With Embiid on the Bench, the Sixers Can’t Compete

The Sixers fell to the Chicago Bulls by a score of 105-89 as star center Joel Embiid was kept out of the game to manage his workload.

Robert Covington (left) and Jahlil Okafor (right) react after colliding when fighting for a rebound in the second half of Friday night's 105-89 loss to the Chicago Bulls | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Covington (left) and Jahlil Okafor (right) react after colliding while fighting for a rebound in the second half of Friday night’s 105-89 loss to the Chicago Bulls | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Based solely on last night’s 105-89 shellacking at the hands of the Chicago Bulls it would be hard to (correctly) distinguish which team was wrapping up a six-game, ten-day road trip.

The Bulls sprinted out to an 8-0 run when the game tipped off, putting the Sixers in an immediate hole. The Sixers’ reserves closed the first quarter on an 11-3 run, helping keep the game close for just a brief moment more, but it was short-lived. Any time the Bulls starters were matched up against the Sixers starters, Brett Brown‘s team had no chance.

After missing his first three shots in the first quarter Robert Covington went into his shell, attempting just one more field goal attempt over the course of the game, with his minutes limited to just 20 due to a combination of foul trouble and ineffectiveness. Jerryd Bayless shot just 4-10 and had as many turnovers as assists in his first start at point guard. Gerald Henderson was just 2-7 for his 5 points and Jahlil Okafor pirouetted his way to 10 points on 5-11 shooting while “indifferencing” his way to just 5 defensive rebounds and countless missed defensive rotations.

On the evening the Sixers’ starters were outscored 23-11 in the 11 minutes that all five of Bayless, Henderson, Covington, Ilyasova, and Okafor were on the court, but in truth it was much worse than that. Covington ended the night -28 for the game in plus-minus, Henderson -21, and Okafor -27, with much of that improved by Okafor’s +7 showing in 5 minutes of fourth-quarter play against a disinterested Chicago Bulls bench squad.

We could sit here and nitpick why this happened. The 19 turnovers. The non-existent pick and roll defense. Giving up 8 offensive rebounds on just 33 Chicago missed shots over the first three quarters of play.

Really what last night provided was a reminder of how little things have truly changed.

That’s not to say this team isn’t different. It is, and there’s no denying that. There’s more excitement around the team than there has been in years, and that’s great. But that is all still perilously dependent on the availability and the play of one Joel Hans Embiid, the crucial linchpin which keeps this team competitive, and watchable, an incredible position to be in considering most high school seniors have played more organized basketball than Embiid has.

The Sixers have been remarkably competitive when Embiid’s been on the court, being outscored by just 4 points, 503-499, in the 249 minutes Embiid has played so far. The inverse of that — being outscored to a tune of 1,206-1,061 in 539 minutes with Embiid on the bench — is eerily reminiscent of the overmatched teams of yore.

The 97.4 points per 100 possessions the Sixers defense allows when Embiid is on the court would be the second best defense in the league. The 108.1 they allow with their crown jewel on the bench the fifth worst. The offense, which is still the third worst in the league when Embiid is on the court, predictably falls to the worst in the league when he’s not available.

The -13.3 net rating (point differential per 100 possessions) the Sixers have in the 539 minutes Embiid does not play would not only qualify as the worst differential in the league this season, but it would have been the worst differential in 2015-16 as well, even worse than the Sixers’ own mark in that near-historic(ally bad) season. In fact, you have to go back to the 7-59 Charlotte Bobcats in the strike-shortened 2011-12 season before you find someone who can match that level of futility.

With Embiid in the game the Sixers perimeter players face single coverage, with opponents afraid to veer too far off of Embiid out of worry they might open up a passing lane to allow Embiid to get the ball near the basket. Sixers’ defenders can press on the perimeter knowing Embiid can rotate over and save them if the opponent gets a first step. They can play over pick and rolls knowing Embiid can slow the ball handler down long enough to recover back to their man They can rebound, as a team, with Embiid controlling the paint.

That’s all fine. Embiid’s progress is what this season is about, the crucial first step of obtaining that rare franchise gem is the curve we’re currently grading this stage of the rebuild on. The rest doesn’t have to happen overnight, especially with Ben Simmons in street clothes recovering from a fractured right foot. In fact, being impatient to do so can lead to disastrous results.

Even when Ersan Ilyasova or Gerald Henderson or Jerryd Bayless are playing well, they’re temporary pieces meant to support Embiid’s presence. Their positives accentuated by Embiid’s dominance, and their deficiencies masked by his towering physical presence.

But last night was a good reminder of where the Sixers are in this rebuild, and why this season truly does feel different. The Sixers rebuild is still much more Process than progress.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.