Because the 76ers pushed their chips into the middle of the table for the best talent they could get, it has depleted their depth a bit. Heck, maybe it didn’t impact their depth at all and they never had any. Either way, they’ve backed themselves into a corner and have a major conundrum when it comes to finding Joel Embiid’s replacement during the most important games of the season.
It’s looking like the team will be able to rest until the playoffs when they’ll host either the Orlando Magic or the Brooklyn Nets. Both teams offer unique challenges. The Magic have a dynamic and underrated center in Nikola Vučević who doesn’t allow Embiid any real estate in his mind.
The Nets have given the Sixers trouble over the last two years because they have an explosive and unpredictable fleet of guards who execute pick and rolls or isolations very well and draw Embiid away from the rim.
Beyond those matchups, things will get exponentially more difficult with teams like the Bucks, Raptors, and Celtics waiting in the weeds.
What we can reasonably expect
Rotations tighten up during the playoffs. And depth matters a bit less than it does during the regular season grind. Just ask the Raptors of last year who had one of the best benches ever and then got summarily dismissed by LeBron James when he decided it was finally time to play hard.
But depth still matters. Last year Embiid went from 30.3 minutes per game during the regular season to 34.8 during the playoffs. That’s about a 15 percent increase. This year, he’s played 33.7 minutes per game. Projecting a similar bump would put him at roughly at 38-39 minutes per game. That’s a lot for a guy who is maybe 7’2 270 and nursing left knee tendinitis. For contrast, Kawhi Leonard, who is often on a similar “load-management program” only played 32 minutes a game during the year the Spurs won the championship in 2014. But that’s probably what it will take to win a few playoff series.
That means head coach Brett Brown is going to have to fill at least 10 minutes per game without his best player. His choices are:
Offers little offensively, but knows just what to do defensively even though he can’t always get to his spots. A great personality and brain but a bit late in the game for his athleticism. Doesn’t stretch the floor, doesn’t rim run in transition, can’t defend wings in space.
A good rebounder overall and a crafty offensive rebounder, brings a throw-back arsenal of low-post moves that he can score with or draw doubles and kick it out. But he is a definitive liability on defense, limited laterally and in big trouble when lured away from the paint. Doesn’t stretch the floor, doesn’t rim run.
Eminently capable protecting the rim and posting up. A surprisingly good passer. Like Johnson, he is an elite chemistry, locker-room personality (the ultimate replacement for Johnson). But not likely a major component of a championship run. Doesn’t stretch the floor, doesn’t rim run in transition, and doesn’t defend wings well at all.
If you’re objectively ball-parking championship scenarios here for Philadelphia, even unlikely ones, they include Bolden and/or some small-ball lineups. Let’s focus on ones that include Bolden here. Bolden can stretch the floor and get up the floor in transition. He can switch out onto a guard in a pinch and hold his own.
Bolden is young. He can move laterally. He can hit open 3s or at least draw his defender far away from the rim.
Jonah Bolden is shooting 42.1% from 3 since January 1st.— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) April 7, 2019
When he plays the pick-n-roll or the pick-n-pop game with Jimmy Butler, he offers valuable gravity and draws defenders away from ball-handlers. The ball simply moves better when he’s in, compared to alternative substitutes. If you close out on him he can score at the rim in just one head fake and dribble. Like Boban, he’s a pretty good passer.
Bolden with a very very pretty lookaway hits Zhaire in the corner pic.twitter.com/rZsHa6jUKN— Liberty Ballers (@Liberty_Ballers) April 7, 2019
Good passes that come from a guy who often catches the ball outside the 3 point line seem to be more valuable than passes that come from a post up option. At least to my fallible eye. It just appears that the floor spacing and ball movement are better when he’s in.
A lineup of all the starters and Bolden (sans the MVP candidate) has appeared in 9 games for 82 minutes. They’ve outscored their opponents by 9 points. They have 52 assists on 74 made field goals and 48 free throw attempts. Their offensive rating is 109.7 and their defensive rating is 102.6 per NBA.com.
The team’s assist to turnover ratio in these minutes is 2.36. That would be good enough for the best in the entire NBA. It’s only 1.796 on the year, the 14th mark overall.
Here is a decent example of why. Just ask Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler or Tobias Harris if this wasn’t some of the most fun and selfless basketball they’ve played this season, the game against Oklahoma where they had 33 dimes on 42 made field goals without Embiid. Bolden was in and the ball really moved well:
That’s a little better than one with all of the starters and Amir Johnson, the categories are number of games where the lineup appeared, total minutes, offensive and defensive rating and net rating:
If you’re a fan of small-ball, here is how a lineup replacing Bolden with Mike Scott has performed, again games, minutes, offensive rating, defensive rating, net rating:
It’s very weird to me that’s only been experimented with for 39 minutes.
It’s the defensive end where Bolden’s inexperience and lack of years in the weight room can hurt the team. Because of so much wheeling and dealing by the Front Office, all of our sample sizes are pretty tiny. The team has not had the luxury of developing chemistry and continuity. So we largely, need to rely on film to support our hypotheses. Recently Sarah Todd of The Inky did a terrific review of some of his current strengths and limitations. One of his flaws Todd notes is his tendency to harmlessly back up and box out his man while allowing a lay up.
But let’s do even more!
So what does the film say about Bolden?
He’s quick and agile, but lacks awareness, experience, and lower body strength.
Sometimes his raw speed allows him to get somewhere on the floor older and more experienced players can’t get but the game hasn’t yet “slowed down” for him as they say.
I pulled some issues that popped up over a few of the games he played significant minutes in recently. Many of them can be addressed in the days before the NBA playoffs. Things like getting bullied by 7’ 250 pound Kiwis like Steven Adams is better left for the summer.
But maintaining focus throughout the end of a possession and erring on the side of protecting the rim even if it means neglecting his own man in a less threatening part of the court would help immediately.
On the whole, I don’t think that coach Brett Brown should try to get away with sitting another one of his starters when Embiid sits. I think the team struggles so much in these scenarios that come playoff time they’ll absolutely need all four-starters and someone like Bolden or Scott (I would have added James Ennis but his quad injury changes the equation a bit). If he wants to play T.J. McConnell, it should probably be when Embiid is reinserted.
Anyway, here are some areas Bolden can improve.