It went from bad to worse last night when Joel Embiid’s precautionary testing revealed an orbital fracture and concussion, suffered Wednesday in a second-quarter collision with Markelle Fultz.
The Sixers’ big man is expected to miss two to four weeks of actions, according to ESPN, and would likely return for the start of the playoffs or midway through round one. He has yet to undergo surgery.
Until then, the Sixers will play eight more regular season games without him, a schedule that includes just two playoff teams and six non-playoff teams, with four on the road and four at home. It is not, thankfully, murderer’s row, and this roster is good enough to beat the likes of Atlanta and Dallas sans Joel in a continued push for home court advantage.
For what it’s worth, the Sixers are 3-8 without Embiid this season, but five of those losses came on the second night of a back-to-back, long before Joel was cleared to play in those games. In full context, not only are you missing your best player, but you’re traveling and tired, so I don’t know how much those back-to-back losses can be blamed on Embiid’s absence and how much can be blamed on weariness in general.
More than anything Embiid provides on the offensive end, his vacancy as a defensive player of the year candidate is significant. Embiid’s defensive rating of 99.7 is best on the team and one of the best numbers across the league. 1.8 blocks per game is 7th best in the NBA and his defensive rebound percentage of 28.9 is 18th-best. He’s sixth overall with 8.7 rebounds per game and posts the league’s 9th best defensive win share percentage at 0.055.
All of that is a fancy way of saying that Embiid is an elite defensive anchor, but you knew that already. You see that with your eyes. Driving past Robert Covington or JJ Redick doesn’t mean as much when Joel Embiid is ready to welcome you at the rim. The Sixers, as a group, are the NBA’s 4th best defensive team and 2nd best when it comes to disallowing points in the paint. You probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Utah is #1 in that department, which confirms what we already knew – Joel Embiid and Rudy Gobert are both pretty damn good.
So the Sixers will cover Embiid’s absence in three different ways:
- Amir Johnson starts
- Richaun Holmes off the bench
- Usage of Dario Saric as a stretch five alongside Ersan Ilyasova
Let’s start with Johnson.
Does he bring the same amount of energy as Richaun Holmes? No.
Is he a better offensive player? Probably not.
Do you get more from him on the defensive end? Yeah, you do.
And that’s how Brett Brown sees it. That’s how he’s seen it the entire season. He’s been quoted multiple times saying that Amir gets the minutes he does because he’s steady defensively and that’s something this team puts a lot of value in.
Before I get ahead of myself, let’s just compare the numbers each guy is putting up:
Amir actually shoots the ball at a slightly higher clip, but he doesn’t shoot as much as Holmes, which is why you see the disparity between FG% and points per game. Johnson gets higher extrapolated marks in offensive rebounding, steals, and blocks, while Holmes isn’t too far behind in most categories, playing almost exclusively with the second unit. Johnson gets much more time playing alongside Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, and Robert Covington.
To that point, Johnson’s defensive rating is better than Holmes’. Basketball reference has the numbers rounded off to 103 and 104, but when I go over to NBA.com, they’ve got Amir listed at 102.9 and Richaun at 106.5. I’m sure why the huge difference there, but again, keep in mind that Richaun is doing most of his defensive work with the second team. When you watch his game, he’s active under the basket but doesn’t possess the same defensive awareness that Johnson has. Sometimes he’s late to slide to recognize where the ball is going. Amir’s legs aren’t what they used to be, but has a veteran shrewdness that serves him well on that end of the floor.
The advanced numbers favor Johnson, too, with an edge in win shares, box +/-, and VORP.
I’m not too high on that stuff, but here’s the chart if you want to take a look:
On the offensive end, I think the most obvious thing is that the spacing looks much different when Embiid isn’t out there. Johnson and Holmes are basically zero threat to shoot outside of the paint, so you’re not going to see them dragging centers out to the three point line the same way Joel does, or taking advantage of guys who sag too far into the paint.
You definitely will not see these two plays from Holmes or Johnson:
Amir might try one or two of those, but he only shoots the three at 29.6% this season on a whopping 0.4 attempts per game.
The last game Embiid did not play was the 104-102 home win against Miami before the All-Star break, before the signing of Ersan Ilyasova and obviously long before Markelle Fultz returned to the lineup.
But they did have Marco Belinelli making his debut, and he went for 17 off the bench. The Sixers shot 42.4% that night and just 9-35 from three, but got 19 points out of Dario Saric and 18 out of Ben Simmons in a come-from-behind win. Johnson went for 5, 4, and 3 in 20 minutes and Holmes snagged 11, 9, and 2 in 28 minutes. Johnson was the starter and defensive preference, while Richaun came in as a spark off the bench.
I think that’s obviously the formula for these final eight games, all of which are winnable.
They had some success in the Miami game simply running sets for other guys. Here you’ve got an Iverson cut and combination flex for Saric, who gets the bucket at the rim:
Nicely done, right?
They also did some solid elbow work with Holmes, who I think is a better screener and roller than most people realize:
You’ve got plenty of ways to run sets without Embiid in there. There’s enough firepower between Redick, Simmons, Saric, and Belinelli to score the points required to win. I don’t think that’s the issue at all. Maybe Markelle even gives you 8 to 10 points off the pine.
In fact, Dario usually steps his game up when Joel is out. You saw a lot of that in the early part of the season when Embiid was on the load management/no back-to-backs routine.
In the Miami game above, Saric went for 19, 8, and 3.
Here’s how he’s done in the other games Embiid has missed:
- 1/29 at Milwaukee: 19, 9, and 2
- 12/30 at Denver: 20, 9, and 6
- 12/21 vs. Toronto: 18, 10, and 9
- 12/19 vs. Sacramento: 11, 9, and 3
- 12/18 at Chicago: 27, 8, and 1
- 12/10 at New Orleans: 13, 11, and 4
- 12/9 at Cleveland: 17, 9, and 6
- 11/30 at Boston: 18, 10, and 4
- 11/7 at Utah: 25, 10, and 1
- 10/21 at Toronto: 9, 7, and 1 (came off the bench)
Dario is averaging 15, 7, and 2.5 this season, so you see in that list above that us usually plays well beyond his numbers when Embiid is out. I think that gives Brett Brown incentive to roll out that stretch five look, especially with Ersan Ilyasova replacing Trevor Booker as the backup four, a guy who can shoot the ball.
I think they’re in good position. I really do. Throw Amir out there, give him 16 to 18 minutes, let Richaun come in and play 20, then use the small ball/stretch look with Dario when necessary. The Sixers play a bunch of cup cakes down the stretch, teams that hopefully are smart enough to lose on purpose at this point in the season. I don’t see why they can’t rip off five or six wins without Joel, who then returns wearing a cool mask and picks up where he left off.