There is no doubt that Joel Embiid has been on a MVP campaign this season. He’s averaging the most points per game in his career, and doing it in only 30 minutes. He’s shooting career highs from every spot, with absurd 55/41/83 splits. Embiid is scoring for fun, in a lot of different ways. He’s still got his bully ball post ups and free throws like always, but he’s shown a lot of refinement from the mid range as well.
With Embiid playing better however, that means when he sits it’s leaving an even bigger gap. Embiid, with his injury history, is a player that you can’t be too careful with. Load management will be necessary with Embiid, and it will be a common sight for Embiid to sit on back to backs or short breaks away. The problem is that the Philadelphia 76ers without Embiid this year have been terrible.
They are 0-4 (they only have six total losses) without their starting big man. Not only are they losing, they are losing to mediocre or just plain bad teams. They’ve played the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Denver Nuggets, the Memphis Grizzlies and the Detroit Pistons without Embiid. Cleveland is below 500, the Pistons are one of the worst teams in the league, the Grizzlies are barely above 500, but the Nuggets are pretty good. All the starters and some of the bench missed the Nuggets game however so that one can be thrown out.
The other three games are concerning and not just because of the loss. The Cavaliers blew them out, winning every quarter clean. It was a similar story against the Pistons. Against the Grizzlies they were still down double digits going into the fourth, although they made that one much closer by the end. Despite that the fact remains that the two worst teams they lost to without Embiid crushed them.
What’s Going On?
Of course, it’s a low sample size so far. In the past, the 76ers have been surprisingly decent without Embiid. According to this handy-dandy graph from reddit user johnniehop, the 76ers are nearly 500 without Embiid the past two years, at 19-21. 500 without your best player is not bad at all. For example the Los Angeles Lakers in their past two years when without LeBron were 9-18 in 2018 and 2-2 in 2019. The Cavaliers without LeBron were 4-23 between 2014 and 2018.
What’s been the difference between this year and the past? A major discrepancy has been the play of Ben Simmons. In the past years, Simmons has upped his game when Embiid has sat. Simmons increased his points and rebounds by a solid amount, while only losing one assist in the past two years without Embiid. Last year especially Simmons was great, averaging 20.1/8.1/7.1 while shooting 62% from the field.
This year has been different. Again, low sample size, but he’s kept the points the same as his season average (and he’s averaging a career low 12.8 points per game), his assists drop by three and he’s not really rebounding the ball more either.
Seth Curry has also performed horribly without Embiid. He has less games to look at, just two, but Curry has been dismal in those two games. He averages 15.6 points on the season on league leading 56/57/100 splits. Without Embiid he’s been under 10 points both times and is shooting in the 20s percentage-wise. Concerning trend or just statistical misfortune? No idea, but it’s something to keep an eye on.
Another factor has been the replacement. Al Horford wasn’t a good fit next to Embiid but he did well without him. Howard has been the opposite. He’s been fine when just spelling Embiid for a few minutes. However it’s been rough when Howard has to start. He’s not really doing any better with the extra minutes, and in fact he’s turning the ball over way more and fouling more. The team also seems to turn the ball over more when Howard is on, with more failed lobs and entry passes than with Embiid.
Time to Worry?
Look, it’s early. It’s just four games. The 76ers are still undefeated when the starting line up plays together. They are top of the eastern conference. But Embiid hasn’t played over 64 games in a season yet, which was 78% of the season. Coincidentally, Embiid has played 78% of the season so far, putting him on track to miss at least 16 total games.
If they can’t win half of those, that’s the difference between their current one seed and an easy playoff matchup versus a battle against someone like the Brooklyn Nets (current 5th seed) or the Atlanta Hawks (current 6th seed), two dangerous teams that have already beaten the 76ers this year. If they want a chance at the Eastern Conference crown, they’ll need to up their play when Embiid isn’t available. It starts with Simmons. A little Curry would help too.