After an offseason of widely applauded roster moves, this season’s version of the Philadelphia 76ers was supposed to find themselves jockeying for position at the top of the Eastern Conference.
Instead, injuries, coaching, and consistency issues have plagued the Sixers, who sit at 12-12 just past the quarter mark of their schedule.
There’s no doubt that missing their best three players has been the focal point of the struggles. Philly has been without Joel Embiid, James Harden, and Tyrese Maxey for a combined 31 games. Head coach Doc Rivers somehow morphs into Phil Jackson when he’s lacking his most talented soldiers.
The Sixers went 3-1 without Embiid, Harden and Maxey in the lineup. Embiid returned and led Philly to a comeback win over the Atlanta Hawks before the team dropped its next two against playoff-bound squads in the Cleveland Cavaliers and Memphis Grizzlies.
Harden was set to return, and everything was supposed to get back on track on Monday when the Sixers visited a 6-17 Houston Rockets team that will be firmly in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes come time for the end of the season.
Of course, we all saw how that turned out. Embiid was his usual-dominant self with 39 points and 7 rebounds. While a rusty Harden shot four-of-19 from the field and came up short on possible game-winning situations in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Rivers has been given some leeway due to the injuries, but now, with Maxey’s return on the horizon, the pressure will mount again for the head coach. With a full roster intact, the team will need to get a run to get back in the hunt for a top seed in the East and show the basketball world that they’re a legitimate contender.
On the latest episode of The 30 podcast, I spoke with ESPN’s Jorge Sedano, who covers the league for the network as a sideline reporter. Sedano agrees that Doc’s performance needs to be way better but also believes Harden needs to find another gear on both ends of the floor for the Sixers to reach their potential come playoff time.
“The Harden thing to me — that's where this lies. I feel like Joel has done his job for the most part in the postseason.I feel like Tyrese Maxey a helluva job last year in that series against the Heat. I did a couple of those games on ESPN. And I felt like Maxey played played fairly well.
So I think that to me, the question is, does James Harden fit right with this team? Again, in theory, it should work. But I think ultimately what happens is in a playoff series, we’re talking about teams game planning for each other in a way that just doesn’t happen during the regular season.
And it’s less about now about what your strengths are, but what your weaknesses are to me in the postseason. And the weakness is going to be that James Harden potentially can be had on the defensive end, right? And I think that can he not be exploited, I guess rather for the Sixers sake, is the question to me and obviously, for one reason or another, historically he has not performed even on the offensive that the same way. He’s had moments, but for whatever reason he hasn’t lived up to what we’ve seen historically during the regular season for him. So I think to me, those are bigger questions than Doc.”
As our Bryan Toporek pointed out, Harden hasn’t been nearly as good as he was over the first four games of the season. Offensively, his two-man game alongside Embiid hasn’t been near as good as the Sixers had hoped. Among the ninemmates who Embiid has spent at least 100 minutes with on the court this season, his combination with Harden has the second-worst net rating for two-man lineups, per NBA.com. He’s also shooting just 50 percent from in-close, his worst percentage since his rooking season, per Cleaning the Glass.
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