The Sixers won their ninth game last year on March 11, the 65th game of the season.
It took until January this year, sure, but the Sixers secured win No. 9 in just their 33rd game this season. Four days into the new year, the Sixers are already at the threshold of matching last year’s win total. Consider the process trusted.
Truth be told, Brett Brown’s team should have more wins than they do, but building a young roster that’s still learning how to finish games while juggling lineups to make sure all the bigs are getting fed takes its toll on the win column.
As long as Joel Embiid continues to play with a minutes restriction, Brown is going to have to be creative with his rotation. The Sixers were up 70-44 with 8:34 to play in the third quarter Tuesday night against the Timberwolves, and held a 70-49 advantage 35 seconds later when Embiid checked out of the game.
When Embiid re-entered the game for Jahlil Okafor at the 3:11 mark of the third quarter, the Sixers were only up 73-63.
In less than five minutes with Embiid off the floor, the Sixers managed three points while giving up 14, part of a 19-3 run for Minnesota to get back into the game.
When Embiid checked out at the 9:11 mark of the fourth quarter, the Sixers had leveled the lead at 12, but when he returned with 5:55 to play — this time for Noel, who had given him a breather — the Sixers were up just six. Embiid got the lead back up to eight, but some costly mistakes — including two ugly turnovers by the two-time NBA rookie of the month himself — gave Minnesota an opening to steal the game late. They did tie it up, but Brown called a fantastic final play, using Embiid as a screen to free Robert Covington at the hoop, to secure their ninth W.
Brown has tried a lot of different roster combinations this season, seeing what he has at every position. Yes, a headline today is that the Sixers are 3-0 when TJ McConnell starts at point guard, but given the imminent debut of Ben Simmons, figuring out the ball handlers doesn’t have as much long-term impact as getting the bigs right.
Brown knew the fan base hated the tandem of Embiid and Okafor starting together, but he had to see if that rotation was viable before dismissing it.
It wasn’t, and he has.
Brown benched Nerlens Noel last week, at least publicly, then slowly added him back into the rotation over the last few games. He got 22 minutes in a loss to Utah when Embiid was rested, then got 19 minutes in a win at Denver when Brown opted not to play Okafor.
With Okafor in the game Tuesday — word is Brown held him out against Denver because he had a sore hamstring, but the DNP was ‘coaches decision’ on the box score — Noel was relegated to splitting time with Okafor as Embiid’s backup. Noel and Embiid did play a few minutes together, but mostly the two one-dimensional bigs spelled Embiid when he needed a break.
Okafor saw just 10 minutes and was, inexplicably, a -9, while Noel played just 11 minutes Tuesday night — none in the third quarter when the T’Wolves bigs were eating Okafor for dinner — and was +1 on the night.
Embiid, in 30 minutes, was +11.
Overall this season, Embiid is -0.3, which is understandable given the Sixers have just seven wins in his 23 games played. Embiid leads the Sixers in plus-minus this season. By comparison, Okafor is -6.6 this year and Noel, in very limited minutes, is -1.3, the same as Ersan Ilyasova.
Ilyasova is the key. Noel and Okafor didn’t become expendable because Embiid is better than people expected. Noel and Okafor became expendable because Ilyasova is better than both of them for the longterm success of Embiid, and the franchise.
Sure, they all play different positions, but with Embiid on the floor, Ilyasova gives the Sixers far more balance on both ends of the floor. Embiid talked at halftime on Tuesday about how playing with Noel on the defensive end can help because he knows there’s another rim protector behind him, but offensively, Noel is a catch-and-dunk guy at best and Ilyasova can stretch the floor better than either of the other two. (Dario Saric has seen his productivity sliced with Ilyasova’s emergence as well, but as a rookie, he is far less of a concern for Brown than Okafor and Noel.)
Embiid and Ilyasova have played 20 games together, averaging just 14.6 minutes on the floor as Brown limits Embiid’s minutes and finds time for the other bigs with Joel. The duo is averaging 32.9 points, 13.9 rebounds and a plus-minus of +2.6.
Embiid and Noel have seen the floor together just twice, and just 2.5 minutes per, but are +1.5 in those brief appearances.
Embiid and Okafor have been on the floor together in eight games, averaging 10 minutes per game that includes six starts. They’re averaging 18.8 points together, with just 7.5 rebounds and a -4.3.
As Brown figures out his rotation, the Sixers will continue to improve, and continue to win. They are at Boston on Friday, a game they are unlikely to win, but they face Brooklyn on Sunday, New York on Wednesday, Charlotte next Friday, then at Washington the following day before a trip to Milwaukee on Monday, Jan. 16.
There is still no official timetable for Simmons to return, but regardless of when that is, the Sixers should surely meet or pass last year’s win total by then. More importantly, Brown may have figured out his big man rotation by then too. The rest — hello trade deadline approaching — will be up to the front office to figure out.