The Philadelphia 76ers Are The NBA’s Biggest Postseason Wildcard

The Philadelphia 76ers Are The NBA’s Biggest Postseason Wildcard

During each of Joel Embiid’s MVP-caliber campaigns the past three seasons, it’s always been about waiting for the other shoe to drop amid the playoffs at some point.

In 2020-21, he suffered a small meniscus tear in his right knee and missed Game 5 of the first round. A year later, he suffered an orbital fracture and torn thumb ligament, which sidelined him for the first two games of the second round and hampered his offensive verve. Last season, he suffered an LCL sprain, which kept him out for Game 4 of the first round and Game 1 of the second round, and wore on him as the second round progressed.

Each time, Embiid struggled to replicate his MVP-level production, tied to both his health setbacks and individual shortcomings. And each time, the Philadelphia 76ers found themselves exiting the playoffs in the second round, well short of their championship aspirations.

This season — as Embiid followed up his MVP nod and subsequent playoff flameout by rampaging through the league averaging 36-11-6-2-1 on 65 percent true shooting — the other shoe decided to drop in late January. The 7-foot superstar injured the lateral meniscus in his left knee and has not played since January 29. Prior to that night, a contest against the Golden State Warriors, Embiid sat out the previous two games with an undisclosed knee injury as well.

At their peak, the Sixers rollicked to a 29-13 record and were 26-8 with Embiid in the lineup (63-win pace). They were third in the East, third in net rating (plus-8.3), fourth in defensive rating and sixth in offensive rating. They touted wins over the Celtics, Thunder, Nuggets and Timberwolves. Embiid was the runaway MVP favorite, prospering in a free-wheeling, well-spaced attack and aggressive, shapeshifting defensive system. The playoffs will always be the litmus test for this group, especially with Embiid at the helm, but few teams looked better at the halfway point of 2023-24.

Since then, with the big fella compromised and absent, the Sixers have spiraled. They’re 39-34, eighth in the East (1.5 games back of the sixth seed to avoid the Play-In Tournament), 14th in net rating (plus-1.9), 11th in defensive rating and 15th in offensive rating.

Remove those shiny opening 42 games and they’re 10-21, 23rd in net rating (minus-7.0), 23rd in defensive rating and 22nd in offensive rating. Operating without a healthy Embiid has plummeted them to deep lottery levels.

And yet, there’s still some reason for optimism as the postseason approaches, assuming Embiid returns in the coming weeks. There’s no tangible update for his timeline, but it does appear legitimate progress is occurring.

The group around him has been refined and is clearly curated to amplify Embiid’s glimmering stardom. Each night, the merits of their complementary skill-sets are evident, merely masked by ill-fitting duties, the lack of Embiid to bind everything and a loss on the scoreboard.

Sharpshooter Buddy Hield was acquired at the trade deadline from Indiana. Kyle Lowry signed in his native city after reaching a buyout with the Hornets following his inclusion in the Terry Rozier deal. Tyrese Maxey has assumed added responsibilities to grow on both sides of the ball. The rest of the (currently healthy) rotation — Nicolas Batum, Kelly Oubre Jr., Tobias Harris and Paul Reed — are all well-suited to play off of or back up the reigning MVP.

Maxey has continued sharpening his defensive aggression and awareness, while further downloading the intricacies of a floor general, such as playmaking and changes of tempo. He’s transformed from a very good player who was a major beneficiary of the Embiid-James Harden pairing to an incredibly good player independent of their presences. Alongside Embiid for 42 games, he averaged 26-7-1 on 57.8 true shooting. Without Embiid, he’s averaged 26-5-1 on 56.8 percent true shooting.

Because of the lack of ball-handling and scoring depth around him, defenses often elect to trap Maxey. The Sixers have, at best, been inconsistent capitalizing on those advantages. Embiid’s return will make that gambit much more dubious and reinstate their potent two-man game, which sautéed opponents throughout the first three months. It’ll also give Philadelphia two bona fide stars to anchor lineups together and apart.

While Hield’s role and production has fluctuated in his 23 games as a Sixer, he’s tailormade to thrive with Embiid back. Running a potent, wily dribble handoff connection, Embiid propelled elite off-ball shooters, JJ Redick and Seth Curry, reach career-best numbers in Philadelphia.

Hield is cut from a very similar cloth. He’s designed to drill spot-up and movement triples, boogie through DHOs or inverted actions, relocate into open space when defenses fixate on Embiid and/or Maxey, and wield his own immense gravity to behoove his star teammates. The Hield-Embiid tandem should be fruitful and frequent.

For months, the Sixers needed a secondary ball-handler behind Maxey, despite Patrick Beverley’s admirable efforts to provide that dynamic. With Lowry now in town, they’ve found it. The veteran point guard brings some off-the-bounce pizazz (35.1 percent on pull-up threes this year), pick-and-roll distribution, transition spunk and ability to defend up with his strength and savvy.

Philadelphia’s wisely managed his minutes (28.4 per game) — he’s at his best these days on a smaller load. That will become even more palatable once Embiid returns to alleviates some of his offensive necessity, and Lowry’s contributions should further pop in a winning environment.

Embiid as the hub, while keen movers and shooters in Maxey, Lowry and Hield dance off the ball, could be prolific. They and the Sixers’ offense will be better if they don’t have to domineer possessions as often and are enabled to more commonly display their off-ball talents.

Perhaps the headliner of the return for Harden, Batum appears perfectly curated as a role player next to Embiid. His defensive versatility — capable of functioning at the point-of-attack or roaming on the interior — deft passing touch (especially on entries all over the floor to Embiid), and malleable, snappy long-range shooting (38.9 percent in 2023-24) were optimized with a healthy roster.

In the 1.096 possessions Batum and Embiid have played together, the Sixers sport a plus-17.7 net rating. Before Embiid went down, the Frenchman shot 47.7 percent beyond the arc. Since then, he’s shot 26.8 percent. A fifth starter who excels from deep, on the offensive glass (5.0 percent offensive rebounding rate, 86th percentile), as a connective playmaker and can moonlight as a small-ball five is a tremendous asset. All of those aspects are simply less prevalent and celebrated when the team is floundering through a 10-21 stretch down its best player.

Philadelphia is desperate for more scoring and creation at the moment — and Batum doesn’t offer much of either — but it won’t be with Embiid. It’ll relish all that the veteran wing instills on the margins.

The understandable ire of many fans these days, Harris has been mired in a lengthy funk since being asked to scale up his role. Through 41 games, he averaged 17.7 points (60.5 percent true shooting), 6.0 rebounds and 3.1 assists. Over the ensuing 21 games without Embiid, he’s averaged 15.9 points (51.2 percent true shooting), 7.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists.

Barely taking on a larger share of the pie, he’s attempting one more shot per game (14.6 vs. 13.3). Instead, he’s relegated to onlooker, standing on the perimeter, bypassing opportunities — misfiring on the ones he does seize — and stumbling through creation pursuits in the half-court. For all the issues with Harris, he is a vastly better player and scorer when Embiid is available, even if he remains frustrating.

Harris’ running mate at forward, Oubre, has shouldered a grander offensive role in recent months at the expense of his own scoring efficiency. A narrower role off the bench — one focused on cutting, spot-up shooting and defensive playmaking rather than immense creation and ball-handling — is the ideal job.

With Embiid, the former Kansas Jayhawk averaged 12.5 points (56.3 percent true shooting), 4.1 rebounds and 1.2 steals, and buried 35.8 percent of his long balls. Without Embiid, his usage rate has spiked from 16.5 percent to 24.3 percent. His true shooting has cratered from 56.3 to 50.4. Despite averaging 17.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.1 steals, he’s netted 23.7 percent of his threes over this period. There’s a valuable reserve gig for him, but these makeshift Sixers aren’t the ecosystem for it. They may be soon, though.

Much like Embiid, a pair of possible rotational options, De’Anthony Melton and Robert Covington, are without defined timelines for any potential return. They fit Philadelphia’s ethos of volume perimeter spacers and rangy playmakers (the Sixers are fifth in opposing turnover rate). If either or both get healthy, they’ll further replenish this team’s depth and give head coach Nick Nurse more choices to mix and match lineups.

Among his spacing principles, offensive play design, defensive experimentation and rotational flexibility, Nurse has proven to be quite the impactful arrival this season. His offensive creativity and in-game adaptation give the Sixers new playoff wrinkles that his predecessor, Doc Rivers, failed to implement. He’s helped unlock Maxey and Embiid’s offense to unforeseen heights.

All of these factors — the experienced, innovative coaching and cohesive roster — coalesce for the most favorable situation Embiid’s ever enjoyed in a Sixers uniform (2019 is the only counter, yet Embiid is considerably better and that matters, too). They are, theoretically, built to make a deep playoff run.

But the overarching, pivotal question is whether Embiid himself is ready. For myriad reasons (health, attention to detail and execution vs. pressure, interior shot-making), he’s yet to translate the full scope of his regular season mastery into a postseason setting.

Will he be healthy and conditioned enough after such a lengthy hiatus to be the two-way destroyer of worlds we watched from October through January?

Will he see enough regular season action for a requisite ramp-up period before every game is of great importance?

Can Philadelphia nab the sixth seed, avoid a do-or-die scenario, and grant Embiid a bit more time to practice, get acclimated and shake off the cobwebs?

The margin for error feels so slim to nail this whole thing. There are only nine regular season games left and Embiid’s return is not concrete or imminent (at least publicly). Reintegrating him following 10 weeks away will not be an instantaneous process.

The Sixers are 1.5 games behind sixth-seeded Indiana and 0.5 games south of seventh-seeded Miami. They do not hold the tiebreaker in either matchup. A trip to the Play-In seems much more likely than not. There is, however, a chance to potentially gain some ground and stack wins, especially if Embiid is back soon.

Based on opponent win percentage, they have the second-easiest remaining strength of schedule (Miami has the third-easiest, Indiana the 14th-easiest). The Spurs, Raptors, Pistons, Grizzlies and Nets await the Sixers over the next 2.5 weeks. They also play the Heat — a fellow banged-up team — once more on April 4. Stealing a win or two against the Cavs, Thunder or Magic may go a long way toward staving off the perilous Play-In.

The 29-13 Sixers feel like a vague relic two months later. But the recipe is still around somewhere, and perhaps has even been enhanced. The centerpiece is in flux, though, and nothing else is relevant without it.

Embiid is the key to all this. He always is. If he is again an unbridled tour de force, Philadelphia resembles the conference’s second-best team and the Celtics’ most viable competitor out East.

If he is a shell of himself — a creaky, unreliable mover defensively whose offensive rhythm ebbs and flows — they will be swiftly dispatched by the good, talented, feisty Eastern Conference foes sitting above them.

Philadelphia and Embiid can get this right. It could be really, really fun and special if they do. I’m not sure they will, but that doesn’t mean they can’t. All that ambiguity renders the Sixers an enticing, confounding, volatile bunch primed to play postseason spoiler or leave without much of an imprint. Embiid — his status, performance, ability — will determine which direction their pendulum swings.


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