those on/off splits. The Sixers scored 62 points in the 19 minutes that Embiid and Jokic shared. The Nuggets scored 48. Over a 48-minute game, that equates to a margin of 156-121.
Or, you can forget about the numbers and simply ponder this: Take away the jerseys from both teams, nominate two captains, and divvy up sides the old-fashioned way. Embiid is the first pick and Jokic is second, every time.
Or, you can feel the way Embiid did on Monday, that the whole debate rings hollow given the holes in the Sixers’ rotation that the last three games have exposed. Embiid wasn’t despondent, but there was an urgency in his voice as he repeatedly stressed the need for the Sixers to figure things out on the defensive end.
Problem is, what you see is often what you get on the defensive end. If you see any solutions for the Sixers, you must have one heck of a whiteboard. This was never going to be a team that would be able to afford to rely on its defense to win games. It was going to need to outscore people. And, right now, they are not doing it anywhere close to the extent that they will need to.
“We lost,” Embiid said. “That’s what I care about. I care about the wins. It’s up to you guys [the media] to have this conversation to decide who’s the best, who has the best game, and all that stuff. I really don’t care about that. I just want to win. Obviously, we’re thinking about championships and at this point, we have to be better.”
A lot of that falls on the guy who was brought here to take the Sixers’ offense to that kind of level. James Harden’s shooting has been miserable the last four games, during which he is 19-for-62 from the field and 8-for-27 from three-point range. Both of those numbers are below his season averages, leaving some reason to think that he simply needs to rediscover a rhythm.
At the same time, he hasn’t been a substantially different player than he was in his last 22 games with the Nets, when he shot .412 from the field and .300 from three-point range and averaged 23.9 points and 10.9 assists per night.
Before Monday night’s game, Doc Rivers said he wanted Harden to be more aggressive in looking to score. But it’s possible that the reason Harden isn’t looking to score the way he did in his prime is that he knows that he can’t score the way he did in his prime. Right now, his first step isn’t nearly as explosive as it has been throughout his career. He isn’t getting by defenders with nearly the ease that he is accustomed to.
Make no mistake, the Harden we’ve seen through his first nine games is still the kind of difference maker who can lift the Sixers to a championship. But if he isn’t going to score the way that he did during his prime years in Houston, then he is going to need a better mix of players around him than the ones he currently has. That might take an offseason to make happen. Apart from Tyrese Maxey, the Sixers’ supporting cast is laughably incomplete. Beyond Tobias Harris and George Niang, their top four wings are borderline unplayable on offense. Their new backup center looks like a worse version of the bad version of Dwight Howard.
The cast of characters ain’t changing. The chemistry might improve. Harden might get hot. Right now, though, the Sixers are an MVP and an All-Star surrounded by holes. If things don’t change fast, Embiid’s MVP trophy might be the only one they get.