October 17, 2016

With healthy Embiid showing positive signs, is rest simply gravy for Sixers?

Sixers NBA

There was a moment in the second quarter of Saturday night’s preseason game between the Philadelphia 76ers and Detroit Pistons that struck fear into the heart of every Sixers fan, Process Truster or not. After sprinting the floor and attempting a chase-down block, Joel Embiid was down on the hardwood, grabbing his right foot, the same right foot that has been operated on twice in the past two-plus years.

The official attendance was 10,891, and regardless of how many people were actually in the Wells Fargo Center, every last one of them was holding their breath.

They would eventually exhale. Embiid, who had simply twisted his foot, got up and continued to play the rest of his scheduled 18 minutes (plus two), flashing his monstrous potential at different points of the game:

"At times he reminds me of a yearling, just trying to find his balance,” Brett Brown said after the game. "Because he wants to score, he wants to dominate. How about the passion he plays with? You can’t coach that. He has 'it.'"

"It" is a good thing, too, because outside of the third-year rookie that has taken to calling himself “The Process,” this preseason has showcased a Sixer team that looks very much like the group which won a measly 10 games last year. Embiid is one heck of a distraction, but someone on a minutes limit can’t hide the fact that the only teams with a worse net rating on NBA.com than the Sixers this preseason don’t actually play in the NBA:

In particular, the Sixers offense has been beyond putrid, managing 89.6 points per 100 possessions according to NBA.com. You don’t want to overreact to a preseason filled with players who don’t figure to be in the rotation in, say, January, but that number is brutal even by Sixers standards.

“Finding that balance of pace and post is going to be the eminent challenge, and I think we’re tripping on it,” Brown said.

Brown believes much the Sixers’ trouble scoring boils down to a subject he harped on last year when Jahlil Okafor was the featured big man: How do you balance playing at a breakneck pace (which Brown wants to do) with feeding the post in halfcourt situations?

Truthfully, though, the issues go beyond the “pace vs. post” debate. Namely, the Sixers again find themselves significantly outmanned. Down two of the top three primary playmakers (Ben Simmons, Jerryd Bayless) and two of the three primary big men (Okafor, Nerlens Noel) for almost the entire preseason, the Sixers have a devil of a time generating quality shots unless Embiid touches the ball. And when the ball does go in the post, it rarely comes out:

The Sixers are shooting a league-worst 25.1 percent from three and also sport the third-worst turnover ratio among NBA teams. Needless to say, that isn’t a good combination.

Okafor was initially expected to miss six weeks after getting surgery on a slightly torn meniscus at the end of last season. Six months later, the second-year big man isn’t at 100 percent after feeling soreness in that knee after a training camp 5-on-5 scrimmage in which he was matched up against Embiid. Okafor finally did participate in some scrimmaging at Monday’s practice.

According to Brown, Okafor is on target to play in the opener against Oklahoma City. The same cannot be said for Noel, who is expected to miss regular-season time with a groin strain.

Oddly enough, Embiid is the one healthy player at the moment. He said that the Sixers wanted to hold him out of some of Monday’s practice after logging 20 minutes against Detroit, but he felt good enough to go through the whole session.

Embiid is progressing nicely enough that things which weren’t on the table before training camp already are up for discussion.

“We would’ve guessed that back-to-backs [for Embiid] would’ve been off the table, that they wouldn’t have happened,” Brown said. “And I feel like where we now are at, watching him, that it’s stuff we are completely considering.”

At the risk of burying the lede, here is the question we pose after taking the entire preseason into account: Does it really matter that a depleted team of role players is struggling if Embiid, who has star potential, is healthy and showing signs of becoming a great player? After all, the Sixers didn’t know that Simmons, Noel, and Bayless would be on the shelf.

“Hopefully by the first game, I’ll get to play 40 minutes,” Embiid said with a smile on Monday.

“The Process” needs work like all rookies, but the results thus far have been promising. Maybe the answer is in fact that Embiid trumps everything else that the healthy Sixers do out on the floor, but it wouldn’t be a terrible thing if they showed some progress, too.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann