The Sixers, a team with too many big men to find minutes for each game, went to Memphis on Tuesday without a true center on the court, or the bench.
Joel Embiid still isn’t playing back-to-back games, so he sat against the Grizzlies after playing what was his worst game as a pro when the Sixers faced the Denver Nuggets on Monday. Jahlil Okafor missed his second-straight game with gastroenteritis, and Nerlens Noel is still not ready to play competitive basketball as he rehabs from surgery.
The Sixers started Richaun Holmes and Ersan Ilyasova up front, with Nik Stauskas playing the bulk of the minutes at small forward as Robert Covington struggles with a knee injury. Holmes did not have his best night against the Memphis bigs, but Ilyasova might have, if not for a poor 4-for-13 shooting from three and some mistakes at the end of the game, finishing with 23 points, 17 rebounds, four assists and two blocks in 40 minutes against the Grizzlies.
There were just two players who finished with a positive plus/minutes in the game for the Sixers: Ilyasova (+5) and Gerald Henderson (+3) who logged just 16 minutes. And yet, with a lead and less than two minutes to go, the Sixers fumbled the game away, missing put-back shots and turning the ball over while getting outscored seven to zip down the stretch.
“We are all professionals, and we can’t make excuses,” Ilyasova said after the game. “We have no margin for error.”
Tuesday was the second game in three the Sixers had a chance to win late, without Embiid in the lineup. Certainly he’s the team’s best player, but the Sixers have proven they can still manage to be competitive without him. Frankly, his presence has been a boon to basketball in Philly, but it’s yet to translate to a run of wins.
Embiid needs help, and until Noel is back and Ben Simmons finally takes the floor, Brett Brown is still trying to figure out the right combination of players to give it to him.
We’re 22 games into the season, more than a quarter of a way done the year, and to a fan, nobody knows how to answer this question: After Embiid, who is the Sixers’ second-best player?
Is it Okafor? Is Dario Saric? It’s a tough question to answer the way the roster is constructed right now.
WIP and CSN Philly host Marc Farzetta asked me this question on Tuesday, and after running through the roster, he said his obvious answer is Noel. Historically, perhaps, but Noel hasn’t played yet this season, and there’s no guarantee his skillset will gel with the current roster. In other words, Noel was very good when the Sixers needed him to be the sole rim protector, but with Embiid in the middle, and Holmes capable of giving the team energy minutes off the bench, do they need even Noel?
The 4-18 record seems to indicate they do. They also need Simmons, who might be the right answer the minute he steps on the floor. Until they are back, who’s next best?
The answer is probably Ilyasova.
In his last three games, Ilyasova has logged 30 or more minutes and scored 18, 17 and 23 points, pulling down a total of 32 boards in three games. Ilyasova has played 18 games with the Sixers and in his last 15, he is averaging 24.4 points and 12.4 rebounds per 100 possessions. He’s a -3.7 in plus/minus, which obviously isn’t very good, but Okafor is averaging 24.6 points and 9.6 rebounds, with 2.5 blocks per 100 possessions in his 19 games this season and he’s a -15.5.
As you can see in our Big Man Minutes tracker, Holmes is the odd man out when the other bigs are in the lineup. He has just one official DNP this season, per our tracking, because his three other DNPs were coaches’ decision, not injury or illness, lowering his true minutes average to 14 per game he’s been available to play.
So while Holmes is averaging just over six points and just under four rebounds per game (based on our per game averages), his per 100 possessions stats are pretty good, averaging 20.9 points, 13.5 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 2.8 blocks and 2.0 steals in 49.1 minutes per 100 possessions. He’s a -8.7.
Embiid’s per 100 possession numbers are, well, better than everyone else.
Though he’s played in just 14 games, per 100 possessions, Embiid is averaging 38.0 points, 15.7 rebounds, 3.4 blocks and 5.0 assists. He’s a -2.2, in large part because he turns the ball over a ridiculous 7.6 times per 100 possessions. That’s unacceptable.
But the rest, for Embiid, is spectacular. He’s fifth in the NBA in points per 100 possessions, behind DeMarcus Cousins (41.1), Russell Westbrook (40.2), Anthony Davis (40.1) who Embiid will face on Thursday night, and DeMar DeRozan (38.4). His rebounding numbers per 100 possessions are admittedly off the pace of other bigs, but he leads the league in blocks per 100 possessions, and is fourth in points per 36 minutes, behind just Westbrook, Cousins and Davis.
Enough about Embiid, though (note: never enough about Embiid), who is the second best player on the team?
It might depend on the game, and who is in the lineup with him when he plays. While that may work for some teams, with players all pitching in and showing their value around one star, it’s not great on for team whose star is only playing two-thirds of the time. Or a team with nearly four times more losses than wins.