Against the Utah Jazz, Tobias Harris entered overtime with just nine points. But, at the behest of Joel Embiid — who is himself in the midst of his own MVP season — head coach Doc Rivers chose to feature Harris and fed him in the post.
And, for their trust, Harris rewarded the Philadelphia 76ers with multiple huge buckets to close out a season-defining win.
There was plenty to take away from the game, but those last five minutes stood out. In recent seasons, the 76ers have struggled to close out games consistently, especially on the biggest stage. But, during that most recent game (and through much of the season’s first half), Philadelphia has looked their best when it’s mattered most. They sport the league’s seventh-best offensive rating and fourth-best field goal percentage in clutch minutes, per NBA.com. When faced with a top-10 defense, they jump to fourth in offensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass.
While the regular season data is auspicious, it might not mean much. Particularly in this weird season where a lack of offseason conditioning and empty arenas have led many teams into a lull to start the year. Additionally, the clutch data on NBA.com can be a bit unreliable; for reference, the 2017-18 76ers finished fourth in clutch time offensive rating before that number collapsed in the playoffs.
That said, there are certainly differences in this team to be encouraged by.
For starters, Embiid has clearly taken a leap. He’s hitting 53 percent of his long twos and 41 percent of his threes this season, per Cleaning the Glass, while his face-up shooting and post-up game have been as efficient as ever. Arguably his biggest step this season, however, has been his fitness, which would now seem to be at the point where Embiid can stay on the attack for an entire game.
While a bit more subtle than Embiid, Ben Simmons has also improved. While he’s still a non-shooter, Simmons has been more far more aggressive on offense, particularly over the last month. He’s also improved his free throw percentage to just over 70 percent in that span.
The play of those two, along with a rejuvenated and motivated Harris, has been enough to carry the team to the top of the Eastern Conference this season. Now, the question for Elton Brand and Daryl Morey is simple: do they believe those improvements are enough to push the team through the postseason?
Like every contender, the 76ers could and should make some minor additions and adjustments before the trade deadline. While they lead the East, Philadelphia’s net rating is three points worse than both the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks, the conference’s second and third seeds, respectively. In fact, the 76ers’ plus-3.1 number is just eighth in the league. The disparity between their record and net rating can be largely attributed to the fragile construction of their bench; when Embiid and Simmons share the court, Philadelphia is crushing teams and posting a plus-15.1 net rating, per Cleaning the Glass; when either of them sits, the number plummets.
As currently constructed, the roster is akin to a house of cards: strong and sturdy when everyone is involved, but when one piece is removed the entire structure collapses. The struggles sans Embiid and or Simmons have been well-documented, but it goes beyond just the two stars. When Seth Curry missed time due to COVID-19, the lack of spacing was near-detrimental to the offense. When Shake Milton missed a few games, the bench went to wrack and ruin without a solid ball-handler to generate offense.
With that in mind, the 76ers are likely to be in the market for at least another ball-handler and a floor-spacing big man. Delon Wright, George Hill and Nemanja Bjelic, three players that would fit and shore up the team’s shaky reserves have been floated as possible additions.
But, was Philadelphia to go on a deep postseason run, those additions would only ever provide spot minutes. If they truly want to make a run with their current core, the 76ers must aim higher.
Morey, more than anyone in the team’s front office, should know this. With the Houston Rockets, Morey went all-in on Chris Paul as James Harden ascended to superstardom. In seven games, they came just short of an NBA Finals appearance, felled by one of the greatest teams the NBA has ever seen assembled. But, had Morey not pulled the trigger, the Rockets probably never get that far.
If they do look to add a big name, the pickings will be slim. The clear need is in the backcourt, particularly someone with range that can create out of the pick-and-roll.
Of course, that’s arguably the league’s highest-valued skill set. Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine, the two that best fit the bill, are likely unavailable, with both of their teams aiming for a playoff berth. CJ McCollum, another name frequently brought up in 76ers’ trade talks, is injured and just as unlikely to be moved.
So, who is obtainable and could get the job done? Kyle Lowry or Victor Oladipo likely represent the team’s best-case scenario.
Lowry, a soon-to-be unrestricted free agent, is the heart and soul of a surging Toronto Raptors squad. But the door is open, as parting ways would seem to beneficial to both parties. Unlikely to compete for a title, Masai Ujiri and Toronto could cash out their aging star before his eventual exit and build around Pascal Siakam. Meanwhile, Lowry, 34, might want to compete for another title, with Toronto or not, sooner rather than later.
As for Oladipo, Houston would be crazy not to move him. 28-years-old and also an unrestricted free agent, Oladipo should be the furthest thing from a fixture in the team’s post-Harden plan. Unlikely to re-sign, the Rockets should recoup what they can from a team that might not mind losing Oladipo to free agency.
Lowry would be the more expensive of the two. But, at this point, he is the better player and the Raptors have more reasons to hold the face of their franchise. That said, almost any deal, even if it were to include a young player like Tyrese Maxey or multiple draft picks, would be worth it for a player of Lowry’s caliber. Oladipo would be a decent consolation — and cost significantly less — but he may not be enough to push the 76ers over the edge.
Beyond those two, the right fit is hard to find. Buddy Hield would be nice (and is a rumor mill fixture), but the Sacramento Kings have shown no desire to trade either him or Harrison Barnes. Evan Fournier is another name that could work but, while it seems as if he’s been on the block for years, Orlando has yet to move him; is this the year they finally cut him loose? Given the emergence of Terry Rozier and LaMelo Ball, Devonte’ Graham could also prove a cheap but worthwhile addition as well.
Regardless of their target, Philadelphia must seize the moment. Embiid has played like an MVP, Simmons a Defensive Player of the Year and Harris is in the midst of a career-year as well; to let all that come and go and not so much as sniff the NBA Finals would be a major missed opportunity.
There are many reasons to feel good about the current 76ers roster, but they can — and must — think bigger.
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