There are plenty of things you can count on life. Death, taxes, at least one Philadelphia street being closed during a drive through the city.
Joel Embiid being in the lineup every night is not one of those things. When the Sixers pivoted from Jimmy Butler to Al Horford this offseason, there was plenty of legitimate skepticism about general manager Elton Brand’s vision for the roster. Despite the team’s blistering start, time could still show the merit in those critiques.
Plenty of questions remain: Do they have enough three-point shooting? Do they have a clutch enough crunch-time scorer? But there is one significant thing that isn’t in doubt: the Sixers are a much better team this season when Embiid is not on the court. And that’s exactly what Brand had in mind when constructing this roster.
Six games into the season, Embiid has already missed three games. In a perfect world, you’d rather he’d waited until deeper into the schedule to start suffering sprained ankles and two-game suspensions. Load management doesn’t do a ton of good when the load has yet to arrive. Still, Embiid’s absence for half of the Sixers’ 5-1 start has given us an early opportunity to see what this team looks like when he isn’t on the court. And while nobody will be happy if he finishes the season with fewer than 50 starts, the rotation has shown that it is far more capable to thrive without its star big man than at any point since the Sixers’ return to competitiveness.
Wins and losses are the ultimate arbiter, of course, and the Sixers are 2-1 with a +2 point differential in the games that Embiid has missed. Compare that to last year, when they were 8-10 with a point differential of minus-86 in the 18 regular-season games that they played without the big guy. Granted, it’s a small sample size thus far, but the deeper you look inside the numbers, the more reason for optimism you find.
The Sixers’ competitiveness without Embiid extends much further than the three games that he has missed. In the three games that Embiid has suited up, the Sixers have played their opponents to a virtual deadlock in the 68-plus minutes that he has been on the bench. With Embiid in the game, they’ve outscored teams 179-147, per Basketball-Reference.com. With him out of the game, they’ve been outscored 151-150. That might sound like a drastic split, but consider what it was in the two previous seasons. In 2017-18 and 2018-19, the Sixers were outscored by 268 points in the 3,851 minutes that Embiid was not on the court. That’s a negative point differential of 3.3 points per 48 minutes.
In short, the Sixers’ offseason blueprint is working according to plan. Better, even. One of the biggest questions heading into the season was how Embiid and Horford would coexist on the court. Yet in the 42 minutes that Embiid and Horford have played together, the Sixers have outscored opponents, 90-76.
The offensive part of the Horford-Embiid pairing is clearly a work in progress. The Sixers are scoring an average of 97.8 points per 100 possessions when the two big men are paired, compared with 107.4 overall. But they’ve been otherworldly on the defensive end, holding teams to an average of 82.6 points per 100 possessions. Only four teams in the NBA have featured a more effective defensive twosome this season (minimum: 40 minutes).
In the nearly 37 minutes that the Sixers’ starting five has played together, opposing teams are averaging 91.1 points per 100 possessions, the fourth best mark in the NBA among five-man lineups with at least 30 minutes played together. And each of the three teams ranked in front of the Sixers have played at a dramatically slower pace.
The significance of Horford’s presence was on display most prominently in the Sixers’ emphatic 117-95 win over the Timberwolves last Wednesday. Minnesota big man Karl-Anthony Towns entered the game averaging 5.0 three-pointers per game on 9.7 attempts, and it was clear from the outset that the Timberwolves wanted to get him going from deep. On most teams, this would result in a pick-your-poison mismatch -- use a smaller player as the primary defender on Towns and give up size in that matchup and speed elsewhere, or pull your big man away from the rim and open up the paint. But the Sixers came out of the gate with Horford checking Towns and Embiid floating around the paint, a combination that bedeviled the Timberwolves all the way up to the point that Towns and Embiid were ejected for their third-period scuffle.
“I believe that that’s one of my strengths, to be able to put in different parts and defend different people, bigs or smalls,” Horford said. “And not only me, but Ben does that as well, and Joel -- it’s tough to go through him in the paint. I think it works to our advantage when we do these types of matchups.”
Yet the biggest success story of the Sixers’ young season has been their performance without Embiid, particularly on the defensive end of the court. Last season, they allowed an average of 112.7 points per 100 possessions when Embiid was on the bench. This year, that number is just 107.1.
No doubt, the Sixers are something less than elite without Embiid. That defensive rating of 107.1 without him pales in comparison to the 89.6 that they have posted with him on the court. But the first six games of the season have shown that they are much more capable of keeping their collective head above water when Embiid is not with them. And it has also underscored the reality that Brand sought to address this offseason: that having Embiid with them is no guarantee.