The Sixers have failed in finding a proper backup for Joel Embiid for several years. The search must switch to finding a stretch big.
While the ultimate ceiling of the Sixers is dependent on Joel Embiid, the franchise has failed in a major way in finding a proper backup for their superstar. It is a pretty simple concept that the Sixers are a better team when their best player is on the court, but it is impossible to task Joel Embiid with playing every minute especially given his injury history. While games he misses are certainly a factor, it is even more important to maximize the minutes he is off the court when Embiid does suit up- especially come playoff time.
In the playoffs this season, the Sixers registered a 122.4 offensive rating with Embiid on the court and 101.9 when he was off of it. The team had a 61.4% efficient field goal percentage with Embiid in the lineup compared to 47.5% when he was off the floor. The Sixers also registered a worse assist and rebound percentage and higher turnover percentage when Embiid was on the bench.
This is not a newly found concern for the Sixers as it was a crippling issue in the 2019 playoffs when the Sixers fell short to the Toronto Raptors. Newly promoted GM Elton Brand elected to go with Greg Monroe and Boban Marjanovic in this role heading into this season. In games 1 and 2 against the Raptors, Boban played just under 12 minutes and registered a minus-22 rating during his time on the court. In the Sixers losses in games 4 and 5, Greg Monroe registered a minus-25 in just 16 total minutes of play. Throughout the series, the Sixers outscored the Raptors by 21 points per 100 possessions when Embiid was on the floor and were outscored by the Raptors by 46 points per 100 possessions when Embiid was on the bench.
This is a gap that will never fully be filled, but Daryl Morey attempted to cut this margin by adding Dwight Howard as a free agent this offseason. The 16-year veteran is Embiid’s best backup to date and had a productive season averaging 7 points and 8.4 rebounds in 17.3 minutes per game. The experience that he was expected to bring proved to be a non-factor as Howard refused to cut out the senseless off-ball fouls, especially on the offensive end, and forced the former champ to be unplayable in the postseason.
From Al Horford to Amir Johnson to Richaun Holmes, the Sixers have certainly tried their hands at different backups for their Cameroonian superstar. But this repeated failure at finding the proper backup is less of an inditement on the players that have been thrown into this role and more on the philosophy of the signings. Joel Embiid is so impactful for the Sixers on both sides of the ball that any player put in the same role will simply be set up to fail.
Rather than searching for a backup center with a similar play style to Joel Embiid (like the Dwight Howard signing), the Sixers would be better off searching for someone with their own skill set that could help the team. The franchise should shift its focus to looking to add a stretch big that could provide the second unit with an interesting change of pace. The closest the Sixers have gone to committing to this idea was when Ersan Ilyasova was with the team. In the 76 total games he played with the team, the Turk averaged 13.6 points and 6.2 rebounds while shooting 26% from beyond the arc and was extremely impactful in his role.
As it stands, the Sixers have no backup center on contract for next year. Paul Reed is the only other big man that is under contract, but he also will likely be at his best with another big man on the court. Adding at least one quality backup center is essential for the Sixers heading into next season. However, the focus in free agency should shift to names such as Kelly Olynyk, Nemanja Bjelica, Nicolo Melli, Mike Muscala, or Luke Kornet. If Ben Simmons remains on the team next year, which seems unlikely, this would also benefit him in opening up the paint for lineups without Joel Embiid. Regardless, this additional skill set would prove much more impactful than any of the Sixers’ previous attempts at finding a backup center.