The 76ers’ self-imposed moment of truth has arrived

Almost every favored seed in the 2019 NBA Playoffs is under pressure that extends beyond the simple need to win. To invoke a popular TV show: “Summer is coming.” Living in the moment is easier said than done.

The doomsday scenarios are scary for each. The Golden State Warriors may lose Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. The Boston Celtics may lose Kyrie Irving and Al Horford. The Toronto Raptors may lose Kawhi Leonard. The Milwaukee Bucks low-key need to give half their team a new contract in preparation for Giannis Antetokounmpo’s free agency next summer. All these front offices must have a Plan A, B, C, D, and E for July, and hope they’ve built an infrastructure to keep franchise-altering talent or weather their departures.

The Philadelphia 76ers are in this group, too, but they have even more on the line. Their future is both more certain and nebulous at the same time.

After a regular season defined by impatience and opportunity, there’s an unsaid “conference finals or bust” cloud hovering overhead. Despite the ages of Joel Embiid (25) and Ben Simmons (22), the front office accelerated the team’s timeline in a risky way, emptying its asset cupboard for a pair of free-agent-to-be all-star-caliber wings. That qualifies as tightrope walking on a windy day, though any team would be happy to fall back on the EmbiidSimmons combination as a safety net.

Unlike the Warriors, Celtics, Raptors, or Bucks, the 76ers put the cart before the horse. Bringing back Jimmy Butler and/or Tobias Harris, the two players acquired via midseason blockbuster trades, is anything but an obvious decision. Assuming it’ll take a max contract to sign each one, a case can be made for the Sixers being better in the future with one, both, or neither.

That’s why scrutinizing every Philadelphia possession, personnel move, and rotational tweak is mandatory. The sky falls when they lose, and they’re ready to go the distance when they win. Chaos and constant turnover has become their identity, and with the Process now in the rear view, there’s little infrastructure to lean on when adversity strikes. The closest thing the 76ers have to a cultural tone-setter is Brett Brown, and he may be coaching for his job.

To that end, the Sixers are built like Frankenstein’s monster. They’re terrifying, misunderstood, and may not know their own strength. Their starting five is a brash collection of uniquely combustible talent that’s been forced to co-exist.

This new era still begins and ends with Embiid, whose knee soreness ultimately dictates how high they soar and how long they fight. He’s the only player in the league whose team was at least five points per 100 possessions better on both ends when he played during the regular season. In the playoffs, Philadelphia’s defense allows 18.9 more points per 100 possessions when he’s off the floor versus on.

On the other end, Embiid’s dominance, combined with fit issues born from Simmons’ non-existent jump shot, turns Philadelphia into two different teams.

“The ecosystem of, ‘you’ve got Joel, Joe’s getting the ball, you’re probably more of an interior type team, versus, he’s not playing, you’re more of a free-flowing spread team, an up-and-down team,” Brown said before Game 4 against the Nets. “This is that challenge. How do you take the best of both worlds when he is playing? And although we haven’t played a ton of basketball together as a starting group, that is my and our challenge: to combine the best of both things that I just said.”

During the regular season, the percentage of possessions that saw Philly attack in transition actually increased with Embiid on the court. But in the playoffs, a small sample size has given us a wide disparity. In the three games Embiid has played, Philly’s transition frequency (the percentage of their possessions that start in transition) has been 13.3, 12.5, and 9.6 percent, respectively. In Game 3, when Embiid sat, that number leapt to 18.4 percent.

“It is a different team. I think they obviously played with more pace [in Game 3]. They were a little faster,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said after Game 4. “The flip side of that is they’ve got a guy to go down to at the end of the game.”

Embiid’s usage rate – the percentage of 76ers possessions he ends with a shot, turnover, or drawn foul while on the court – is second only to James Harden in the playoffs. You feel when he takes over a game. There are stretches where he looks dominant enough to change the rules, especially when help comes off Simmons only one pass away.

When Embiid curbs his tendency to shoot too many three-point shots, no basketball player alive, Giannis Antetokounmpo included, is more physically imposing.

“In the first game we settled a lot, with threes and stuff, and then the last three games we tried to be aggressive,” Embiid said after Game 4. “I think I’ve only taken two threes? Three? I took three today I guess, so I just try to live in the paint. They’re gonna have to double team me. I figured that out. They’re gonna have to send two or three guys. If they’re gonna guard me in single coverage, I’m gonna dominate.”

But Embiid doesn’t have the durability of Giannis, James Harden, Leonard, or Irving. He needs rest, both in games and between them. He only played 32 minutes in Philadelphia’s 112-108 Game 4 victory, despite the 76ers outscoring Brooklyn by 18 points when he was on the floor. If Embiid isn’t physically able to play more minutes, how can the Sixers possibly defeat the Raptors, Bucks or Celtics, and (likely) Warriors or Rockets, all in a row. If they can’t, will they ever make a deep playoff run?

In addition to Embiid’s health, the answer may come from their starting lineup. The good news is the 76ers start their five best players, and their top four are all good enough to play in an All-Star game. The bad news is that unit only appeared in 10 regular season games together, and the combination of their occasionally awkward fit and the team’s limited bench has compelled the Sixers to stagger lineups in a way that may not be conducive to the postseason.

With the Toronto Raptors likely waiting for them in Round 2, it’s time for a shift towards normality. Embiid’s health issues makes this easier said than done, but the Sixers should have their starting five on the floor as often as they can. The perks of doing so are clear as an on-court strategy — playoffs included, the Embiid-Simmons-ButlerHarris-J.J. Redick unit has outscored its opposition by 113 points in 193 minutes, sixth-highest in the league have — but it’d also give Philadelphia more data points as it approaches an offseason filled with difficult questions.

Since the beginning of last season, all iterations of Philly’s starting lineup have outscored opponents by 13.4 points per 100 possessions. No other team’s starters have been better. But these groups only filled up 24 percent of their total minutes, which ranked 23rd among the 30 starting lineups. They spent more time with three starters on the floor than any other team, and nearly as much with two. The strategy of mixing starters with reserves made sense with rosters that depended on Simmons and Embiid to churn them through half-court possessions. But now, it’s time the Sixers flex their biggest muscle as often as they can. Embrace life as a top-heavy headache that intentionally replaced depth with star power.

They haven’t so far. We’re working with small sample sizes, blowouts, Embiid missing Game 3, and Butler’s ejection in Game 4, but Philadelphia’s starters have only accounted for 26.6 percent of all their minutes, which won’t cut it. The Raptors, by contrast, played their starters for a higher percentage of minutes than any other team, and those groups also had the best net rating in the league. In the playoffs, Toronto’s starting five of Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Danny Green, and Marc Gasol has played 40 percent of the minutes and is obliterating the Orlando Magic.

Stretching the starters is essential because Philly’s supplementary pieces aren’t good enough. Game 4 hero Mike Scott makes threes, but is limited defensively and not a threat to defenses like, say, Milwaukee’s Nikola Mirotic is. Boban Marjanovic has held his own for meaningful stretches against a tiny Nets frontcourt, but will be exposed against better, quicker teams. James Ennis was let go by the Rockets this season because he couldn’t stay healthy or in front of his man. Jonathon Simmons is the wrong wing Elton Brand should’ve pried from Orlando in the Markelle Fultz trade. Overall, there simply isn’t enough shooting or perimeter defense to be stable when it matters most.

The 76ers need to do everything possible to meet their goals, because the long-term path is murky if they don’t. There’s an argument for locking up Harris, Butler, and Redick, then using a full training camp and regular season to see the best way to fill out the margins with more sensible role players. On the other hand, doing so could be a disaster if Embiid’s body prevents him from having a Hall of Fame career, or Simmons never learns to shoot, or Butler ages poorly, or the locker room’s hierarchy disintegrates. The alternative is to let some or all of those three players go and maintain cap flexibility, but there’s risk tied to that strategy as well, with Embiid also a max player and Simmons eligible for a max extension of his own.

For all these reasons and more, nothing should be off the table this summer, including an exploration of Simmons’ trade value. Then again, unloading a third-year player with transcendent, unteachable skills is likely to backfire. There are no obvious answers right now.

In a way, that’s fine. The Process might be over, but whatever comes next will need time to grow. Patience matters as much now as it did before.

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