More than a quarter of the way into the NBA season the Sixers are rounding into what they are—a .500 basketball team. Sitting at 11-11 and outside of the East playoff picture, it’s time to face reality: the Sixers miss Ben Simmons.
Despite winning 8 of their first 10 games and leading the league in offensive rating through that early period, Simmons absence couldn’t be ignored during a 2-7 stretch without Embiid (Covid), and the team hasn’t rediscovered that groove in the three games since Jo’s return.
On the season the Sixers rank 11th in offensive rating, 18th in defensive rating, 30th in pace, and 24th/28th in defensive/offensive rebounding respectively. For reference, last year they ranked 13th in offense, 2nd in defense, 11th in pace, and 10th/11th in rebounding. While offensive output has remained steady to previous seasons, a lack of easy buckets in transition, losing on the glass, and non-existent perimeter defense is finally catching up to the Sixers; and I don’t need to spell out exactly where that production went.
I understand the retort—the 12 games with Embiid have been fine (9-3 record), so how can they be judged when close to half of their games have come without their best player on the floor?
My answer is two-fold. 1) Though he doesn’t always miss so many games in a row, Embiid missing games is a constant, not some exception. Simmons formerly provided a solid floor for the team when Joel sat—the Sixers are 34-34 in such instances—and through nine games without the big fella it’s clear this roster can’t maintain that .500 pace in his absence anymore.
Reason #2) the Eastern Conference is loaded. For the first time in a long time there are more teams ready to “compete” in the East than not, and it’s safe to assume that the sixth playoff spot (avoiding the play-in tournament) will require a minimum 46-50 wins. Last year’s six-seed Heat played at a 45.5 win pace, and the addition of competitive Bulls, Wizards, and Hornets teams will push that bar higher this season.
The Sixers no longer have the luxury of limping to a playoff spot in a weak conference. The pressure to win actual games in this regular season is real, and there may not be time to “figure it out” as has been suggested. Forget needing Ben Simmons (or a replacement) to contend in the playoffs—the Sixers need him just to comfortably qualify.
Doc Rivers recently argued:
“We’ve had a lot of stuff with all these guys out, and now we’re a team trying to get back rhythm. And it’s going to take a little bit. But it’s coming. It’s coming quickly. You can see it, and I’ll be glad when it gets here.”
As I alluded to above, that argument isn’t without merit, but the reality is the Sixers don’t have time to be patient. If in some way this roster is able to overcome the absence of their second best player and his occupied max-contract slot, it’ll likely be too little too late for a season that is quickly passing the Sixers by.