The current version of the 76ers pulled off a thrilling victory over the NBA-title contending Golden State Warriors on Saturday night.
Joel Embiid was his usual dominant self, scoring nine of his game-high 26 points in the fourth quarter of the 102-93 victory at the Wells Fargo Center. As impressive as Embiid has been, the Sixers (15-12) will still struggle to go far in the postseason.
That’s because they don’t have a consistent second scoring option. Tobias Harris, Seth Curry, and Tyrese Maxey are the best internal candidates to assume that role.
All three have had solid offensive games while playing with Embiid. They just haven’t been consistent.
That can be attributed to simply having off nights, succumbing to defensive schemes, or not getting enough touches. Regardless of the reason, Embiid has emerged as the only dependable offensive option. And on most nights, the four-time All-Star has to play at a high level in order for the Sixers to win.
A prime example was Monday night’s 127-124 overtime victory over the Charlotte Hornets at the Spectrum Center.
The Sixers needed a 43-point, 15-rebound, seven-assist effort from Embiid to beat a Hornets squad playing without its starting backcourt of LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier, center Mason Plumlee, reserve forward Jalen McDaniels, and backup point guard Ish Smith because of COVID-19 protocols. To make matters worse, the Hornets were playing their second game in two nights while the Sixers had the previous two days off.
They also needed 32 points from Embiid to beat the undermanned Hornets Wednesday, 110-106, only to suffer a lopsided 118-96 home loss to Utah Jazz the following night when Embiid was held to 19 points. They also lost, 88-87, at Boston on Dec. 1 when he scored a season-low 13 points on a season-worst 3-for-17 shooting night.
It will be tough for the Sixers to win a playoff series when their success is so dependent on one player.
As a coach, you know game after game what you’re going to get from Embiid, who averaged 24.1 points, 10.9 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.4 blocks heading into Saturday’s game against the Golden State Warriors. The same can’t be said for Curry, Harris, and Maxey.
Curry averaged a career-best 16.3 points and shot 40.8% from three-point range prior to Saturday. He’s scored at least 17 points in five of the last seven games, after scoring 10 points on Saturday. However, the eighth-year veteran gets lost in the offense at times and is more of a complementary floor-spacer than a second scorer.
Meanwhile, Harris averaged 19.1 points (second on the team) and a career-best 8.2 rebounds. The power forward excels when Philly moves the ball and gets everyone involved. Conversely, he struggles to find offensive rhythm when things are stagnant. He had 16 points against the Warriors.
Last season, Harris benefitted from playing with Ben Simmons, who often got him the ball in good spots. Without the disgruntled point guard, who wants to be traded, Harris has had to work harder to get shots.
Ideally, the second option to pair with Embiid would be a perimeter player who creates his own shot and closes out games. The Sixers haven’t had that type of player since Jimmy Butler during the 2018-19 season. Back then, Harris thrived as the third or fourth option, depending on the scenario.
He would be better suited as the third or fourth option on a championship-caliber team.
But on this roster, he’s the second option even though his shot attempts fluctuate.
Here are two typical cases: He took 22 shots against the Indiana Pacers on Nov. 13 only to get nine shots three days later against the Jazz.
Then after shooting 20 times versus the Orlando Magic on Nov. 29, Harris took only 11 shots two nights later in Boston when Embiid struggled during a one-point loss.
He took nine shots on Saturday.
In regards to Maxey, the second-year point guard can get his own shot and is averaging 16.5 points. However, he played better when Embiid was sidelined with COVID. Maxey had been mostly indecisive and only averaged 9.6 points and shot 21-for-65 (32.3%) in his first six games since Embiid’s return.
A lot of Maxey’s high-scoring performances while Embiid was sidelined nine games were out of necessity. At the time, the Sixers were undermanned due to COVID and other injuries. Now with the season-opening starting lineup intact, he’s gone back to being a role player.
Right now, there are two approaches to beating the Sixers.
Some teams will try to double- and triple-team Embiid. Others will try to let him score and take his teammates out of games. So his teammates, especially Harris, Curry, and Maxey, must be ready to step up and produce every night. And that hasn’t been the case.
The Sixers would ideally get a consistent second option in exchange for Simmons in a trade, and things are starting to ramp up on that front. Teams are starting to put feelers out there in advance to Wednesday, the first day this summer’s newly signed free agents can be traded. That time frame provides a bigger pool of potential trade partners.
So we’ll have to wait and see what happens.
Right now, the Sixers can enjoy Saturday night’s thrilling victory thanks in large part to another huge performance from Embiid. Matisse Thybulle also did a cosmic job of defending Steph Curry, blocking two of his shots and not giving him room to breathe. Reserve center Andre Drummond also had a solid game. He finished with nine points on 4-for-5 shooting to go with nine rebounds and two steals.
But, the Sixers don’t have the consistent second scorer needed to make a deep postseason run.