Are the Sixers overly reliant on Joel Embiid? That depends. Were the Bulls overly reliant on Michael Jordan? Were the Rockets overly reliant on James Harden? How about the Cavs and LeBron James?
Snicker all you want. That’s the realm where Embiid belongs right now. That is how good he has been. Even before his latest MVP performance — 28 points, six rebounds , four assists in a 107-106 thriller over the Lakers on Wednesday night — Embiid was playing the most prolific and productive basketball of his career. His 27.7 points per game and .592 effective field goal percentage would both be the highest marks of his five seasons in the NBA. Factor in his defense and the Sixers’ East-leading record and you had yourself the makings of a league MVP (the latest Vegas odds had Embiid trailing only LeBron James and Luke Doncic).
The question the Sixers have only begun to answer is whether Embiid alone makes them a legitimate contender. Virtually every other team that fits that description is a team that features two elite scorers. Included among those teams is the one that was in town on Wednesday night. The Sixers have their version of James. They’re just short an Anthony Davis.
How short that leaves them depends on when you happen to catch them. If you limited your frame of reference to Embiid’s first shift against the Lakers on Wednesday night, then wishing for anything more would violate several of the Ten Commandments. His first quarter performance was a case study in maturation, especially since it came against his longtime professional nemesis. Early in the period, he squared up on Marc Gasol, drew contact, and scored a bucket. A few possessions later, he knocked Gasol backward with a jab-step and sank a pull-up from the elbow.
Embiid did all of the things, big and little. He crashed the offensive glass from the top of the key and wound up with an easy put-back. He kicked out of a double team with a pass that eventually made its way to Furkan Korkmaz for a wide-open three. On the ensuing Lakers possession, he fought through screen to block James at the rim, igniting a 4-on-3 that ended with a Danny Green three. By the time Embiid checked out of the game for the first time, he had 13 points, and the Sixers had a 34-18 lead.
And then ... well, put it this way. In Embiid’s first four minutes on the bench, the Sixers did not score a bucket. By the time he checked back in, the Sixers’ lead had dwindled to seven. The Lakers would pull as close to two as the Sixers struggled to find any consistent scoring that did not originate with their big man.
Yet, two quarters later, there they were: eight minutes remaining, Embiid rising off the bench, a nine-point lead on the scoreboard. They’d gotten the scorer they previously lacked in the form of Tobias Harris. They’d gotten a defensive effort reflective of the team they need to be. And then they watched it whittle away into near-disaster, until Harris saved them at the end.
“You look at games like tonight, I thought I didn’t play well at all. . .and we still got the win,” Embiid said. “I felt like I could have done much more, but we’ve been playing well and we’ve got to keep that same mentality. We’ve want to win every game, but we have to win games like we should.”
What did we learn? Well, the Sixers are not a perfect team, but you didn’t need to see the Lakers score 13 straight points to know that. More so, we learned that they have the potential to be a lot less imperfect than we may have given them credit for. This is particularly true if they continue to get what they got from Harris throughout the second half, a player capable of getting the Sixers buckets that do not require much contribution from Embiid (who was clearly hampered after a hard fall he took in the third quarter). Harris’ go-ahead pull up with three seconds left may have been his most significant shot but it hardly stood alone. Harris may not be Davis, but the Sixers will take 24 points, even if they needed every single one.
It may not have been a convincing win, but it was a big one. The Sixers had entered the night with the best record in the Eastern Conference but also with one of its lightest schedules. Seven of their 12 wins had come against the four teams with the four worst records in the conference. They’d faced just two of the 12 players who received MVP votes last season, beating Pascal Siakam’s Raptors and losing to Nikola Jokic’s Nuggets.
In practice, their road to 12-6 had been even easier than it looked on paper. Their only two wins over opponents with winning records had both come against a Celtics team that was playing without Jayson Tatum. In both of their victories over the defending conference champions, the Heat were missing Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. When they played the Nets, they lost to a team that did not have Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, or James Harden.
If we are going to excuse the Sixers every time they play a game without Embiid, it’s only fair to adjust our credit when they face an opponent that is missing its own best player(s). With that in mind, they entered Wednesday night with a big ol’ incomplete on the report card. They’d shown plenty to warrant excitement, but still lacked that signature win.
We can debate whether this one qualifies, given that it featured a 13-0 Lakers run that lasted right up until Harris’ game-ender. In the end though, it was a win, and the opponent was the Lakers, and both of those things count for a lot.
“We’ve got the team with the best record in the NBA coming into your building. . .I just think we did a great job,” Embiid said. “We had a few lapses and made some mistakes but thsoe wins are great and it’s going to give us a lot of confidence for the next couple games.”
For now, what the Sixers lack outside of Embiid shouldn’t overshadow what they have with him.