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July 22, 2019

Sixers' plan behind Joel Embiid could be key to winning a title

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The backup center situation was discussed so much in Philadelphia last season that it became a running joke as the year went on. The Sixers had enough big men to play an entire lineup of them, but none of them were playable options for Philly when push came to shove in the playoffs. If Joel Embiid wasn't on the court, the Sixers cratered.

That fact was not lost on Embiid or the people whose job security in large part hinges on his play. Embiid ran up the minute count early last season, leading the NBA in minutes during the opening stanza of the 2018-19 season, and the workload eventually took its toll. In the end, his regular-season absences prevented the Sixers from developing chemistry before the playoffs, and cramming it into the postseason left them just short of taking down the eventual champs.

Opinions may vary on whether addressing this was or should have been their No. 1 priority this offseason, but if nothing else, the Sixers are finally prepared to man the fort behind Joel Embiid.

Maxing out effectiveness, minimizing minutes

On paper, investing most of your remaining cap space on a veteran center seems like a strange decision. But for the Sixers, the organization's first regular-season priority is obvious — deliver Embiid to the playoffs with a clean bill of health. 

They witnessed firsthand what a difference it made for the Toronto Raptors to have Kawhi Leonard rested and ready to go, and many of their decisions this summer can be traced back to the lessons of that series. The decision to part ways with Dr. Daniel Medina, their former VP of Athlete Care who was recently hired in a similar role by the Washington Wizards, was made to search for a leader who would handle their roster's health, "in a progressive way," PhillyVoice was told in early June.

To achieve that goal, you need the personnel to make it work. Enter Al Horford, one of the only big men who can credibly play next to Embiid and fill in for him as a backup center.

It's their minutes together that will be under the most scrutiny right away, and the history of both players suggests they should be able to make it work. The Celtics played Horford next to burly center Aron Baynes for only 163 minutes last season, but the Celtics outscored teams by 20.4 points per 100 possessions in those minutes. In the past, the Sixers have enjoyed periods of success with rim-protecting or rim-running bigs next to Embiid — from Nerlens Noel to Richaun Holmes to Jonah Bolden, Embiid's presence as the defensive safety valve has allowed trigger-happy bigs to go after blocked shots without being punished as severely as they'd be on their own.

To put it lightly, Embiid is a bit better than Baynes, and Horford is a few steps up from Holmes or Noel.

When Embiid hits the bench, it's Horford who will be able to step into the center role he has played so well for most of his career. Horford will allow Ben Simmons to take more of a starring role on offense, with his comfort shooting and willingness to defer giving the Sixers a real stretch five for bench lineups. When Embiid comes back for his second shift and Horford hits the bench, he can play next to a more modern power forward in Tobias Harris, or alongside a fleet of young, athletic wings on the perimeter. It allows Embiid to be the star of the show, giving him time to flex his muscles and dominate as he has for three seasons.

"I think I’ve said in the past I’ve always been a fan of Joel, and just everything he brings on the court, off the court," Horford said at his first Sixers presser. "There were some great battles. When this opportunity came along and the possibility of teaming up with him got me really excited about the potential, how good we can help our team be defensively, get to working together and do some special things."

And the Sixers can achieve all of this while cutting back minutes for both players. When he's available to play, the Sixers no longer need to rush Embiid back onto the court because they lack a backup center who can defend near his level. Getting his minutes down to around 30 vs. the 33.7 he averaged last season may not sound like a lot, but it adds up over time, and they can avoid outlier situations that have come under scrutiny in the past, like their decision to play him for 49 minutes in a triple-overtime duel with Oklahoma City in 2017.

The Sixers have discussed the need to scale it back with Embiid dating back to exit interviews in mid-May, with his input providing them with part of their motivation to go out and get Horford.

"Whatever [it] takes," Elton Brand told reporters at a recent presser. "Having these options, we did fall off a cliff once Joel was off the court, especially defensively, so having these great options now bodes well for our team success. And he's on board, for sure."

Recognizing the value of games off

Convincing Embiid to sit out of games entirely, though, has been near impossible for the Sixers since he made his debut in 2016. Between his recovery from major surgeries, the loss of his brother, and his love for the sport, Embiid views every opportunity to suit up as a gift.

Ego has something to do with it, too. Embiid is smart enough to recognize what the discussion about his games played means when it's time to dole out end-of-season awards. While he has proven talented and productive enough to make consecutive All-NBA teams, he finds himself on the outside looking in with awards like Defensive Player of the Year, and he hasn't been shy about saying those honors are a priority for him. Embiid knows that time missed hurts his chances.

But in discussions with people around the Sixers and the league since the season ended, many have wondered whether Toronto's ultimate triumph will change the regular-season approach of all players, not just Embiid. In the span of just a couple of months, Leonard altered the outlook of the league, one year removed from disappearing from view and following the conclusion of a season where "load management" was central to his story. The perceived value of the regular season iron man has taken a hit.

It's not just the Leonard side of the coin that stands out. James Harden, as one example, has become one of the most prolific offensive players in league history over the last few years. But the strain of a high-minute, high-usage role has been obvious when he tails off in the playoffs each spring, falling short of his and his team's ultimate goal.

Philadelphia's failure on a grand stage in Toronto was painful for Embiid in ways the cameras didn't capture. As his teammates tried to wash the failure of Game 7 off of them and hurry back to Philadelphia, Embiid stood slumped in the entrance to the locker room, game-worn jersey still on long after the game had ended. He has increasingly taken ownership of the team these last three years, whether that has meant blaming himself for losses to good teams or leading the recruitment of free agents like Tobias Harris.

The responsibility of getting him to the playoffs is organizational, but it all starts with Embiid being willing to listen and rest even when he may not want to.

Increasing intensity and effectiveness of practice

As Allen Iverson was kind enough to remind everyone, practice takes a backseat to the real thing. But that doesn't mean there isn't value in the days between games, or that the low-minute players don't have an impact on the stars.

Thanks to Horford, backup Kyle O'Quinn probably won't play much in games that Embiid appears in. But fresh off of a season in Indiana where O'Quinn felt he simply wasn't part of the plan, the veteran big man is coming to Philly ready to do whatever it takes to help and stay ready.

"My best year in the NBA I averaged 17 minutes, some guys will complain and take that to management. I felt comfortable in my role, I was the backup behind Joakim Noah, in Orlando I was a backup behind an All-Star center too in Nic Vucevic," O'Quinn told PhillyVoice in a small group setting recently. "I’m not on the medical team so I don’t know when they’re going to rest Joel, but I just know that I’m sure they’ll be comfortable if that comes.

"My keeping myself ready regiment is something I’ve done my whole career, I’ve never had the luxury of rest, had to be ready. Even if the game gets out of hand, I got to be in there, I’ll play those minutes, and I don’t mind those minutes. I stay, play a lot of 3 on 3, 1 on 1, I stay ready, guys are coming off of injury, I’m that guy. Let’s get in the gym, you know what I mean? This is my job, so I really take it as a job."

O'Quinn is coming here to help the big fella out, but he is not young or unproven enough to back down from challenging him. He told reporters he looked forward to telling Embiid his rip through move was one of the worst calls in the league, and GM Elton Brand called him a, "hard-nosed, tireless worker" during his press conference explaining the team's offseason moves. He and Horford are the sort of players the Sixers have been missing to offer some resistance to Embiid as he prepares for opponents.

Suddenly, the Sixers have Embiid's nightmare matchup and another quality big man to go toe-to-toe with him in practice, whether in drills, scrimmages, or even just putting in some extra work on their own after practice.

It is a small detail in the bigger picture. But the franchise's ability to win a championship will come down to how good and how healthy Embiid can be. Every little thing adds up.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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