There are all sorts of reasons why we shouldn’t overreact to anything we’ve seen over the last couple of months. In theory, that would be doubly true for Joel Embiid’s third game back from a three-week absence, and triply true given that said game was on the road in the midst of a brutal stretch of the schedule on a weird night that included a lengthy delay for a malfunctioning net. Yet these were the Celtics, and they were looking more Celtic-y than they have at any point over the last calendar year, and so it is notable that Embiid and the Sixers ended up with their lowest point total since Oct. 1, 2018, when they were also in Boston.
It’s far too early to use the heaviest of terms when discussing the Sixers’ disjointed and lackluster 11-11 start. Nearly two months into the season, the biggest thing we’ve learned is that eight games isn’t enough to learn anything. Eight games. That’s the number of times we’ve seen the Sixers’ take the court with a complete starting unit. In 11 of the other 14, they’ve been missing at least two starters. If you are discouraged or disappointed by the sum total of what you’ve seen, the real problem might be your expectations.
At the same time, you would have been well within your rights to raise an eyebrow at some of the things that you saw at TD Garden on Wednesday night. The Sixers’ sample size against the Celtics is a lot larger than eight games -- more than enough to consider what their 88-87 loss might portend. It would be easy to write off Embiid’s abysmal 3-for-17 performance from the field as an unofficial COVID side effect. The big man was coming off a 4-for-16 performance against the Magic, continuing his career-long trend of slow starts after long layoffs. This is the fifth straight season in which he has missed at least 21 consecutive days of action. In each of the previous four, it has taken him at least three games to rediscover his lungs and his legs. His field goal percentages in those first three games back each year: .417, .464, .474, and .408. This year, he is shooting .339 in his three games since returning.
Thing is, Embiid had squared off against Al Horford on eight previous occasions without battling the lingering effects of a virus, and he did not look a whole lot different than the player we saw on Wednesday night. In nine career games against Horford, Embiid is now 2-7 while averaging 22.8 points and shooting .411 from the field.
The Ben Simmons-Joel Embiid era may have lost its wheels against the Hawks, but it was the Celtics who loosened the hex nuts. In a weird way, this latest clunker offered support for the Sixers’ handling of the ongoing stalemate. The lingering question isn’t, “Can they survive without him?” It’s, “Would it have been any different than those previous games with him?”
Let’s not tumble over our skis. The Sixers are a better team with Simmons than they are without him. They currently rank dead last in the NBA in pace of play without Simmons’ unique ability to rebound the ball and push the rock in transition. That’s the secret sauce to running inferior teams out of the gym in regular season games. There’s no denying the Sixers would benefit from it. But they aren’t a .500 team because they are missing Simmons. They are a .500 team because they’ve been missing Embiid.
Reality is, the Sixers’ have not seen a marked decrease in production with Tyrese Maxey playing the point in place of Simmons. With Maxey, the starting unit has outscored opponents by an average of 12.4 points per 100 possessions. Last year with Simmons, their point differential was 13.9.
The Sixers’ most pressing concern at the moment is getting Embiid back to a place that he has yet to find this season. Even before his bout with COVID, the big guy was averaging just 21.4 points per game on .435 shooting, a far cry from his near-MVP marks of 28.5 and .513 in 2020-21. This year, they are a far worse team without Embiid than they were last year. It’s reasonable to attribute that to Simmons’ absence, although it’s just as reasonable to attribute it to the absences of Tobias Harris and Danny Green.
A much bigger issue is that the Sixers need to be better with Embiid on the court. With or without Simmons, this team is not going anywhere close to a title if their best player is anything less than great. That’s the primary reason the Sixers can’t afford to deal Simmons out of necessity. More than anything, last year’s loss to the Hawks was a testament to the folly of needing Embiid to play like an all-time great at all times. What remains to be seen is how close to contention the Sixers can come when Embiid is playing at a baseline with the current crop of starters around him.
Daryl Morey might be hard-pressed to parlay Simmons into an individual star of the caliber who would take a considerable load off Embiid. But it still makes plenty of sense for him to figure out what kind of team he has before he settles for something less than a blockbuster. Right now, he appears to be in the same position as the executives who proceeded him, searching for someone who can score points in Boston.