It feels like eons ages when the Philadelphia 76ers were knocked out of the playoffs, and Joel Embiid’s tearful walk to the locker room was put on blast by the entire internet. While the shot from Kawhi Leonard, which bounced on the rim an illogical amount of times, may still keep many Philly fans up at night, it feels as if just about everything outside of Joel Embiid has changed in the organization.
However, there is one massive concern that was put on full display in the 2019 series that may still ring true on this current 76ers team. It was the inability of the 2019 team to survive the minutes in which Joel Embiid was not on the floor that ultimately sunk the Philadelphia 76ers’ title hopes, and they will be forced to fight the same battle this year.
2019 Series by the Numbers
To start with, Joel Embiid was far from perfect in the 2019 Raptors series. The then 24-year-old Embiid averaged just 17.6 points and 8.7 rebounds in his 33.9 minutes of play throughout the season. The Cameroonian was battling a knee injury that held him out of a game in the previous series and also was struggling with the flu. Even so, Embiid led the 76ers with a +89 net rating in 237:18 game minutes largely due to his defensive impact, which was highlighted by the 2.0 blocks per game he averaged.
The backup center duties were held down by Greg Monroe and Boban Marjanovic during this postseason, with neither one of them capable of providing servicable time. In the 48:35 that Monroe was on the floor, the 76ers
were a collective -23, and Boban was an astonishing -44 in just 27:35 of play. Admittedly a player’s +/- is not the best indicator of a player’s level of play, but the connection between Embiid’s minutes and the 76ers’ success were quite clear in this series.
The 76ers are Missing Andre Drummond
In fairness to Daryl Morey, this was an issue that he has made a priority during his time in control. Morey first shipped off Al Horford and the nauseating contract that was attached to him for Danny Green as his first major move after becoming President of Basketball Operations in 2020. He then signed Dwight Howard to be the backup center.
While Howard was flawed and also proved not to cut in in the playoffs, the 8-time all-star was still an upgrade over what the 76ers had previously had. Then leading into this season, Morey signed Andre Drummond to a one-year deal, and the 28-year-old exceeded all expectations during his time with the team. After averaging 6.1 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 2 assists per game during the 49 games he spent with the 76ers, Drummond, unfortunately, had to be involved in the Ben Simmons trade with the Nets.
This is not to say that this was the wrong decision by any means. You absolutely have to sacrifice a backup center when attempting to add the guy you believe is the proper co-star on a championship team. This is exactly what Morey did when pulling the trigger to land James Harden prior to the trade deadline.
It also is worth noting that James Harden could have an even larger impact on solving the issues of surviving non-Embiid minutes than even the best backup center. Harden can take the reigns and serve as the focal point of an offense while Embiid is off the court in a way that has never been the case before. If James Harden is productive in the minutes when Joel Embiid is off the court, it may not even matter who serves as the backup center this postseason.
DeAndre Jordan vs. Paul Reed
There has been a massive amount of buzz and uproar surrounding the backup center choices by Doc Rivers this season. Following the Andre Drummond trade, it seemed a certainty the 76ers would pick up a veteran big man off the free-agent market in the hopes they would have something left in the tank. This came to be once DeAndre Jordan worked out a buyout with the Lakers.
There are few people in the world who believe in DeAndre Jordan’s abilities on the basketball court more than Doc Rivers. Jordan had the best years of his career under Rivers during the lob-city Clippers’ days. Rivers, along with several other members of the Clippers, once even traveled to Jordan’s house to ensure he would not sign with the Mavericks in free agency. There was absolutely a time when DJ was a very effective big man in the NBA, but that was several years ago at this point. Jordan has been handed the backup job since he got to Philadelphia despite some discouraging stretches of effort and production.
In contrast, Rivers has given basically zero consideration to the young big man on the team despite the need for productive minutes. Charles Bassey has torn it up in this season with the Blue Coats and possesses a near-ideal size and frame. The 7-footer averaged 18.9 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 3.4 blocks per game this season in the G-League but tallied a total of just 168 minutes with the 76ers this year.
Bassey played over 15 minutes in an NBA game just twice this season and tallied 12 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 blocks in the one matchup and 13 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 blocks in the other game. Bassey also appeared in just 4 of the final 42 games for the 76ers, despite this being after the time Drummond was traded.
It took a near mutiny from Sixers Twitter and some available minutes due to Joel Embiid resting for Paul Reed to finally make it out the mud. Bball Paul served as the backup center for the final three games of the season and made sure to make the most of the opportunity. The foul trouble was an issue, but his activity and motor were greater than the 76ers had seen all season.
In the 43 minutes he played throughout the three-game, Reed tallied 38 points, 18 rebounds, 9 steals, and 13 fouls. While nearly all his shots were lobs and putbacks, Bball Paul also was an absurdly efficient 18 for 20 (90%) from the field in these games. Looking ahead to the Raptors matchup, it seems clear that Reed is the best option off the bench. No player on the Raptors is listed as over 6’9, but they are loaded with lengthy, athletic wings. One of the biggest assets in Reed’s game is his active hands and nimble feet and how they allow him to guard much smaller players on the perimeter.
While the obvious decision seems to be to roll with the hot hand and keep Bball Paul in the rotation, it is still unclear what Rivers will elect to do. Making a jump from being out of the rotation to playing playoff minutes would be a crazy turn of events, especially considering the growing pains that will absolutely happen with Reed on the court. This also falls on Rivers’ shoulders as these are growing pains that should have begun to work out quite some time ago.
Regardless of what happens, the Philadelphia 76ers will enter the playoffs ready to face the Raptors with championship aspirations and backup center concerns like it is 2019 all over again. Whether the same evils plague them or not is still to be seen.