As the NBA season hits the All-Star break, the Sixers sit at 21-35, the third-worst record in the Eastern Conference, but already 11 wins more than last year’s total, thanks in large part to two rookies who have changed the path of the franchise.
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were expected to lead this new era of Sixers basketball, but while Simmons hasn’t seen the floor at all — troubling reports this week suggested the Sixers recently lied about the status of his recovery after suffering a Jones fracture in his foot — Embiid has been every bit the star Philly hoops fans had hoped. When he’s healthy.
Embiid has missed 14 of the Sixers’ last 15 games after falling on his knee in mid January. First thought to be just a slow-healing bone bruise, reports last week noted that Embiid has a slight tear of his meniscus — again an injury the team did not publicly disclose, saying he was progressing ‘fine’ and not playing because of ‘extreme caution’ — which has kept he star center out for nearly a month, and will force him to miss the NBA Rising Stars game and Skills Challenge this weekend in New Orleans.
The Sixers sent their “Sixthman” email to fans Thursday night titled “monitoring Joel Embiid’s injury,” with the note “the topic of his return from a left knee injury has understandably been a major focal point surrounding the 76ers lately.” Understandably indeed, Sixers.
The NBA’s annual rookie vs. sophomore game does will have two Sixers players this weekend, in second-year trade chip Jahlil Okafor and rookie Dario Saric, the least heralded really good rookie in the league today.
Only two rookies this year are averaging more than 10 points per game: Embiid, averaging 20.2 points, and Saric, averaging 10.8.
Only three rookies are averaging more than 4.1 rebounds per game: Embiid, with 7.8 and both Saric and Willy Hernangomez of the Knicks, with 5.9.
Only four rookies have a player efficiency mark above 10.0: Hernangomez (10.7), Saric (11.0), Milwaukee’s Malcolm Brogdon (11.3) and Embiid (20.6). Embiid is great, but Saric has been really, really good for an NBA rookie.
Clearly, based on per-game stats, Embiid is the runaway favorite for Rookie of the Year. His numbers are twice as good as any other rookie, but he’s only played in 31 games, while Brogdon has played in 55 and Saric has seen action in all 56 games for the Sixers, the only player on the team to do so.
The question, then, becomes one of value.
Has Embiid been so valuable on the court in his 31 games — he’s missed 25 — that he’s still the favorite to take home the rookie honor? If Embiid comes back healthy after the All-Star break and plays in 19 of the team’s final 26 games, should he win Rookie of the Year after logging limited minutes in only 50 games? Even when Saric is on pace to play all 82?
Embiid’s Per 36-minute numbers are some of the best in the entire NBA, so good that we made the case before this prolonged absence that he deserved to be on the All-Star team. Clearly, nobody thinks that now. He’s just missed too much time.
So shouldn’t the same logic be true for Rookie of the Year?
Right now, it would have to be. Embiid is clearly the best player on the Sixers, so much better than the rest of the active roster it’s not even worth debating who’s No. 2. And yet, Saric has played in every game, and has improved as the season’s gone along. That has to be worth some consideration.
Over the last full calendar month, Embiid has played 77 minutes in just three games, while Saric has played in 17 games, logging 429 minutes. Embiid had 76 points in his three appearances — just under a point-per-minute rate — while Saric has 226 points, or 13.3 points per game, 2.5 better than his season average.
For the season, Saric is shooting just .397 from the floor and .327 from beyond the arc, but in the last month, he’s hitting on 41.3 percent of his shots, despite a dip in his three-point percentage, while recording slightly better rebounding and assist numbers.
Saric is a minus-49 over his last 17 games — that’s not good — while Embiid is a plus-19 in the last three he’s played — that’s very good. But Embiid had the benefit of playing with a guy like Saric, willing to do the dirty work all over the floor. In 14 of his 17 games, Saric was without Embiid down low, having to take on more of a load on both ends of the floor as Brett Brown juggled his big men around.
Again, no one will ever, at any point in their careers, suggest Saric is a better player than Embiid, but when the Rookie of the Year is awarded, and value to the team is calculated, it’s worth keeping in mind total numbers — and per team game stats — as much as simple averages for both players.
As of the All-Star break, Embiid has played in 31 games, amassing 627 points, 243 rebounds, 76 blocks, 66 assists, 27 steals and, yikes, 117 turnovers in 786 minutes, with a plus-minus of plus-61.
In his 56 games, Saric has 607 points, 331 rebounds, 98 assists, 35 steals, 16 blocks and 108 turnovers in 1,368 minutes, with a plus-minus of minus-183.
Per team game — a player’s average when his totals are calculated across every game the team has played this year, whether he was on the floor or not — Saric is averaging the same 10.8 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.6 steals and 0.3 blocks in 24.4 minutes. Embiid is averaging, per team game, 11.2 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.5 steals and 1.4 blocks in 14.0 minutes.
The Sixers have played 2,708 minutes this year. Saric has been on the court for just over half. Embiid: 29 percent.
At 21-35, the Sixers are 13-18 with Embiid and 8-17 without him. Over the same stretch, the team is 21-35 with Saric and 0-0 without him. And it’s not just that he’s showing up night after night. The biggest chip for Saric is that he’s playing well, better and better each week, and people are starting to notice.
In nine games in February, Saric logged 28.2 minutes per game, averaging 16.0 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.1 steal, while shooting 44 percent from the floor. In his last five games before the All-Star break, Saric averaged 20.6 points per game, shooting 52.6 percent from the floor, while grabbing 7.4 boards, 2.2 assists and 1.2 steals. Moreover, he’s a plus-7.4 in those five games, and the Sixers are 3-2.
Many NBA experts thought Simmons, before his injury, could challenge for Rookie of the Year. Then Embiid ran away with the award, before his absence has re-opened the debate. Now Saric is rightly getting some love, which suggests one thing: The Sixers have a lot of young talent, and this rookie class could prove to be the best for one team — granted with guys taken over multiple drafts — in NBA history. Who wins the trophy this year matters, but not as much as other, bigger trophies in the future.