PHILADELPHIA — Through 24 minutes of Friday night’s game between the Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers, Joel Embiid was unstoppable. He tossed around every defender Indiana threw at him like a rag doll, drawing one foul after another. He was a beast on the boards, bullying his way to the rim, and even hitting some shots from the perimeter.
By halftime, Embiid had 28 points and 14 rebounds, and Philadelphia had a 57-49 lead. But then things went south for him and, by extension, the Sixers.
It’s not that Embiid was bad after the break; instead, it was that he was merely human. His second-half totals — 12 points and seven boards — saw him finish the game with a ridiculous 40 points and 21 rebounds. But Embiid being merely human for any portion of the proceedings wasn’t good enough for a Sixers team still dealing with the aftershocks of trading for Jimmy Butler, who has missed the past two games with a groin injury.
The result? Philadelphia fell 113-101 to Indiana Friday night. In doing so, the Sixers fell to fifth place in the Eastern Conference, showing both the heavy burden Embiid has to carry and the deficiencies of Philadelphia’s roster after its franchise-changing move.
“I did,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said, when asked afterward if Embiid looked tired in the second half. “I feel like it’s a product of he’s really got a lot on his shoulders, you know, as far as the weight of our expectations on him, and he certainly expended a lot of energy in the first half.
“But I did feel like he fatigued, and I give some of that credit to Indiana because of how physical they were in the second half.”
76ers coach Brett Brown speaks to the media about what went wrong for Joel Embiid in the second half vs. the Pacers.
It would be easy, from Philadelphia’s perspective, to wash away the team’s past two games — losses to the Pacers and Brooklyn Nets — as being solely down to the absence of Butler. And, undoubtedly, having an All-Star available for duty would’ve significantly enhanced the Sixers’ chances of coming out on top.
But doing so would mean ignoring the issues cropping up across the rest of the roster that all came rushing to the forefront Friday night.
The most obvious: Philadelphia’s lack of depth with or without Butler. Embiid, JJ Redick and Ben Simmons combined to score 80 points Friday night. The rest of the Sixers managed to put up just 21, on 8-for-32 shooting.
“Role players have got to step up, and I’ve got to play better,” said Wilson Chandler, who went scoreless and missed all four shots he attempted in 30 minutes. “We’ve got to feed off these guys. We’ve got to make shots. We’ve got to play defense, and do all the little things.
“Tonight, I know certainly I didn’t. I need to step up from that standpoint.”
This goes beyond making shots, though. The removal of Robert Covington and Dario Saric from Philadelphia’s rotation due to the Butler trade means Sixers head coach Brett Brown has 64 minutes each game he needs to fill on a nightly basis. When healthy, Butler will take up at least half of them. Filling in the remainder, however, has proved to be a challenge.
Rookie Landry Shamet, who scored seven points on 2-for-3 shooting Friday night, has been a revelation this season. The No. 26 pick in the 2018 draft out of Wichita State has shined early in his rookie season. But while he’s shooting over 38 percent from 3-point range, Shamet isn’t a defensive presence. In fact, he’s ranked 89th among 94 qualified players at point guard in ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus. Furkan Korkmaz, meanwhile, is a shooting guard being forced to play backup small forward minutes — or, on nights like Friday when Butler is out, starting at the 3.
Both of them struggled to handle Indiana’s physicality, the latest reminder that Brown has been forced to rely on a pair of 21-year-olds to shoulder significant burdens for him this season.
“I don’t feel like it’s who to play, or where to play them,” Brown said. “We’re left with Furkan and Landry, so we know who it is, and where we’re going to play them. Now it is, how are they going to produce? In that sense, it’s not a mystery. Here they are. You go right down the list and it’s not like you’re going to have a wide variety to choose from. It’s not so much that … it’s trying to get those guys to expedite their birth certificates. They sure felt all of their physicality and how difficult Indiana is to [stop]. I thought both of them struggled tonight.”
Their issues alone, though, don’t explain away Philadelphia’s issues defending points guards ever since the trade. Before it, that task fell to Covington, one of the league’s best perimeter defenders. In his absence, though, the Sixers don’t have anyone really capable of doing it — and the numbers bear that out. In the 17 games since the trade, Philadelphia has allowed eight opposing guards to score at least 30 points, including two games where multiple guards hit that many (New Orleans Pelicans guards Jrue Holiday and E’Twaun Moore, and Brooklyn Nets guards Spencer Dinwiddie and D’Angelo Russell), and another where Kemba Walker became the only player in the league this season to reach the 60-point barrier.
Indiana’s two-headed monster at point guard, starter Darren Collison and backup Cory Joseph, became the latest tandem to give the Sixers trouble Friday night. They combined for 22 points on 9-for-13 shooting, to go along with 14 assists and just two turnovers.
“Defense,” Embiid said, when asked for the reason behind his team’s recent struggles. “Pick-and-roll, like I keep stressing, we have to adjust a lot. Like I’ve said in the past, It’s hard because the coaches want us bigs to stay back and you know you have guys that just come and pull up, and when you come up, they get lobs or easy baskets.
“Indiana runs a lot of pick-and-rolls and they took advantage of that.”
According to Second Spectrum data, Philadelphia ranked 10th in the NBA at guarding the pick-and-roll prior to the Butler trade. In the span since the trade, the Sixers rank just 21st.
One potential solution could be a Markelle Fultz trade. But with last year’s No. 1 overall pick in the midst of rehab for thoracic outlet syndrome — something his camp hopes will rectify his shoulder issues and allow him to return to the player whom Philadelphia traded up to select — it’s impossible to get a read on what his trade value is, or if he has any at all. Rookie Zhaire Smith, meanwhile, has yet to play a game after breaking his foot this summer, then having allergy issues slow down his healing process. Justin Patton would also offer, in theory, the kind of piece the Sixers could use, but after breaking a foot twice since being drafted last year, it’s impossible to expect him to fulfill a significant role for this team.
That has led executives around the league to expect Philadelphia to try to do what it did last year and land potential difference-makers in the buyout market. But while Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova played huge roles in the Sixers’ late surge last season, a quick look at the history of players who join contenders after taking buyouts from their current deals will show that what Belinelli and Ilyasova did was far more the exception than the rule.
All of this only complicates the already tricky tightrope Philadelphia has to walk to manage the combination of Embiid, Butler and Simmons on the court. Even with the perfect supporting cast, that trio — for all of their obvious talents — doesn’t smoothly fit together on the court.
Couple that with the deficiencies of the roster surrounding them, and Brown’s job won’t be getting any easier anytime soon.
“It’s still early,” Embiid said. “We are still learning how to play with each other. We just have to figure out each other’s tendencies, like where one likes to have the ball and likes to operate, but it’s fine. It’s great. We had been winning … the last two games, they were just unfortunate.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about winning. We all have the same goal, and it’s to win the championship. That’s what we are all about.”
Making the Jimmy Butler trade was designed to move Philadelphia closer to achieving that goal. By making the deal, though, the Sixers now have plenty of holes to fill if they want to accomplish it.