Sixers analysis

Extended Embiid absence has major implications on style of play, playoff picture, more

With Embiid set to have a procedure on his left knee, a lot changes for the Sixers. 

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Asked Sunday about the Sixers’ approach to replacing Joel Embiid, Jaden Springer spoke the truth.

“I mean, you can’t replace Jo,” Springer said. “He’s the MVP; that’s Joel Embiid.”

Still, Springer wasn’t short on optimism.

“I feel like we’ve all got the same mindset,” he said. “We’re going to go out there, compete with each other, give it all we’ve got. We feel like we’re capable of beating anybody. So just going out there, playing hard and playing the right way, I feel like we’ll be just fine.”

With the news Sunday night that the reigning MVP is set to undergo a procedure on his injured left knee, the Sixers’ Embiid-less abilities will certainly be tested. 

It’s a brutal turn of events for Embiid, who will clearly fall short of the NBA’s new 65-game minimum for end-of-season awards. If he’d stayed healthy and maintained his special level, there’s a good chance the Sixers’ seven-time All-Star center would have won a second straight MVP award and a third straight scoring title.

The impending trade deadline surely looks much different for Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey now than it did when Embiid was routinely scoring 40-plus points and the Sixers were 29-13. They’ve lost five of their last six games and have injury woes outside of Embiid. Tobias Harris, De’Anthony Melton, Nicolas Batum and Robert Covington all missed a loss Saturday night to the Nets.

Perhaps Morey will grow more inclined to add a reliable center to the mix before Thursday afternoon. Among the logical names to consider would be Andre Drummond, who thoroughly enjoyed his 2021-22 stint in Philadelphia. Marc Stein reported Sunday via Substack that Drummond “continues to generate considerable interest from various playoff-bound teams looking to add a proven center to the roster.”

For the time being, the Sixers’ main center tandem is Paul Reed and Mo Bamba. There’s also players on the roster with small-ball center experience, including Batum and KJ Martin. Nurse would “ideally” like Reed and Bamba to handle all the Sixers’ center minutes without Embiid, but that won’t always happen.

Nurse said Reed was “under the weather” Saturday and Bamba “got a little banged up,” so Martin played a bit at the five.

“I played small ball in Houston a lot … so I’m familiar with it,” Martin said Sunday. “Obviously we’re going to be undersized, so we have to box out and get rebounds. But in a good sense, you can play faster. I can get in pick-and-rolls quick, get out, and make the bigs make a decision. 

“And if our pick-and-roll’s working and we’re playing fast, the other team has to make a decision of whether they want to go small also or (whether to) keep the big on the floor. So there’s advantages and disadvantages. But I feel like if we just stay active on both ends of the floor, it’s easy to do it.”

Nurse’s options have generally been sparse with the Sixers so shorthanded. 

“All we’re really after is a good, honest, hard-fought effort, especially at the start,” Nurse said, “so we can give ourselves at least a 50-50 chance of pulling one out at the end. … We’ve just got to make sure everyone’s mentally and physically in the best shape we can be in when the ball goes up, no matter who we’re playing. That’s kind of our goal right now: We’ve got to give ourselves a chance in these games to pull one out.”

The big-picture reality is that Embiid’s an enormously impactful player. Some changes without him are obvious, like Tyrese Maxey becoming the Sixers’ unquestioned top option offensively. However, other shifts in team identity are trickier. 

For instance, the Sixers could try to emphasize a rapid, transition-heavy, somewhat riskier style. They rank 14th in the NBA in pace, but that could rise if athletic players like Maxey, Kelly Oubre Jr., Reed and Martin seek more open-floor opportunities. 

The Sixers could also lean into a current core strength. They lead the league in offensive turnover percentage and, regardless of personnel, have tended to be strong in that category under Nurse. 

How does Nurse weigh those areas? Would meaningfully increased pace be worth a few more giveaways? 

“Listen, I think we certainly value possessions,” he said. “And what does all that mean? Well, first of all, you take care of your own basketball. We do that very well. … We are something like fifth in the league in (fast-break) points, so we are getting a pretty good share of ‘em. We like to create turnovers. We like to take that defense and turn it into offense. We like to offensive rebound. 

“For me, with the zillion things going on, it still comes back to total possessions in a game, right? If you get more possessions than your opponent, your chances of winning go to 60 percent really quickly — on just that one thing. … So we do focus on taking care of the ball. And obviously (points per possession) is the highest in transition, so we like to try to play with some pace. I think that was something we really needed to kind of shift into this season.

“When we started playing, I was like, ‘My goodness, we’re not nearly playing at the pace we could be playing at.’ And I think we’ve upped that a little bit, but … we’ve still got some work to do there for sure.”

There’s challenging work to do across the board without Embiid. In terms of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, the Sixers are fifth with 34 games to go, seven games back of the top-seeded Celtics. 

The Sixers are one game behind the No. 4 Knicks and 3.5 ahead of the No. 6 Pacers. The East teams sitting in play-in tournament positions are the Magic, Heat, Bulls and Hawks. 

On paper, the Sixers have a tougher schedule than the teams right behind them. According to Tankathon, Orlando’s remaining schedule is the NBA’s easiest, Indiana’s the third-easiest, and Miami’s the fifth-easiest. The Sixers’ remaining opponents have a .506 winning percentage, which is 12th-hardest in the league. 

The games will keep coming for the Sixers without their do-it-all big man.

“He creates so much offense,” Nurse said. “Not only for himself, but he creates so much offense for us. So, now where are we creating all that offense that we’re missing? … That’s a big one. And then the second one’s got to be rim protection. Defensively, we’ve got a style where we’re trying to be aggressive and we’re trying to create turnovers. Well, that’s going to put some pressure on the rim at times, and he cleans a lot of that up. 

“You’re adjusting several big pieces of what you’re doing at each end of the floor without him.”

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