NBA Daily: Sixers Face Rotation Questions As Embiid Returns

With Joel Embiid returning to the lineup, the Philadelphia 76ers will need to figure out how to maximize the talents of both their star center and Ben Simmons. Quinn Davis looks at their options going forward.

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Updated 12 months ago on
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On Jan. 6th, the Philadelphia 76ers hosted the Oklahoma City Thunder. The team was looking to snap out of the malaise that it had fallen into after dominating the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks on Christmas Day.

The game progressed as most home games for the Sixers had up to that point. They smothered their opposition on the defensive side of the ball and eventually pulled away. The story of the game came earlier than its finish, however, as Joel Embiid’s finger was pointing in an unfortunate direction late in the opening quarter.

Embiid was taken to the locker room and taped up before returning to the game, which ended in a Sixers win. All was not well though, as tests the next day showed ligament damage and prompted the big man to opt for surgery on the finger, sidelining him for at least two weeks.

Head coach Brett Brown, still working out the kinks of a fully healthy roster, was now forced to find a way to survive without his team’s centerpiece. The fact that the Sixers were sitting in sixth place in the East made the injury all the more ominous.

Fast-forward two weeks. The Sixers went 6-3 in the nine games without their star center. They most recently dispatched the Los Angeles Lakers in an impressive home win.

Ben Simmons has been playing his best basketball over these last two weeks, putting up efficient scoring numbers while continuing his success as a floor general and perimeter stopper. Simmon’s dominance has not only been the impetus for the Sixers staying afloat, but also for the myriad takes and opinions on the team’s roster construction going forward.

Watching Simmons unleash fury in transition throughout these recent games has opened the door for questions regarding the team’s identity. Some have gone as far as pondering trades centered around Embiid in an effort to build a perfect team for the 6-foot-10 point guard.

While Simmons has been great, the Sixers’ offense has not. Since Embiid went down, the Sixers only scored at a rate of 105.8 points per 100 possessions, good for 26th in the NBA in that span. Their defense, meanwhile, had held opponents to 102.7 points per 100 possessions, which ranks second in that same time period, per Cleaning the Glass.

The offensive ineptitude is partially due to a shooting slump. The team is shooting 32.6 percent from deep since Jan. 7th. Three-point shooting can fluctuate randomly at times, but it would be fair to assume that open attempts have been harder to generate without Embiid demanding double teams in the post.

Even with the clunky fit, the Sixers will only go as far as the young duo will take them. Breaking them up could help establish an identity, but that identity would likely be a fun team headed for an early playoff exit.

With Embiid back following Tuesday’s win against the Golden State Warriors, the team will need to figure out a way to reincorporate the big man while still letting Simmons be most of himself. That could involve some rotation reconfiguring by Brown, some deadline dealing by general manager Elton Brand — or both.

The most drastic of rotation changes would be to move Al Horford to the bench. While he and Embiid have proven to be a destructive defensive duo, there have been growing pains offensively.

With the Simmons-Horford-Embiid trio on the court together, the Sixers have an offensive rating of 102.6, per Cleaning the Glass. That number would be almost one full point below the league-worst Warriors. Fortunately for the team, they’ve been able to offset the appalling offense with a 99.2 defensive rating.

When Simmons and Embiid play together without Horford, the offensive rating shoots to 119.8, nearly four points above the Dallas Mavericks’ league-leading number. When you filter for lineups with Horford and Simmons but no Embiid, the number is not quite as high but still sits at a very solid 113.0.

Splitting up Horford and Embiid seems like a logical conclusion based on the numbers, but there are obvious drawbacks. For one, this would cut Horford’s minutes into a dangerously low territory as the backup center to Embiid. Horford signed a 4-year, $109 million contract with an eye on starting at power forward for this Sixers team. Going back on that promise midway through his first season with this group could have a chilling effect on the team’s locker room.

Brown is a known experimentalist when it comes to lineups, so it wouldn’t be out of his comfort zone to shake things up despite chemistry concerns. If Horford is on board, it would certainly be worth a look before the playoffs.

Moving Horford to the bench would also allow the team to start Matisse Thybulle. The rookie is still figuring things out on offense, but has proven to be a menace on the defensive end. He is currently averaging 2.9 steals per 36 minutes, tied for first in the league.

With that said, Brown will likely opt to let his team fight through the missteps and try to build chemistry. The Sixers showed flashes of greatness earlier in this season and when engaged have looked like the best defensive unit in the league. The team could learn a lot about the viability of the Horford-Embiid pairing in an upcoming three-game stretch against their foes at the top of the East. The Sixers will see the Celtics, HEAT and Bucks in consecutive games during the first week of February.

That stretch will carry them right up to the trade deadline on Feb. 6th. The Sixers have been mentioned in reports for almost every available shooter and shot creator on the market. Brand has been an active trader in his stint as the team’s GM and should be exhausting all possible options for the team over the next two weeks.

The team’s salary situation makes those options limited. Acquiring a starting-quality player would be nearly impossible without giving up a starter in return. The Sixers have been linked to Danilo Gallinari, but his salary would be impossible to absorb without the sending out either Horford or Tobias Harris.

The Sixers could package together Zhaire Smith, Mike Scott and some draft capital to bring in a bench contributor. The names most commonly offered here have been Derrick Rose, Davis Bertans and Marcus Morris.

The team could use a jolt of shot creation when Simmons sits, and Rose would be perfect for that role. This would do little, though, to quell the spacing issues around Simmons. If that is the main concern, Bertans would be the ideal fit.

Bringing in both of those two would take some tight maneuvering. It’s likely that the triumvirate of Brand, Brown and ownership will need to come to an agreement on the most pressing need for the team at the deadline.

Any road they travel will come with risks. Moving a veteran to the bench comes with the aforementioned chemistry concerns. Any trade will almost certainly involve the departure of Scott, a solid locker room presence and fan favorite.

The Sixers could also stand pat and ride out their current rotation in the hopes that defense truly does win championships. Whichever route they take, the end result could determine Brown’s job status and the makeup of the roster next season.

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Quinn Davis is a contributor for Basketball Insiders. He is a former collegiate track runner who currently resides in Philadelphia.

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