The Sixers season is nearly a week old, but the team has played just two games, losing a close contest to OKC in the opener, 103-97, then falling to the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday, 104-72, in a game which didn’t even seem that close at times.
The Sixers got out to a hot start against the Hawks, scoring the first eight points of the game, but things fell apart when Joel Embiid faced something he hadn’t yet in his professional career: foul trouble.
Embiid collected three early fouls against Dwight Howard and the Hawks — one on a ridiculously atrocious blocked shot that would have led the highlight reels across the country were it not for a quick whistle — and never got into a good rhythm in his limited time, playing just 15 and a half minutes, scoring 14 points.
That, sadly, was the good news.
The bad news is, well, bad. Watching the Sixers play live for the first time this year, there are some glaring deficiencies in Brett Brown’s squad. The Sixers had two starters — Robert Covington and Gerald Henderson — not score against the Hawks. In an NBA game!
Brown tried to play Okafor and Embiid together, which excited the crowd, but the spacing on offense wasn’t great (it was bad all game, tbh) and the defensive assignments between the two seemed confused.
To be fair, Okafor is every bit as bad a defender as he was last year. Embiid is a bona fide rim protector, but when he is out of the game, it’s a straight run to the bucket. When Nerlens Noel comes back, and the Sixers can rotate rim protectors, their defense should be much better. But until then, anytime Embiid is out — which is more often than he’s in — the defense stinks.
And pretty much so does the offense.
Brown announced that with the first of several back-to-back games coming up Tuesday and Wednesday, Okafor and Embiid will ostensibly platoon at center. Embiid will play Tuesday against Orlando, then miss the game Wednesday at Charlotte, where Okafor will play.
“You got to take what you got,” Brett Brown told reporters during Monday’s practice session, via Brian Seltzer of Sixers.com. “Jahlil has not too long ago almost played more games than he did practice. His practices have been very sparse. When Jo doesn’t come to Carolina, and Jah is playing, I can play him more, and feature him more.”
Okafor will warm up on Tuesday with the team, but he won’t play. Embiid won’t make the trip to face the Hornets at all.
“Somewhere, we hope in the not-too-distant future, both will be available, both will split minutes, both can play together,” Brown said Monday. “I see daylight, we all should see daylight. We just need to buy some time.”
Through two games, Embiid has averaged 19 minutes, while Okafor just 15.5. Richuan Holmes, who is active at 6-10 if a bit slight at 245 pounds, and better served as a four when Noel is healthy and Embiid is playing more minutes, is also averaging 15.5 minutes. (The red line in the chart indicates the number of minutes each player averages per team game, which through two games, is equal to their season average.)
Saric got the most minutes of the group at 27, on average. Jerami Grant — not on this list because he is just 6-8 and we are tracking the six players 6-10 or taller — got most of his minutes at power forward, averaging 20.5 per game. To put it nicely, if the Sixers expect to compete, players like Grant can’t be getting 20 minutes per game.
Players like Nik Stauskas can’t be getting 25.5 minutes per game. Hollis Thompson can’t be getting 17 minutes, even if much of it comes in garbage time.
If — huge if — Noel and Ben Simmons both come back healthy and Embiid’s minutes grow, Brown will be able to manage a strange but effective big man rotation for the Sixers. But that’s going to mean Simmons or Saric will have to play the three (basically wing/small forward/point forward) and Brown will need to keep two other big men on the court at all times.
Holmes is getting minutes now, but they will surely drop when Noel comes back. Saric shouldn’t be playing as much as he is, but this time will be valuable experience for when Simmons returns.
For now, the Sixers need to find points outside of Embiid and point guard Sergio Rodriguez. Okafor has fantastic offensive skills for a big man, especially with the ball, but his shooting range is limited. Saric, we hope, is just nervous to start his career, as he’s only made 4 of his 21 field goal attempts this season.
Embiid is 11 of 25 from the floor, including 2 of 4 from beyond the arc. His true shooting percentage, which factors in three pointers and free throws, is 56.1 percent. By comparison, Anthony Davis of New Orleans has a TS% of 58.2 in three games. He’s averaging 37.7 points in as many minutes per contest. That average is buoyed by a 50-point game, so it’s not sustainable, but the goal for Embiid should be the same: a point a minute.
As the season rolls along, we will add more charts for the bigs, including player efficiency ratings, but small sample sizes being what they are after just two games, points and minutes are the most notable stats to track. For those wondering, Embiid is averaging 4.5 rebounds per game, while Saric has 5.5, Holmes 4.5 and Okafor 3.5. Obviously minutes has a lot to do with that.
The Sixers are 0-2 after two games, but they’ve played a good OKC team and what could be a very good Atlanta team if everyone stays healthy. Up next is Orlando, who stinks, which means the Sixers could be looking at the first win of the Embiid Era on Tuesday.
If someone else can score.