We Have the Guys We Need
The real question is if we'll know what to do with them.
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Hooo what a win. I was trying to explain to my mom the other day why the crowds at the not-WFC have been so unenthused on this homestand despite the team having Joel Embiid and James Harden and despite them winning every night, and it basically came down to a lack of pop relative to expectation -- the team was winning, but they weren't winning big or exciting (or against teams they should have lost to) and Joel and James were playing well, but they weren't playing 40-plus points or triple-double well (or outdueling anyone particularly exciting on the other side). But last night was legit: Beating an almost-full-strength Clippers team with a come-from-behind second half on the backs of 44 from Embiid and 20-11-21 from Harden. Couple more Ws like that, the crowd response might just raise from Early Rounds of Wheel of Fortune tepidness to, I dunno, Fast Money on Family Feud-level heat.
Two things about the game really stood out as encouraging to me. One is that the Clippers played considerably well: This wasn't a win where we lucked out with an opponent going ice cold from three, or their stars having off nights from the field, or making a bunch of unforced errors and generally losing the plot down the stretch -- the Clippers (and Kawhi, evidently having reassembled from the puddle of metallic gloop he was earlier in the season to full T-1000 status) brought it, and the Sixers proved just a little more undeniable. The second was that pretty much everyone on Philly was a major contributor: Joel and James led the way, but Tobias delivered timely shots, Shake and BBall Paul powered us early in the fourth, Georges hit the momentum threes he had to hit, De'Anthony made huge plays on both sides of the ball and P.J... well, you'd have to squint real hard to isolate the specifics of his major contribution to this one, but there was just no way we were getting through 48 minutes against this 6'8 forward factory without P.J. playing at least 20 of 'em.
It was the kind of win that makes you take stock of things -- especially at the end of a long, successful homestand, and with the holidays already in full swing. And it makes you realize that for once; the Sixers basically have everything they need already. It's just a question of figuring out what to do with all of it.
Which isn't to say that the Sixers are perfect as constructed, or that they couldn't be improved. It's just that we have eight guys we can feel pretty confident about going into battle with -- the current starters, Shake, Georges and BBall -- with a ninth in Tyrese hopefully rejoining the fold as soon as tomorrow afternoon. Between those nine guys, we have the things we need to play winning basketball at the highest levels, in terms of scoring, shooting, primary and secondary playmaking, perimeter defense, interior defense, pace-pushing, athleticism, size and toughness. The one thing you might say we're lacking within this group even in the best-case scenario is rebounding, but I feel like last night (where the boards were basically even) is actually more indicative of the kind of games we're going to be playing in the playoffs, rather than these games against young rebuilding IPA teams loaded up on hops that the regular season is chock full of. Against the more methodical veteran teams, the disadvantage may still be there, but it won't seem as all-consuming.
The bigger question isn't whether we have the guys -- it's whether we can get them on the court in the right combinations to account for enough of all of that stuff we need at once, when our five-man units can end up looking a little lumpy and lopsided. This has become a particularly relevant question with Tyrese's imminent return, since many have been quick to point out that the numbers have been much better with our starting five featuring Melton in Maxey's stead, and wondered if the Moms of the Philly Area's favorite son might be better off rejoining the squad as off the bench.
I'd counter that those numbers are a lot better with Melton in large part because James and Joel have been a lot better the past two weeks than they were when Maxey was healthy early in the season. But it's also undeniable that the fit with De'Anthony is just a little more natural, since he brings the things (defensive playmaking and consistency, offensive connectivity and general low-maintenanceness) that you'd ask for first and foremost in a James Harden backcourt mate. And it's tempting to give Maxey a look as the world's most overqualified sixth man, laying waste to second units and changing the game with his energy from his first touch, less a spark off the bench than a whole fucking fireworks display -- though doing so would essentially amount to a demotion for a third-year player averaging 22 a game who may one day be the face of the franchise.
It's a problem, and one with no particularly obvious solution. Personally I'd rather they go without PJ or even Tobias in the starting five -- a three-guard look that we got a glimpse at last night down the stretch, with Shake playing out the string in place of PJ -- and keep Melton in place once Tyrese is added back to the mix. But most likely that'll work sometimes and won't work others, and the team is going to have to be flexible and adaptive in figuring out per matchup and/or per vibe who their strongest starting (and closing) fives are.
I think this is the biggest reason why the Doc Anxiety remains at something close to a fever pitch, despite the team breaking out of its early malaise (with Our Month still to come) and their embattled coach pulling most of the right strings lately. Last night, he made two crucial late rotation decisions -- he played BBall over Montrezl for Joel's bench minutes in the fourth, and he let Shake close over PJ -- and that might have very well been the difference between the Sixers winning and them losing last night. But those are decisions Doc is going to have to make time and time again, particularly in the playoffs, with the right answers not always being the same answers. And his track record there has been... memorable, to say the least.
Still, if that ends up being our biggest problem heading into the playoffs -- and health and/or Harden inconsistency could still definitely be heard from in that discussion -- it's nice to think that, for the first time since at least 2019, we already have all the ingredients we really need to compete, even before the trade deadline. Whether or not we can figure out the right recipe(s) remains to be seen, as does if we have a chef de cuisine really capable of making those calls on measurements and timing. But I'm thankful that I get to enjoy the gift of Sixers basketball this Christmas, without having to really worry about what else Daryl might have slipped under the tree.