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The immediate concern regarding Joel Embiid’s absence

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Philadelphia 76ers v New York Knicks Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Joel Embiid will miss this evening’s Sixers game against the Houston Rockets. It’s part of a trend — maybe you’ve heard about it: the star big hasn’t played in a single game since before the All-Star break. Including tonight’s contest, the tally comes to an 8-game absence and for some Sixers fans, the situation is dragging on just a bit longer than they’re comfortable with. While alarmists fear that Jojo’s knee tendinitis could be a bigger problem than initially perceived, there is a more immediate issue at hand.

When Elton Brand pulled the trigger on the deal that brought Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott to Philly, he effectively overhauled the Sixers’ roster mid-season. And it wasn’t the first time this year that the Sixers have made a move to significantly change the team’s roster construction (see: Jimmy Butler trade). There’s been so much turnover that one would have to count down to the Sixers’ 4th most used five-man lineup (the new starting lineup) to field a unit made up of players still on the roster. Since the team’s deadline dealings, their new starting lineup has played a meager 73 minutes together — or six quarters worth of basketball. In other words, Brett Brown’s go-to unit has about as much continuity as your neighborhood pickup game. Compare the minutes played (73) to that of other starting lineups:

  • Toronto Raptors: 541 minutes
  • Milwaukee Bucks: 565 minutes
  • Portland Trail Blazers: 685 minutes
  • Oklahoma City Thunder: 684 minutes

Now it’s not as if the Sixers players are total strangers to each other, still at the awkward ice-breakers stage of their relationship development. Four players out of the starting five, Butler-Redick-Simmons-Embiid, have logged 450 minutes of playing time together. However, the player who most consistently rounded out that four-man bunch was Wilson Chandler, and the difference between Chandler and Tobias Harris is massive. Chandler is more of a “shoot it when your open, otherwise just blend in” type of guy. Harris on the other hand demands his fair share of the offensive load. While a member of the Sixers, Wilson Chandler’s usage rate was 11%. In 11 games with Philly, Tobias Harris’ usage rate is nearly double that at 20.7%*.

*Side: Harris’ usage has likely seen some inflation due to Joel being sidelined, right? (Embiid is averaging 18.6 FGA this season, and those shots have to go elsewhere when he’s inactive.) Nope. Harris attempted 14.8 field goals per-36 in the games where both he and Embiid played, compared to 15.3 for Harris when Embiid has not played. Also, Harris’ assists per-36 have gone down during Jo’s inactivity. It’s not as if we should expect Harris’ usage to go down much upon Joel’s return.

The Sixers’ new starting lineup has played in a total of four — FOUR — games together. Even if Joel Embiid comes back for the team’s next game (Sunday 3/10 vs. Indiana), the lineup of Embiid-Simmons-Butler-Redick-Harris will get to play in at best 16 games together, for a total of 20 games played. Talent is paramount, and the Sixers have the top end talent to match up with any of the other Eastern Conference contenders. But the margin for error shrinks when your season is four losses from ending, and there’s something to be said for continuity when the on-court abilities of each team are comparable. At the risk of sounding overly reactionary, the debacle against the Bulls is somewhat of an indication that the players on this team have a concerning lack of understanding of each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies, especially on the defensive end.

The challenge of learning and adapting on the fly isn’t impossible to overcome. But it’s damn hard when the team is hardly practicing, and the most prominent player is out of the rotation. Brett Brown has a little over a month to get his team firing on all cylinders. Even more important than addressing offensive miscues is building a defensive unit that is aware of its deficiencies and has the wherewithal to supplement those weaknesses with communication and an innate sense of where to be and when to help. The most efficient path to doing so is getting the team’s crunch-time five on the floor together as much as possible. That simply cannot happen until Embiid returns to the court.