Over the past half decade, the Philadelphia 76ers have given away almost their entire roster. Throughout that transition, one maxim has largely held true: They take out opponents with Joel Embiid on the ground, and they get taken out with him on the ground.
That has been the case for the first half of the 2022-23 NBA season as well, which speaks to the unanswered questions they still have as a backup center. If they don’t address him before the NBA’s Feb. 9 trade deadline or in the buyout market, he could once again prove to be their downfall in the playoffs.
In each of the past five seasons, the Sixers have outscored their opponents by at least six points per 100 possessions with Embiid on the court, according to Glass Clean, and they’ve been outscored with him off the court. His on/off differential has been in the league’s 95th percentile or higher in five of his six active seasons, the lone exception being the Sixers’ disastrous 2019-20 campaign.
That’s largely a testament to Embiid’s individual dominance, but it’s also a reflection of how poorly his backups have fared. The Sixers have played different big men as Embiid’s backups in previous years, from Amir Johnson and Greg Monroe to Boban Marjanovic and Dwight Howard, but all of them were exposed as defensive responsibilities come the playoffs.
The most glaring example of Embiid’s drastic on/off splits came in the 2019 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Toronto Raptors. The Sixers outscored the Raptors by 90 in Embiid’s 237 minutes on the court and were outscored by 109 in his 99 minutes on the bench. In the deciding Game 7, the Sixers outscored the Raptors by 10 points in Embiid’s 45 minutes, but were outscored by 12 in the three minutes he didn’t play. (Monroe was minus nine in two minutes.)
Heading into this season, the Sixers had more flexibility behind Embiid than ever before. They had a traditional (albeit small-sized) rim roller in Montrezl Harrell, a springy, switchable shot-blocker in Paul Reed, and a small-ball 5 option in PJ Tucker.
At the Sixers’ media day in late September, head coach Doc Rivers expressed his confidence in that trio.
“Well, this is the first year that we haven’t got a 7-footer as a backup,” he said. “We had Dwight and [Andre Drummond]. But we have a collection of guys with PJ, Paul Reed, Trez. We feel very comfortable in that role. And obviously with PJ’s age and Joel’s size, and we want to make sure he’s healthy… we want to do a better job of games where some of those guys don’t play; we want to win those games. So with the collection, we feel very comfortable with what we have.”
However, the Sixers have yet to get consistent results from their great backups this season.
Aside from the ill-fated 2019-20 season, the Sixers have largely backed Embiid with traditional screen and rim setup centers. Monroe, Marjanovic and Johnson were good for the occasional midrange jumper, but otherwise Embiid’s backups have been largely limited to lobs and dunks.
Some of them, Howard and Andre Drummond in particular, were elite in those specific roles. However, their lack of lateral quickness made them a disadvantage when defending pick-and-rolls, which proved fatal against perimeter players who could pepper them with mid-range and long-range shots.
Harrell, who has been the Sixers’ primary backup center for the past two months, fits more into that mold on both ends of the floor. Nearly two-thirds of his shot attempts come within three feet of the basket, and another 32 percent are between three and 10 feet. He’s shooting 58.6 percent overall this season, but he’s made exactly one shot from 10-plus feet.
Harrell won the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award under Sixers head coach Doc Rivers when they were both with the Los Angeles Clippers in 2019-20, but that level of play didn’t carry over to the playoffs. It was the team-worst minus-37 during the Clippers’ seven-game loss to the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals. Through that entire playoff run, the Clippers allowed 116.3 points per 100 possessions with Harrell on the floor and just 103.4 per 100 with him on the bench.
The Sixers’ defensive splits are a lot less drastic with Harrell on the floor this season, though that may be more regular-season noise than anything. Harrell remains a liability in terms of rim protection and pick-and-roll defense most nights, which is shaping up to be a major concern if he remains his primary back-up behind Embiid heading into the playoffs. .
Reed briefly filled in for Harrell earlier in the season, though he has played sparingly since early December. He offers many more defensive advantages than Harrell, but he’s also more error-prone on both ends of the floor.
“I feel like I have to be more consistent,” Reed said in late December, according to Keith Pompey of the philadelphia enquirer. “Be more consistent, be a better finisher and also be consistent on the defensive end. I just do what they ask me to do, which is rebound, block shots and then defensive rotations.”
The Sixers are allowing 109.1 points per 100 possessions with Reed on the floor compared to 109.9 per 100 without him. (They’re allowing 108.4 per 100 with Harrell activated.) However, they’re averaging an anemic 103.1 points per 100 possessions with Reed activated, while they’re shooting 111.1 per 100 with Harrell.
Rivers said earlier in the season that he liked the offensive fit with Harrell and James Harden, who played together for two seasons in Houston in the mid-2010s. The two have shared the court on just 393 possessions this season, but the Sixers they’re outscoring their opponents by 8.0 points per 100 possessions with that duo. Lineups featuring Harden and Reed, who have played just 131 total possessions, are being outscored by 9.2 points per 100 possessions.
Perhaps Reed will have another shot at rotation minutes in the second half of the season, particularly in the wake of the Sixers’ new starting lineup experiment. The backup center could also be an area of focus for the front office ahead of the trade deadline, though the looming threat of the repeater tax could influence what they do in that regard. Hassan Whiteside could also be a free agent option with a 10-day minimum contract or for the rest of the season.
The Sixers still have an ace up their sleeve: small lineups with Tucker instead of Embiid. The 37-year-old has played just 323 possessions this season as a 5, and the Sixers have been outscored by 3.8 points per 100 possessions with those lineups. However, the five-man group of Harden, Tyrese Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris and Tucker has outscored opponents by 15.0 points per 100 possessions (albeit in a small sample of 149 possessions).
Embiid will likely start playing around 38-40 minutes per game once the playoffs begin, so the Sixers will only need to stay afloat for 8-10 minutes without him. As long as they don’t fly out of the ground in those minutes, they should have a chance most nights.
The 2019 Eastern Conference Semifinals should be high on the front office’s mind, though, as they weigh whether to update the options behind Embiid. If Harrell gives opponents an open layup line or Reed makes some stupid mistakes in the Embiid-less minutes, that could be the difference between winning and losing a game or even a series.
Unless otherwise stated, all statistics via nba.com, PBP Stats, clean the glass either Basketball Reference. All salary information through spotrac either RealGM. All possibilities via FanDuel Sportsbook.