No Embiid, No Problem for the Sixers

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Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid dribbles during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

You are checking the ESPN website for the next Sixers game. Maybe you’re trying to gather details before a sports bet. Perhaps you are setting your fantasy hoops lineup for your weekly matchup. Whatever the case, you notice Joel Embiid’s status does not look good. He is out for the game due to whatever health issue the team lists. Bummer. 

We have seen for years how the absence of Joel Embiid translates to team struggles, both offensively and defensively. Prior to this season, during instances in which he sat, the Sixers had to work extra hard to score and obviously lacked his anchoring defense. This year has been different though (albeit two games). What factors have revealed a difference in how the team plays when Embiid sits?

Beard Boost

Let’s begin with James Harden. Today’s version of Harden resembles the player Philly hoped to get after the Ben Simmons trade. He is now showcasing his vast array of masterful offensive guard skills on a level that the city has not seen since Allen Iverson, scoring at will and from multiple areas on the floor. Although Harden still pounds the ball on some possessions to the point of splintering a crack into the Wells Fargo Center floor, he is getting teammates involved.

Already this year, Harden is second in the league in assists per game (10.0), dishing out dimes like confetti in a Phillies World Series parade (fingers crossed). The familiarity he has with former teammates is evident, finding them in favorable spots throughout games. His willingness to pass to an open man while being a legit threat to score, unlike Ben Simmons, is refreshing, especially since Harden draws double teams at a rate that is tops in the NBA, according to NBA Court Optix.

If James Harden continues his current play whenever Joel Embiid sits, Sixers fans can have an extra sense of relief about their placement in the standings, counting on a rejuvenated, healthy James Harden to help carry the load.

Maxey 3.0

Some fans will claim that they saw it coming, but I don’t even think Tyrese Maxey saw it coming. With his “one percent better every day” mentality, the third-year guard is seeing enormous improvement in his game, which helps supplement any points that the Sixers would lose without Embiid on the floor.

When Joel Embiid is out, it now seems that Tyrese Maxey has the green light on offense. Against the Wizards recently, Maxey took 22 shot attempts. This was five shots higher than the next player, James Harden. On this Halloween night matchup, instead of having the ball fed to Embiid every other possession, waiting for a double team to come, the ball moved around and, more often than not, ended up in the hands of Maxey. With his expanding bag of offensive moves, he put those on display versus the Washington.

After developing trust from the Sixers’ coaching staff, Tyrese Maxey has become a serious threat around the NBA, where teams now have to prepare for him even more this season because of another leap he’s taken. Would you believe he averages more double teams than Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, and Ja Morant? That’s right. As of today, he gets doubled 14 times a game, good for 12th in the entire NBA. Who would have thought? 

What is comforting to see for Philly fans is that the scoring of Tyrese Maxey gives the Sixers offensive output that otherwise, in past Joel Embiid’s absences, would be sorely missed.

A True Sixth Man

Although the Shake Milton experiment at sixth man didn’t quite work out the past few seasons, the newest addition over the summer has really shown the second unit a path to production. De’Anthony Melton has clearly been the most consistent role player off the bench. The Memphis Grizzlies’ unwillingness to pay him turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Doc Rivers and the Sixers.

Whenever Joel Embiid misses games now, a reliable bench performer like Melton can increase his shot diet. He has shown a willingness to shoot and an ability to execute on the perimeter or in the paint. This is something this franchise hasn’t seen in a while.

Aaron McKie was a critical bench piece in the 2001 Sixers run, and Lou Williams developed into an all-time great sixth man. Melton might arguably be as good a scorer as both of these former Sixers and maybe even slightly better because of his defense. Currently, his average on-ball defensive pressure score (72.1) is in the top 20 among all players.  

Will this kind of winning be an ephemeral pattern, or can the 76ers maintain success whenever they’re MVP candidate is off the floor? The novelty of it is as surprising as it is impressive. A vacant middle without Embiid has typically created a huge void, but it appears that it could be a thing of the past.

AP Photo/Matt Slocum