A Tale As Old As Time: The Sixers Stink Without Joel Embiid
Given the amount of change that has gone on around him, it’s somewhat startling how consistent Embiid’s on/off differential has been over the years.
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Thursday night’s loss to the Utah Jazz didn’t feature Joel Embiid’s finest performance. He scored just 19 points, was in and out of the game with an abdominal injury, and wound up sitting the final five minutes of action after getting a technical foul. It was, all things considered, a thoroughly uninspiring game from the big fella.
And yet, Embiid’s subpar performance did not cause the Sixers to depart from a common theme, not only from this year but from the prior five seasons: they were astronomically better with him on the floor compared to when he was on the bench. While Embiid was no superstar Thursday night, the Sixers were only -3 in his 30 minutes of play, and -19 in the other 18 minutes of the game.
Over the past six seasons, the Sixers have reshaped their roster a million times. They have brought in many different backup centers of varying play styles and pay grades. They have reshaped their rotations, brought in a new coaching staff, and overhauled their schemes multiple times. But somehow, some way, it has remained the case that they are simply bad without him on the floor. A simple look through his on/off splits on Cleaning The Glass reveals the consistency of the picture:
And sure, all superstars tend to have big on/off splits. But the Sixers have invested heavily in terms of payroll, rotations, and play styles to try and alleviate this dynamic, and have had very little success. The lone outlier was the Al Horford season – a pairing that was essentially a perfect storm to bring down Embiid’s on/off differential – and yet, the Sixers were still better off with Embiid on the floor by a significant margin.
Given the amount of change that has gone on around him, it’s somewhat startling how consistent Embiid’s on/off differential has been over the years. First and foremost, it speaks to his level of excellence, but it also shows the organizational failure of their inability to support Embiid. With a maxed out payroll and five years of time to build around him, the Sixers shouldn’t sink to the level of a 30-40 win team any time that Embiid exits the floor.
With this year’s team specifically, it’s especially disconcerting watching the impact of Embiid’s absence. Watching an MVP-level player carry a team to competence during his time on the floor, only for them to collapse any time he sits, is not an enjoyable watch. This team just has absolutely no juice outside of Embiid.
That said, this trend obviously extends well outside of this season. It would be easy to write off this season’s differential as being the product of Ben Simmons’ absence – and that undoubtedly makes things worse. But again, this was the case for each of the four years prior, when Simmons was playing on a nightly basis. Last year, for example, the Sixers were a dreadful -4.8 per 100 possessions with Simmons on the floor and Embiid off. The trend might be more noticeable this season, but it’s been a half-decade stretch now of the organization failing to make the team competent outside of Embiid’s minutes.
If there is one thing that we can learn from all of this data, it’s that it’s practically a given that the Sixers will be very good whenever Embiid is on the floor. It doesn’t matter who he’s surrounded by – they will outscore opponents by a wide margin. So, it would follow that all they have to do is remain competent when he sits in order for them to win games, and yet they can’t seem to do it.
It would be easy to blame this on the Andre Drummonds and the Dwight Howards of the world, but again, this is not a matter of simply who Embiids backups are. Those guys are underwhelming, but fine backup centers in the NBA. Remember, this problem still existed – albeit to a lesser extent – when Al Horford was the backup five. It goes deeper than that, and reveals that the team outside of Embiid has simply never been a remotely functioning engine on its own, for one reason or another.
Barring a major trade (which, sure, is a possibility) this problem won’t change this year, so the priority should be finding a longer term solution. Whatever this team looks like a year from now, finding a way to achieve functionality without Embiid has to be among the top priorities. It would not only lead to a direct benefit in terms of the numbers, but would also help to extend Embiid’s career and make resting him not feel like a death sentence.
Whether that means investing more heavily in backup centers, finding players capable of carrying the half court offense without Embiid, simply upgrading the depth all around, or all of the above, upping the quality of the Embiid-less minutes has to be a major priority. Without it, we are destined to see the same type of differentials until the end of Embiid’s career – a 60+ win pace with him on the floor, and a 30 win pace with him off the floor.