PHILADELPHIA — The past 72 hours have perfectly encapsulated the inconsistent nature of the Philadelphia 76ers’ season so far.
Sunday’s lackluster home win over the Chicago Bulls represents one of the low points of the Sixers’ season. In response to loud booes, Joel Embiid told fans to “shut up” twice during the fourth quarter — once with an expletive. Embiid’s social media post on Monday further inflamed the story.
Though Tuesday began with more discussion of Embiid’s social media post and a monumental lineup change, the Sixers’ 110-103 win over the LA Clippers is one of their best of the season as they head into the All-Star break.
“The second part of the season,” Embiid said afterward, “is going to be extremely fun.”
Time will tell if Embiid’s proclamation will come true. The league’s best home record is contrasted by a 9-19 road record shared by the New York Knicks. Fit issues abound. Several new trade-deadline additions are still adjusting to their new surroundings.
So as they head into the much-needed All-Star break, here’s an assessment of what we know — and don’t know — about one of the league’s most confusing teams.
1. Joel Embiid’s return to form
In the wake of his return to social media trolling, Embiid declared it wasn’t going to be a one-time thing.
“I’m back to doing whatever I want, and saying whatever I want,” Embiid said after Tuesday’s performance. “That’s how I used to be, and you know I was dominating that way.”
If Embiid plays every game like he did Tuesday, the Sixers will be happy to have him return to dunking on people on Instagram and Twitter. The game was a showcase of all the things that make Embiid one of the sport’s best players when he is locked in and engaged. He was dominant in the paint — helping Philadelphia earn a 58-38 edge in points in the paint — and neutralized Clippers center Montrezl Harrell.
It is that version of Embiid the Sixers need to get on a regular basis if they want to have any hope of achieving their championship aspirations. Outings like Tuesday’s, with Embiid engaged and locked in, display the team’s true potential.
It didn’t hurt that Embiid and Ben Simmons finally looked in sync, with head coach Brett Brown calling it “arguably the best game that those two have paired with since I’ve been the coach here.” Tuesday’s win is a reminder of the duo’s potential, despite questions of their long-term success.
What would make their lives easier, though, is if Embiid, Simmons and the rest of the Sixers could simply display some consistency for a change.
2. What to expect from Al Horford
After spending the decade being considered one of the NBA’s most versatile big men, this year — his first in Philadelphia — has been a trying one for Al Horford.
Then Horford met with Brown on Monday and was informed he would be coming off the bench for the first time since November 2007, his rookie season in the league.
“I just accepted it,” Horford said after the game. “Obviously, not the position that I saw myself in, but it’s what was best for the team.”
Horford handled the situation professionally. But it was clear that he was frustrated by it all.
The Sixers got Horford for two reasons. First, they thought they needed a better option to throw at Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, the team to beat in the East. The other reason was that whenever Embiid sat last postseason, they needed to have a quality center when he needed a break.
That is why Horford was befuddled when asked Tuesday how his role will change.
“I honestly don’t think it changes much from what I was doing before,” he said.
Horford still spent a large stretch of the fourth quarter on Tuesday playing alongside Embiid, before giving way to a smaller, quicker lineup like the one that started the game. It’s what made Brown’s decision to take Horford out of the starting lineup questionable.
“I spoke to Al Horford about it, and we are trying to find ways to help him and help the team,” Brown said. “I felt … that the time was appropriate to do it and see if we could get that second unit going with Al.”
“How I end games, to me, will be the judgment,” Brown said.
If Philadelphia can’t find a way to have Horford and Embiid more effectively coexist, the idea of the team’s marquee free-agent signing sitting and watching in the closing minutes in the playoffs could become more of a reality.
3. The potential of the supporting cast
Josh Richardson was a major factor in the Sixers’ victory on Tuesday, starting for the first time since hurting his hamstring at the Toronto Raptors on Jan. 22 and scoring 17 of his 21 points in the final quarter.
Richardson finished plus-24 in 31 minutes and seemingly had an answer for every Clippers surge down the stretch.
“I kind of started attacking a little bit more,” Richardson said. “I was kind of just reading the defense. Coach put the ball in my hands and gave me the freedom to read it and attack and take what I saw.”
Acquired in the sign-and-trade that sent Jimmy Butler to the Miami Heat this summer, Richardson has flown under the radar this season, but his absence over the past few weeks has been a significant part of why the Sixers have struggled of late.
Horford has borne the brunt of the misgivings about Philadelphia’s fit issues, but the Sixers will need more from Richardson and Tobias Harris. Richardson has been sidelined with hamstring issues and is shooting just 33.9% from 3-point range. Harris has made admirable improvements defensively while shooting 36.7% from deep.
On a team with as many spacing issues as the Sixers have, they need their supporting players to knock down shots. Horford and Richardson did Tuesday night; Harris (8-for-19 overall, 1-for-6 from 3-point range, 17 points) did not. Support from the bench will help too, as Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks will get their chances after being acquired from the Golden State Warriors last week.
4. The Sixers’ place in the East
Coming into this season, the Eastern Conference was seen as a two-horse race between the Bucks and Sixers. Milwaukee has lived up to its end of the bargain and is pushing toward possibly winning 70 games this season. Philadelphia? Not so much.
Rather than fighting for home court throughout the playoffs, the Sixers right now are fighting for the fourth seed. After Tuesday’s triumph, Philadelphia now sits three games back in the loss column of the fourth-place Heat and six games back of the third-place Boston Celtics.
A playoff run that could begin with a reunion with Butler in Round One seems like a tall order for a team with one of the worst road records in the league. With the hole they’ve dug for themselves, the Sixers have left themselves without any room for error going forward.
“For me, I like to look it [as going] back to 0-0, kind of like a refresh button,” Simmons said of the All-Star break. “Hopefully, everybody mentally gets that break and comes back focused and ready.”
They don’t have a choice otherwise. The expectations for this seasons were sky-high for a reason. The roster is laden with talent — and expensive talent, at that. The home wins over the likes of the Celtics, Raptors, Lakers, Clippers and Heat are all proof of that. Likewise, the road losses to the Atlanta Hawks, Phoenix Suns, Washington Wizards and Orlando Magic (twice) show how this group struggles to play to its potential.
In many ways, this Sixers team feels reminiscent of last year’s Celtics — a group that, right until they lost their fourth game in a row to the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, was expected to flip the switch, and have everything click into place. The prior eight months, however, had proven there was no switch to flip; the inconsistency that team had shown from start to finish was, in fact, its true form.
Their playoff fate will depend on which team we see in the second half.