One of the biggest problems with the Philadelphia 76ers earlier in the season was how the team’s performance plummeted when Joel Embiid wasn’t on the floor. The offense wasn’t as effective without its leading scorer and the defense just wasn’t the same without his remarkable combination of agility, strength and rim protection.
Even when looking at the numbers now after a recent surge without him, the Sixers have still scored 8.3 fewer points per 100 possessions when Embiid isn’t on the floor while allowing 5.5 more to their opponents. A 13.8-point swing is troubling.
But right now it’s something the Sixers and everyone in Philly can forget about. And I don’t just mean because of their 15 straight wins, including seven since Embiid went down with a fractured orbital bone.
Things haven’t dropped off a cliff when Embiid takes to the bench for a while now, and the sample size is only getting bigger. So, what are some of the key changes? (I'm not just going through everyone who's played well, so don’t doubt my appreciation for Dario Saric and Robert Covington).
Ben Simmons has been even more amazing
The biggest reason the Sixers have turned a corner when Embiid’s off the floor is Ben Simmons reaching another level. If there was ever any glimpse of a rookie wall approaching, he charged at it with full steam and smashed it to pieces.
His performance has only improved as the year’s gone on, from his continued stellar versatility on defense to his elevated play on offense. Simmons’ ability to get where he wants to go, control the pace of the game, and get guys shots exactly where they want them keeps getting better, despite facing defenses that try and slow him down by hanging back when he has the ball (I can’t imagine how good he’ll be with a trusty jump shot). And if you couldn’t notice from his veteran demeanour in the games, the numbers back it up, too.
In 2017, Simmons averaged 7.5 assists to four turnovers per game. Since the start of 2018, those numbers have changed to 8.7 assists and just 2.9 turnovers, all while he’s continued to make more passes per game than anyone in the league. Doing more with the ball yet somehow cutting down his turnover rate is quite something.
In the 15-game win streak and through Embiid’s recent absence, Simmons has exploded for some seriously monstrous numbers: 14.7 points, 10.1 rebounds, 10.6 assists (just 2.9 turnovers) and two steals with 60.8 percent shooting.
His emphatic display (27-15-13-4) and array of perfect passes against Cleveland felt routine:
Now, the best stat that the Sixers carry with them into the playoffs, with the uncertainty that Embiid could miss a game to begin with (and it’s not like he’ll play 40 minutes every night).
Before the All-Star break, the Sixers had a -5.3 net rating with Simmons on the floor and Embiid off. After the All-Star break, the Sixers have soared to a 5.6 net rating with Simmons and no Embiid. There’s still been a big drop (17.2 with Simmons and Embiid together in this span), but being an obvious positive with Simmons and a mixture of starters and backups is a major change for the better.
Simmons’ usage has increased and he’s done nothing but hone his game and an IQ that already seemed ahead of everyone else. He’s ascended to genuine top-25 player status. Surround him with some movement and shooters, and he’s shown that he can make it work by himself.
There are some other reasons for the Sixers’ improved play without Embiid as well, though.
Since finding his comfort in the Sixers’ offense and getting used to working with hand-offs and screens from his new teammates, Redick has been maximized with his new team. He’s taken more shots than ever with 12.6 field goal attempts per game, reaching a career-high 17.1 points a night to go along with 46/42/90.4 shooting splits.
Redick has also now averaged 22.8 points per 36 minutes in the 791 minutes he’s played without Embiid on the court — a solid jump from 18.9 when Embiid’s playing.
Post All-Star break, as the Sixers have really hit their stride when Embiid’s off the floor, Redick is averaging 25.6 points per 36 minutes in the time he spends without Joel. His movement off the ball is, as always, non-stop and effective, while his chemistry with Simmons continues to grow.
With a barrage of 3s, tough jumpers from anywhere and nifty layups when he gets a chance to get to the rim (his impact as a secondary playmaker never gets enough credit either), higher-usage Redick has been killing it.
I get it, not everyone loves Amir Johnson. He’s lost athleticism from his earlier years and he can’t space the floor or provide much scoring. He’s not a superstar bench player and doesn’t have the fun, athletic upside that Richaun Holmes has.
However, what Johnson does bring to the table is smart, reliable and fairly agile defense, as Kevin F. Love laid out so well here. Johnson boxes out and rebounds well himself (10 per 36 minutes), switches out pretty effectively in the pick-and-roll, and uses his positioning and solid instincts to deter shots at the rim despite not being a big-time shot blocker. There are reasons he’s 16th in the NBA in Defensive Real Plus/Minus this season, and why the Sixers have still been so secure on defense with Johnson in the starting lineup over the last seven games that Embiid has missed (generally weaker competition aside, they have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA in this short span at 98.3).
Johnson doesn’t change the team, but he certainly does his part on defense. And again, that’s something that can still help in minutes without Embiid in the playoffs.
The new guys
Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova have helped take the Sixers’ bench from a unit that tried to tread water without Embiid to a group that can actually be a positive.
Out of all the Sixers’ two-man combinations that have played at least 250 minutes together this season, Belinelli and Ilyasova are the sixth-best duo with a 12.7 net rating. They know where to be, they move the ball, Ilyasova adds extra spacing to the frontcourt, and Belinelli is like Redick-lite in terms of the way he moves off the ball, darting around screens and hitting tough 3s on the move or at awkward angles.
When the Sixers load up with shooting and use Redick and Belinelli together or the latter is by himself, the bench has a new dynamic, one that gives Simmons a new weapon to play with when he’s running non-Embiid lineups:
After all, 3s are always nice to have. The Sixers are sixth in made 3s per game at 12.1 since March 1 when Belinelli and Ilyasova were both underway with the team. Before that date, the Sixers ranked just 17th. They’ve combined to make 3.1 3s per game since arriving.
The bench's improvement hasn’t ended with Belinelli and Ilyasova either. Markelle Fultz has provided another encouraging spark, with his passing and ability to drive and spin his way to the rim giving the offense even more creativity when Embiid (and Simmons) aren't around to lead the way. I won't dive into everything that allows Fultz to help as you can read about that in my first Liberty Ballers article here, but more depth and talent only solidifies the team even more.
The bench and Simmons have been sharpening up at just the right time. Now, the Sixers are set to be in far better shape whenever Embiid isn’t on the court for a playoff run that could well take them to the Conference Finals.
The rest of the East should be worried.
All statistics courtesy of NBA.com.