Joel Embiid grabbed headlines once again after their win over the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday, not only because he scored 20-plus points for the sixth straight game, but because he thinks the 10-25 Sixers can still make the playoffs, according to ESPN.
That statement’s not really quite as farfetched as it might seem at first. The Sixers are now just 7.5 games behind the Washington Wizards for the eighth and final playoff seed in the East, which is not impossible to claw back. With how mediocre the conference’s middle class have been, it’s not inconceivable that a team like the Hawks (if/when they trade Paul Millsap), the Bulls or the Wizards crash out of the playoff picture, opening the door for a team like the Sixers if they decided to go for it (that's a big "if" of course). But even if the teams currently ahead of them collapse, Philly would still need to make some moves if they're to make it in.
1. Play Joel Embiid more
For the Sixers to stand any chance of making the playoffs, they need to take the kid gloves off Joel Embiid. When was the last time you saw a team make the playoffs while playing their best player just 25 minutes per game, and never over 30 minutes?
Embiid is having a phenomenal first season whichever way you put it. He’s averaging 19 points in his 25 minutes on the floor, which is over 27 points per 36 minutes. (For context, Michael Jordan averaged 28.3 points per 36.) Just imagine how many more wins they would’ve had if they had been just a little bit flexible with Embiid.
The Sixers are doing the right thing in limiting Embiid’s minutes, but setting a mandatory, inflexible cap at 30 minutes per game is excessive. His legs won’t suddenly fall apart if he plays his 31st minute. There are other ways to restrict his workload. You can continue to keep him out of back-to-backs, or restrict him during practice. But the point of playing in the NBA to win games, and the Sixers need to play Embiid to do so.
2. Trade Dario Saric for a guard
The Sixers are just overstocked with big men. Embiid is obviously the cornerstone, but their former top picks – Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor – still don’t have a definitive role in the team. Ersan Ilyasova is currently entrenched as the team’s starting four thanks to his shooting, while Dario Saric is coming off of the bench; and of course, this year’s number one overall pick, Ben Simmons, is set to return sooner rather than later.
Obviously, someone has to go among those players, and the Sixers can trade one of them to fill their need in the backcourt (no offense, TJ McConnell and Nik Stauskas, but neither of you deserve to start on a playoff contending team).
So, who do you trade? Noel likely has the most value in the group because of his defense, but the Sixers could use that defense for their playoff run. Okafor is expendable, but how much can they get for him? Probably not much, and obviously they’re not trading Simmons before they find out what he can be.
That leaves Saric. The Croatian has played reasonably well in his rookie year, averaging 9.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 1.7 assists in 24.1 minutes, while showing some flashes of the potential which saw him drafted number 12 overall in 2014. However, he’s essentially a slightly older version of Simmons, who should be able to approximate Saric’s play and production when he comes back.
A package of Saric and Sergio Rodriguez’s expiring contract should be enough to land someone like Brandon Knight, who would be a much-needed upgrade at either guard position.
3. Stick with Nerlens Noel
After missing the first month-and-a-half of the season (and head coach Brett Brown preferring Okafor ahead of him when he did return), Nerlens Noel is finally getting a chance to prove himself, and he’s taking it. Over the last five games, Noel is averaging 10.4 points, four rebounds, and 1.4 steals in 20 minutes per game.
The Sixers have been competitive in four of those games, and went 3-1. Coincidence? Perhaps. (or perhaps they just defeated some bad teams in the Nuggets, Timberwolves, and Nets).
But the fact remains that among the many big men that the Sixers currently have, Noel is the best fit alongside Embiid because he can protect the rim and can also guard out on the perimeter. It’s no surprise that Noel has the second-best defensive rating (and the third-best net rating) on the team. He needs to play a lot more going forward to improve the team’s defense, and to improve their chances of winning.
Despite Embiid's optimism, the Sixers' front office most likely has his, and the franchise's, long-term outlook in mind as opposed to a playoff run this year. But it's not hard to imagine the Sixers getting themselves in the thick of things if they make even one or two of the moves stated above, given how wide open the East has been this year.
Do you think that the Sixers can make the playoffs this season, if so, how? Let us know in the comments section below.