NBA: Washington Wizards at Philadelphia 76ers
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Win-Win: Sixers beat Wizards without Embiid, saving rookie for TNT tonight

Everything’s coming up Sixers.

The franchise was faced with a difficult decision on Wednesday: Should they play Joel Embiid at home against the beatable Washington Wizards, or on the road the next night against the slightly less beatable Minnesota Timberwolves?

Embiid, remember, is still on a medical restriction that precludes him from playing in back-to-back games. In the early season, Embiid has been featured in just seven of the Sixers’ 11 games, on pace to feature in just over 50 games in his long-awaited rookie season.

Joel Embiid prior to game against the Washington Wizards at Wells Fargo Center.

Joel Embiid prior to game against the Washington Wizards at Wells Fargo Center.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Sixers opted to rest their rookie star against the Wizards, saving him for the game at Minnesota. The move proved prudent, at least so far, as Brett Brown’s squad held off the Wizards, 109-102 for their second win in a row at home.

“I think our guys showed excelled poise,” head coach Brett Brown said after the game. “Our guys played defense straight throughout. There was a poise level that was fantastic. Our guys learned how to win a close game.”

And so…everyone is happy and the Sixers look like they made the right decision with Embiid. Still, this is a larger conversation than just high-fiving after a victory over the horrible Washington Wizards.

Admittedly, this would be a much different story had the Sixers lost last night — a chance the franchise was willing to take — but the question is still important to ask. How much do the Sixers value their paying customers?

Just before noon on Wednesday the Sixers announced that Embiid would not be playing in front of the home crowd. Seven hours before tipoff, the team told its home fans that one of the only reasons to show up and watch them play would not be on the court. Marshall Harris of CSN Philly, who worked the game on television, took issue with the timing.

Again, the Sixers have known since the start of the season that Embiid wasn’t going to play in both of these games. With the team losing at Houston on Monday, the decision easily could have been made on Tuesday as to whether or not he was going to play at home or on the road. But the team waited until it was too late for most paying fans to change their plans, or sell their seats.

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Twitter

“At least you saw the win,” one fan wrote to another in reply to the Sixers news, as the two fans lamented the fact that Embiid was being held out of a home game to play in a game on the road. Harris had the same thought, wondering why fans would be okay with Embiid playing on the road, not at home, especially in a game the Sixers had a real shot to win.

Complicating the matter is that the Sixers are on TNT on Thursday, a nationally-televised game stacking Embiid against fellow young big man Karl Anthony Towns. The TV schedule was announced before Ben Simmons went down with a months-long injury, so TNT (and the NBA) surely thought the Sixers would be more of a full team than they are at this point in the year. To even think about putting this team on national TV without Simmons and Embiid is crazy. There would almost literally be no reason to watch.

I posed the question on Twitter as well, to see how the average Philly fans were reacting to the decision. The responses were mixed, almost split 50-50, between playing him at home and featuring him on a national stage.

It makes sense that an average fan watching both games at home would prefer the larger stage, but it was surprising to see any season ticket holder be okay with the decision, especially one made so close to game time.

I’ll admit this was more in line with my thinking before the game. Even if the Sixers thought both teams were ultimately beatable, and even if the showcase nature of a national TV game (and an extra day’s rest) makes it more sensible to play Embiid against Towns and the Timberwolves, there is no denying the fact that it totally screwed over their home fans.

From an NBA fan standpoint, watching on TNT will be a better experience with Embiid, win or not, but the Sixers as a local Philadelphia franchise have two obligations to the community: try to win, and provide value for the fans’ dollar. By sitting Embiid at home, the team had less of a chance to win over the Wizards and certainly provided less value for the entertainment dollar.

And yet, the team got out to a huge lead in the first half, then held on late — talk about entertainment! — giving fans both a victory, and one helluva good time.

In Embiid’s absence, Jahlil Okafor stepped up big, scoring 19 points in 20 minutes on 8-of-11 shooting from the floor before fouling out late in the contest. Richaun Holmes, the direct beneficiary of the minutes restrictions for Embiid and Okafor (and the absence of Nerlens Noel) this season, scored just eight points in 19 and a half minutes, but had a huge three point bucket in the last two minutes to help secure the win, active on the floor the entire contest.

Brown was asked if Okafor was upset at fouling out on what the coach called “an unfortunate” sixth foul. “Oh, for sure,” Brown replied, “because he had played so well.  And he feels like all of us. You know, we’re scratching and clawing for wins…without Joel Embiid. I think there’s something to be said for that, too, to be able to get a win without Joel, and he was a major contributor.”

Okafor led the Sixers to their second win in 11 tries, their first without Embiid, and fans got to go home happy. Again, everybody wins. Only, now, fans planning to go to the arena on back-to-back nights will be wise to wait, playing a game of chicken with the team until they announce if and for how long Embiid is going to play.

The Sixers have another back-to-back next week, as Cleveland comes to town on Sunday, Nov. 27th, the night before the Sixers travel to Toronto. The team then has five games in seven nights from Nov. 30 through Dec. 6, including four in five nights, with three of those at home. When Embiid plays and when he rests may depend on his physical conditioning, and not whether the game is on national TV, but it’s still a total roll of the dice as to whether or not paying fans in Philadelphia will get to see the Sixers big ticket at the arena.

The team plays just nine games in December after the 8th of the month, with no back-to-back contests in that spat, but January has there are three, including two home-and-away situations. February features three back-to-back nights, two of which are home-and-away, while March has three as well, with just one home-and-away.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Philadelphia 76ers
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

By the time the calendar turns to 2017, hopefully Simmons will be back, which might make the decision of who to play on back-to-back nights even harder. Would you play both together to give the tandem time to gel, then sit both the next night, or do you rotate one young star for the other, giving fans at least some reason to watch — and a decent chance to win — every night?

All that is speculation, and wishful thinking, depending on when Simmons returns. For now, the Sixers had a tough decision to make, and while they didn’t exactly do their paying fans any favors by making the decision so close to Wednesday’s tip time, they won, so they made the right call.

Now the Sixers have a real shot to win back-to-back games for the first time since March…2015. Brown’s Sixers haven’t won two games in a row in a span of 106 games. Embiid on the road against Towns and the Wolves, on TNT, gives them the best chance.

That would make fans happy.

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