Regardless how you feel about Brett Brown as a head coach, you should at least feel some sympathy for him as the first-place Sixers barrel towards the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference at full health.
Why the sympathy?
It goes back to a phrase Brown used frequently – “land the plane.” It was an analogy he used to describe the process of managing the regular season in a way that kept all of the players healthy and in form for the postseason.
They never really truly landed that plane with Joel Embiid, who went into the 2018 playoffs with a broken face and a Phantom of the Opera mask. Prior to his return, in game three of the Miami series, he had missed three full weeks, undergoing surgery after the ill-fated collision with Markelle Fultz’s shoulder.
In 2019, Embiid made it to the playoffs healthy, spelled by Boban Marjanovic and Greg Monroe throughout the spring. But in the Toronto series Boban was taken out of the rotation and Monroe limited in his role, which forced Joel to play 147 minutes in games four, five, six, and seven.
2020 was again a wash, with the sixth-seed Sixers going down to the bubble and then losing Ben Simmons entirely. They were swept out of the playoffs with Embiid and a bunch of non-shooters on the floor.
If you fast forward to this year, Doc Rivers’ team is blowing out lesser squads en route to the #1 seed, and he’s flying the world’s most maneuverable plane.
He said this when asked about the idea of either ramping up Embiid’s minutes over the final six games, or throttling down and deploying the landing gear:
“I actually don’t know the answer. I’ve always gone back and forth on whether not playing your normal minutes is good or not. I think it’s good, for all of our guys, but I think the science people would actually differ. They think their normal minutes is what they should play because it helps them in the long run with their conditioning. I just know that taking them out with a big lead is safer. I look at it that way. Getting all of those guys through a game healthy right now is very important as well.”
It’s actually a good question.
If you remove guys from a game you manage their legs and mitigate the possibility of injury. But the sports science folks would say that you keep a player at his peak conditioning when they meet the normal amount of minutes they’ve been playing all season long.
Embiid himself seems to fall somewhere in the middle of the debate:
“I think it’s good and it’s not, because I want to play as much as I can just to make sure I’m ready to handle a playoff load. When we get there (to the postseason) I’m going to have to play 36-38 minutes per game, so I just want to make sure I’m ready. When we have games like (Houston), or the last few, where I haven’t played (full minutes), I gotta get back and do my own conditioning. But like I said, it’s great and it’s also something that’s not good.”
For what it’s worth, Joel played 29.2 minutes per game in April, and is currently at 31 MPG in three May games. His season average is 31.5, which is up from last year but actually down from 2018, so they’ve done a better job of managing his workload while playing a COVID-shortened season (in which he also missed time with the knee injury).
More Embiid, on if he feels “fresh” going into this postseason:
“It’s good and bad. You don’t get the full conditioning you need for the playoff run. I’m not going to be playing 25 minutes (in the postseason). Hopefully we can get a couple of blowouts, but that’s hard to do in the playoffs. You want to go into the playoffs, I think, kind of upping your load. You have to play more minutes. That’s the way I see it, just to make sure you’re used to it before you get there. But I’m glad we’re winning and taking care of business. It’s up to me, on our off days, to get on the court and play basketball and do whatever is necessary (to be ready).”
The Sixers can clinch the #1 seed in the East with four more wins. They’ve got six games over the next ten days to get it done, which means they might be able to rest Embiid in one or both of the Orlando games on the 14th and 16th. From then, the play-in tournament takes place from the 18th to the 21st, and then the first round begins on May 22nd. Regardless of how the Sixers close out the season, they will have at least six days off before the postseason begins.
Again, it’s a great problem to have. If Brett Brown was piloting a rickety and obsolete World War I-era Bristol Type 22, then Doc Rivers is in the cockpit of a F-22 Raptor. He has multiple options on how to land this thing, as the Sixers head into the playoffs in the most tenable situation they’ve experienced since Joel Embiid first donned a uniform.