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February 04, 2018

Sixers' bench issues continue in tough loss to Indiana Pacers

How many times can we possibly complain about the Sixers bench before it becomes overkill? The answer to that question is likely to be answered this season because Philadelphia's backups continue to offer the Sixers little to nothing in their time on the floor, and it cost them once again in a 100-92 loss to the Pacers.

Where do you even begin? With the supposed bench scorer who routinely misses momentum-changing shots and offers nothing at the defensive end? The midseason pickup who was supposed to give you a boost, yet manages to kill spacing in nearly every lineup he's a part of? The one semi-reliable guard, capable of actually impacting the game but prone to stretches where he's completely ineffectual?

It seems almost impossible for the Sixers to have a bench so incapable of impacting a game, yet here we are 50 games into the season with little hope in sight. The respective pieces all have their own problems, but they all add up into one ugly bunch.

Not everyone's flaws and mistakes should be treated equally. Trevor Booker has become something of a target here in recent weeks, but at least you can say he's out there busting his butt regardless of the time and score. The effort can be akin to a headless chicken and isn't always the most productive thing in the world, but at least it exists.

The same can't be said for Jerryd Bayless, who routinely gets booed on the Sixers' home floor when he checks in. His shooting numbers this season are right in line with what you'd want or expect from a guard off the bench. The problem for Bayless is he gives them right back with almost everything else he does.

It takes some real audacity for a guy who has routinely been a minus for the Sixers this season to strike a pose on a three in the fourth quarter of a close game against a playoff contender. You do that sort of thing when you're on a roll and burying a team on your home floor, not when you haven't hit a single three as a team in the second half and are scratching and clawing for every point. These are the sort of things winning players don't do.

Bayless might be the poster child for Philadelphia's awful bench, but pinning it all on him would be letting a bunch of other guys off the hook, especially because the Sixers outscored the Pacers with him on the floor Saturday. So let's be clear about the issue: every single player not in the starting lineup, sans Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, has been a net negative in their time on the floor this season. Not one guy, not a few guys, every single non-TLC player on the bench. That's hard to do, yet a just reflection of their performance.

It's that sort of reality that helps you to understand why so many people are pining for a bench upgrade in the form of a player like Tyreke Evans or Lou Williams. Frankly, the Sixers would be happy if they could get someone even half as good as one of those guys have been this season. They need players who aren't actively taking things off the table, and that has been a tough ask so far. When Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid have less than blinding performances, the Sixers simply do not win.

We have reached the point where you'd almost prefer for the team to throw caution to the wind and just throw Markelle Fultz into the action and see what he can do. Personally, I wouldn't want him on the floor until he's 100 percent comfortable with his jumper, but merely having him available would change things for the Sixers. They would be able to slide some of their wing players up in the rotation, providing Brett Brown some flexibility in lineup construction that he just doesn't have right now. And of course, it would give you another guy who can actually dribble a basketball.

No one should expect the solution to be that simple. The options are just too limited for this basketball team when they turn to their backups, and every player comes with a different set of warts. 

At least when the Sixers were trying to develop young bench pieces, you could talk yourself into the idea of players growing and maturing with more reps, seeing strong play as a sign of development. On top of that not being the case anymore, they're not really getting any of that strong play in the first place.

Something has to change. I'm not the guy who gets paid to figure that stuff out, but Brown and Bryan Colangelo have to do something to mix it up, unless they're interested in seeing a playoff push derailed because they can't put together a cohesive and competent group behind their starting five.

If Richaun Holmes isn't going to get a chance, use him as a trade chip

There are completely justifiable reasons to play Amir Johnson as the backup center over Holmes, and I think Holmes' chance to play Embiid's understudy has come and gone. The Sixers clearly do not have much trust in him to carry out the defensive responsibilities of the position, and that comes first and foremost for basically any backup center.

By the same token, there's almost no justification for shutting him out of the fight for backup four minutes. Booker is a hard worker and a fine player, but he's not a fit with this group. The court shrinks when he shares the floor with Johnson, and teams cheat way too far off him when he's alongside Embiid, cramping his post-ups with extra help.

There have been just 149 possessions where Embiid and Holmes have shared the floor together this season, roughly equivalent to 1.5 games of basketball. It's an extremely small sample with a lot of volatility between the lineup combinations; Simmons and McConnell featured as the lead ballhandler in two lineups each, flanked by some combination of JJ Redick, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless, Robert Covington and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrott.

Regardless of the exact group, the Sixers have wiped the floor with teams when Embiid and Holmes have shared the floor, outscoring teams by 18.8 points per 100 possessions. As a frame of reference, the Golden State Warriors led the NBA with a +12.6 differential for the 2016-17 season, placing the lineups with an Embiid-Holmes pairing in the top percentile of all NBA lineups this season.

Would that hold up over extended minutes? Almost certainly not. Some of their success comes down to opponent strength (or lack thereof) and a lack of real-time on the floor. Good teams would find ways to exploit Holmes on either end of the floor, turning his eagerness against him as they have when he's playing center. Still, are we really at the point where it's not worth seeing whether that can hold up over a bigger sample?

If the answer is no and the Sixers would rather play an expiring veteran with uninspiring results over a young player with room to grow, there's really no point in keeping Holmes around to rot on the bench. He still has some modicum of intrigue and value, and you'd be better off trying to turn that into a player or pick you actually have some interest in using.

Whether this is a decision stemming from Brown, Colangelo or some combination of both, there needs to be action here. Give the kid a chance to prove he can help make you a better basketball team, or swap him for someone or something else you're prone to believing in. There's evidence that shows he can help, and just throwing him in cold storage isn't good enough at this point.

Joel Embiid remains in one piece

It may not be what fans want to hear after a loss, but the most important part of the night went off without a hitch. Embiid played in the first back-to-back of his career, and he looked just fine in the process.

In fact, early on it looked like he was going to toss Indiana around like his personal plaything. He went right at Pacers center Myles Turner to start the game and drew two fouls on his opponent within the first 3:10 of the game. Turner hit the bench and there was no letup, drawing one on Domantas Sabonis less than a minute after forcing Turner to the pine. He sought out contact and got to work, and that's typically the sign of a big night from Embiid.

That was not meant to be, and Embiid eventually wore down over the course of the game. His seven turnovers were perhaps the biggest sign of his fatigue, and the pain caused by those turnovers can't be overstated. When Embiid isn't able to get back and set up on the defensive end, the Sixers are worlds easier to score on. If he's turning the ball over from a post position, the likelihood of him getting back and impacting the play drops precipitously.

But Saturday was an important step for him all the same. Above all else, Embiid needs in-game reps whether they're at tip-top shape or when he's fatigued in the fourth quarter. The latter is almost more important because he is accustomed to having more rest periods than the average NBA star. Philadelphia's staff raves about his work ethic behind the scenes, but there's nothing like battling a hostile opponent with real stakes.

All things considered, he had a decent enough game. 24 points and 10 rebounds qualify as a fairly standard offensive performance for Embiid nowadays, and he flashed the same defensive brilliance we've come to expect. His -20 on the evening was not necessarily indicative of how he played. There were times when he ended Indiana possessions with defense at the rim, and his teammates coughed the gift right back to Indiana.

What matters is that he looked a lot like his normal self, and he (knock on wood) appeared to be no worse off for it following the game. Sometimes the hardest part of establishing good habits is just starting at all, and Sixers fans will hope they see a lot more of Embiid in the months and years to come.