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Sixers need a better plan for when Joel Embiid misses games

Starting Marcus Morris at the 5 ain’t it, chief.

Philadelphia 76ers Blue & White Scrimmage Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Joel Embiid has missed three of the Sixers’ first 19 games this season, including each of the past two. The Sixers have lost all three games, the first two of which were far bigger routs than the final score might suggest.

“NBA team is worse without its best player” is the type of hard-hitting analysis that you come to Liberty Ballers for, I know. Good luck finding a team for which that isn’t true, particularly when said player is the league’s reigning MVP.

The Sixers don’t stand a chance in the playoffs unless Embiid makes it there in one piece. They should brace themselves for him to miss at least 10-15 regular-season games with that in mind. And they need a far better plan for any games he does miss moving forward.

Rather than start Paul Reed in place of Embiid, head coach Nick Nurse instead opted to go with Marcus Morris as his starting “center” against the Minnesota Timberwolves and New Orleans Pelicans, to predictably disastrous results. Morris scored 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting (including 3-of-5 from deep) against the Timberwolves, but he was still a minus-7 in only 16 minutes. He was far less potent against New Orleans—he scored seven points on 3-of-7 shooting—and was a minus-17 in 17 minutes.

At 6’8” and 218 pounds, Morris stands no chance against traditional big men such as Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert and Jonas Valanciunas. He provides almost no rim protection and can’t outrebound guys who have a huge size advantage over him. Unless he’s knocking down three-pointers and stretching the floor out—which he did in the Sixers’ blowout win over the Los Angeles Lakers—he isn’t a viable option at the 5.

Reed wound up playing more than Morris against both Minnesota (26 minutes) and New Orleans (27 minutes) despite coming off the bench. He racked up 10 points on 5-of-9 shooting, nine rebounds (including six offensive boards!) and four blocks (!) against the Timberwolves, and he had nine points on 3-of-4 shooting, five assists, four boards and one steal against the Pelicans.

Reed isn’t much bigger than Morris—he’s listed as 6’9” and 210 pounds—but he gives the Sixers a better shot of holding their own on the glass, and he’s a far better rim protector as well. Perhaps Nurse opted to start Morris over him in fear of foul trouble, but Reed is averaging a career-low 5.1 fouls per 36 minutes this season.

Besides, it didn’t take long for Nurse to pivot away from Morris in both games. Reed replaced Nicolas Batum against the Timberwolves with 8:36 left in the first quarter, while Mo Bamba entered the game for Morris against the Pelicans with 7:20 left in the first quarter (and the Sixers already in a 16-6 hole). The Timberwolves were up 17 by the end of the first, while the Pelicans were up 15.

Perhaps Nurse is starting Morris in the non-Embiid games as an olive branch for a player who’s been frustrated by his role (or lack thereof). However, there’s no guarantee that Morris will even be on the roster after the Feb. 8 NBA trade deadline since his $17.1 million expiring contract is the Sixers’ best salary-matching chip.

Maybe they’re just experimenting to see what (if anything) Morris can provide as a rotation player before they move him. But the Sixers also need to see what they have in Bamba, who has played only 57 minutes thus far this season.

Bamba had his best game of the year in the Sixers’ shorthanded loss to the Boston Celtics this past Friday. In a season-high 20 minutes off the bench, Bamba finished with 11 points on 4-of-7 shooting (2-of-4 from deep), six rebounds, one assist and one block.

Bamba often looks lost on the floor and sometimes looks like he’s never even played basketball before, but then he goes on a five-minute stretch that makes you realize why the Orlando Magic took him with the sixth overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft. His lack of playing time could be contributing to that inconsistency.

“People think you’re not playing, you should be able to come in if you’re healthy and be ready to go, but a lot of basketball is having rhythm,” Bamba told reporters after the Celtics game. “Having that continuity with the guys you’re out there with, and I think being out there’s a big part of it.”

When Bamba signed with the Sixers in free agency this past offseason, Reed’s future in Philly was still up in the air. Their decision to match the offer sheet that Reed signed with the Utah Jazz pushed Bamba further down the depth chart, limiting his ability to carve out a role in the rotation.

While team president Daryl Morey thinks Sixers fans tend to overly fixate on the backup center position, Embiid’s injury history—particularly during the playoffs—begs to differ. Perhaps this is the year that Embiid will make it through an entire postseason run unscathed, but the Sixers can’t bank on that. They need to know whether they have a reliable answer in place for any games that he does miss, whether in the regular season or in the playoffs.

Starting Reed ahead of Morris and playing Bamba more in the non-Embiid games would at least help them figure that out either way. If they realize that they need an upgrade over Bamba, that could help inform their approach leading up to the trade deadline.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference. All salary information via Spotrac or RealGM.

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