Tucker, Harden, and Embiid at BxW scrimmage 2022; photo by Austin Krell/TPL

Lost somewhere between the Sixers’ most inspiring victories and agonizing defeats has been a quietly weird schedule. It’s intentional, an effort by the NBA to encourage teams to put their best feet forward on the court each night. The Sixers have already had a couple multi-day gaps between games. On the heels of arguably their most disappointing loss of the season, the Sixers have another four-day down period. With that time, I opened the floor to questions from fans.

How’d I know this one would pop up?

My personal opinion is that the month-long stretches without James Harden and Tyrese Maxey will guarantee Doc Rivers’ job through the whole season. By the time they’re both back, even if the team isn’t looking more on course, you’re running into January. I don’t know the history of in-season coaching fires, but I’d guess there’s not much precedent, if any, for coaches being fired that late into a campaign. At that point, you might as well just roll with what you have because making a seismic change probably does more harm than good.

As for taking the temperature of the team, I’ve approached a couple people involved in the day-to-day on the topic of the head coach. All conveyed support for Rivers in the respective contexts of our conversations.

All of this is to say, I’d be very surprised if they separated from Rivers during this season.

Tyrese Maxey suffered “a small fracture” in his left foot on November 18. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski originally reported a 3-to-4 week timeline for return. We’re 9 days away from December 18 as of this publishing, which would make a little more than four weeks. So, the initial timeline suggests that, at best, Maxey could come back within the next couple days. I don’t have any reason to believe that’s going to happen.

So, whatever pace he’s on would ostensibly trend closer to that one-month mark. I had some conversations regarding his status last week. The phrasing I got was “a ways away”, but I didn’t get the sense that there was concern his absence would extend beyond the original timeline. Interestingly enough, as Kyle Neubeck quoted in a story earlier this week, Rivers also used the term “a way away”. He also added that his definition of “a way’s away” was “two games, three games”. If we go by his definition, that would put Maxey on target for a return against Golden State next Friday — two days short of exactly one month. 

There was also this from Woj on Wednesday:

That would put him on pace to return some time between the Golden State game and the Los Angeles Clippers game, between December 16 and December 23. The Sixers will play four games in that time frame — the two ends mentioned above, and Toronto and Detroit in the middle. It doesn’t matter which game he returns, all will be at home.

So, to answer the question, all signs point to Maxey being on track to return by his original one-month time frame, which expires in the next week or two.

As long as Daryl Morey is the President of Basketball Operations, I have doubts that they’d ever blow it up. It especially doesn’t make sense when you look at the draft picks they have in their future. The Sixers have four first-round picks between now and 2029. If you trade Embiid, you’d obviously ask for picks — but he’s going to lift his new team to a height that will take their firsts outside of the lottery.

Without your own slew of first-rounders, you can be hamstrung by how far you can take a rebuild because those picks are scattered. Suddenly, you’re approaching a decade of rebuilding. When you owe three first-round picks over the next seven seasons, it’s in your best interest to keep fielding a competitive team because you’re otherwise giving another team high draft position while you have poor position or none at all. Sure, you’ll have a couple firsts of your own to draw upon. But, the point of a rebuild is to maximize your wealth of picks so that you have numerous bites at the apple.

It makes the most sense when your best player’s ceiling is outside of the top 10. If you have one of the 10 best players in the world, you keep pivoting until they request a trade, they exit their prime, or the goal is achieved. As long as Embiid is content, I don’t see it. I think drafting Maxey gave them a legitimate second pillar. Armed with two foundational pieces, the Sixers should believe they’re always within striking distance of achieving their goal. 

Prior to the emergence of Shake Milton while both Harden and Maxey were out, I would’ve said that they don’t have a backup point guard. I still don’t know that I believe Milton is a point guard, and I think their playmaking is very thin beyond Harden. But, given how Milton played in that stretch, I’d be inclined to say a wing with rebounding skills should be higher on the list. Of course, such creatures are scarce and in high demand. If the Sixers don’t have the supply to meet that demand, then a backup point guard shouldn’t be far behind on the shopping list. I also think they need a legitimate sniper, but would understand if they looked at their success beyond the arc up to this point and decided that adding a sniper wasn’t the highest priority.

I think people really need to have some perspective on Harden. He came out guns blazing to open the season, notching back-to-back 30-pieces against Eastern Conference heavyweights. Even when his shooting and scoring efficiency wasn’t there, his playmaking was. Then, he missed a month with the foot injury and was rusty when he returned. Most players would need more than one game to re-acclimate themselves. Give him some time. The 2-5 start next to Embiid is certainly not what anyone expected, but I wouldn’t be in DEFCON 1 about it just yet. 

Anyway, your question. He’s certainly a big minus defensively. The downside of his offensive game can really put a hurting on his team, but his upside can lift you to a top-5 team offense. His ugly moments approach hideous, but his good moments give opposing defenses fits. It might be a remote chance now, but he was firmly in the All-Star conversation when he went down.

First, I’m always flattered when asked and appreciate being thought of well enough to be invited onto fans’ programs. Shoot me a message and we’ll do it. 

Second, refer to the second question above.

Third, it’s funny, as miserable as the fans are right now, the team really seems to enjoy each other. It’s not their first rodeo. Perhaps they’re just not concerned right now and believe they’ll figure it out. Those relationships will be put to the test if the team continues to disappoint as the season progresses. But, interactions are positive and they seem close, from what I can tell. I should note, I’m usually not in the locker room. I do pretty much all of my observation watching pregame workouts. I’ll stick around to watch post-practice sessions for as long as I can when I can make it to practice. Embiid likes to give the occasional passive answer about how the offense flows or defensive principles in his postgame press conferences. But, you can sense good relationships amongst the players. Everyone seems happy for the guys who are breaking out. They seemed to miss how Harden made life easier for them, individually, on offense. They all miss Maxey’s energy and spirit on the court, and they’ll tell you he certainly supplies it off the court. 

For the first question: I honestly don’t know that Matisse Thybulle should still be regarded as one of the team’s best defenders. He struggles to stay in front of individual assignments. Thybulle has some bad fouling habits when he gets behind or approaches from the side. He’s a terrific off-ball defender and free safety, creating chaos in the open court whenever he’s on the floor. But, his offensive limitations are so severe that he can’t play extended minutes. If he can’t play that many minutes without being a detriment to his team’s success, how good of a defender can he really be? 

I would say he’s a gifted defender who is too much of a specialist to be more than a bit player. As for why he didn’t play, I don’t know the answer to that. I think you want to give Harden and Embiid spacing to operate, and he doesn’t offer much there. As for the “healthy” part, that might play a role. He was on the injury report often in recent weeks. Rivers really limited his availability as he managed an ankle injury. Maybe that injury is still there. Not hard reporting, I’m just suggesting it’s possible that there is some discomfort despite his not being listed on the injury report. Injuries don’t just go away after a certain date, and they don’t disappear when the name vanishes from the hourly injury listing. 

Second, I think you have to look at the rest of the league and be realistic. Unless you’re actively trying to lose for the sake of lottery odds, blowouts trend more towards uncommon than common. Most games are competitive until the final minutes, if not the final possession. I wouldn’t correlate a volume of crunch time minutes with Embiid dropping 30 points on a nightly basis. It’s not like he’s not trying to pass, either. Embiid is on his way to setting a new career high in assists per game in consecutive seasons. The turnovers are an issue, I have nothing for that. He tries to dribble a bit too much. Embiid fails to keep the ball high too often, and has had shaky decision-making and attention this season. But, he’s the best player on the team by a country mile. You run your offense through your best player.

To answer your third question, I think you’re seeing them switch only 1 through 4 more now. They were switching everything earlier in the season. They’re also throwing out zones more often in recent games. So, he’s not helping as much, at least in my eyes.

From an X’s and O’s standpoint, I’d say the more he has to lift in help, the more you need that back-line defender coming from the weak side to slide over to help protect the rim. That guy doesn’t have to be a superb athlete or big in size. You just need that body to drop down or slide over to block off the backdoor cutter. At worst, they’ll run into you and you’ll have a chance to react. At best, they won’t cut because you’re denying their path to the rim. If Embiid is blitzing on the perimeter, that’s likely leaving a roller open. You need your back-line defender on whichever side of the court the roller’s back is facing to lift up to the roller and protect against a direct dive to the cup. 

From the DMs

Twitter user: Embiid’s MVP chances this year? What is the likelihood he gets back as one of top candidates?

Embiid got himself back in the race last year with an extended stretch of pure dominance after a slow start to the season coupled with missed time due to COVID. Of course, he had the Simmons situation helping his case. He was carrying the Sixers on his back through that. 

This year, he has no such aid. He’s had some sensational performances thus far. But, he’s also missed a good chunk of time already. His effort also hasn’t been consistent enough, even though he pretty much gets 30 in his sleep now. Even if the Sixers don’t continue to struggle, the presences of Harden and Maxey will detract from his case if they don’t miss any more extended time through the remainder of the season. In my opinion, the race is already squarely between Jayson Tatum, Luka Doncic, and Stephen Curry. I don’t think he has much of a chance, and I think it’s very unlikely he gets back in the race.

I do know this — any chance he has hinges on him putting forth a consistent effort every night. He should start there, and on both ends of the floor.


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