The Trail Blazers pulled away from an extremely feisty and determined 76ers team in Portland on Saturday night, powered in large part by what very much looked like a breakthrough game for a scuffling Damian Lillard. The Blazers and Sixers are, for the moment, ships headed in opposite directions: Lots will happen over the remainder of this NBA season, but the Blazers have won three straight and appear to have some wind in their sails, whereas the Sixers can’t catch a damn break and are taking on water. Extending this ill-advised nautical metaphor a little further, Saturday’s inevitable-seeming result is just sort of what happens when a vessel captained by Damian Lillard confronts one being led through hostile waters by the supremely earnest and admirable but wildly under-qualified Tyrese Maxey.
The 76ers woke up on Nov. 8 with a conference-best 8–2 record, a sparkling 8.9 net rating, and the NBA’s most efficient offense. This was early confirmation of something that would come as a surprise to exactly no one who has watched the Sixers during the Joel Embiid era: An offense that surrounds Embiid with shooters, floor-spacers, and non-cripplingly neurotic ball-handlers—even if those players are individually nothing special—will be very close to unstoppable most nights. Philadelphia’s defense, then chugging along near the middle of the pack efficiency-wise, may not have been the Total Hell that it has been when Ben Simmons is around to hassle opposing alpha playmakers, but for a team with a world-beating offense and Embiid as a defensive backstop, glossy regular-season defensive metrics are really an unnecessary luxury. To hell with Simmons!
But the 76ers also woke up that Monday morning to news that Joel Embiid had tested positive for COVID-19; due to the NBA’s protocols, and depending upon his condition, he would be out a while. However much space you personally commit in your nightly prayers for Embiid’s backup, the well-meaning pile-of-elbows Andre Drummond, subtracting Joel Embiid from this 76ers roster is not very unlike removing the wheels from a car. That his absence would coincide with a stretch of schedule without a cupcake anywhere in sight was particularly cruel. That his absence also overlapped with the tail end of teammate Tobias Harris’s own stint in the NBA’s health and safety protocols lent Philadelphia’s next couple games an air of absurdist comedy. I’m almost afraid to mention that Seth Curry also missed a game in there. Those three players account for roughly 79 percent of Philadelphia’s offense.
Curry and Harris have since returned to action, but the Embiid-less Sixers have not been able to hold down the fort. They’ve dropped six of seven and have fallen to 10th in the Eastern Conference. That’s not surprising, or even particularly noteworthy, except that these grievously undermanned 76ers have competed like goddamn madmen for the better part of two weeks in the worst possible luck, and in so doing have found their way into my heart as a sort of scrappy, hard-luck, feel-good underdog story. Suddenly I love these guys!
It starts with Maxey, who as the shot-creator of necessity for a team with two gigantic high-pedigree holes in the offense has performed like a 21-year-old All-Star. The second-year guard has averaged 24 points on eye-popping 53-49-89 shooting splits on 23.5 percent usage, plus a pristine 4.6 to 0.6 assist-to-turnover ratio, all sans Embiid. As a fill-in, Maxey will be expected to recede back into a more limited role as soon as the team is back to full strength. Hell, if Daryl Morey gets his wish and Ben Simmons is coerced back into the fold, Maxey might not even have all that stable a spot in the rotation. Morey has in the past been pretty ruthlessly narrow about defining his teams’ cores, which means there is no guarantee that Maxey has played his way safely into Philadelphia’s plans even despite his recent efforts. But if he were instead doing all this for, say, the rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder, he would be in line for something like a max-value extension of his rookie contract. He rules super hard, is what I’m saying, and is especially easy to pull for as the kid pouring his guts out for a team suddenly bereft of veteran talent.
Maxey went for 31 points in a gutsy, narrow loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, when the Sixers were at their most depleted; two nights later he put up 33 on 19 shots in another hard-fought loss, this time to the Raptors. Maxey gave Lillard and the Blazers all they could handle in Portland Saturday night, once again playing like it never occurred to him that he and his teammates are expected to lose:
Maxey and the Other Sixers have competed so intensely and so admirably that I am tempted to argue that they’ve performed like a fringe playoff team even without Embiid. Unfortunately I will not be making that argument, because it is extremely not the case. Without Embiid their offense has dropped from first overall in efficiency to 17th; the defense, predictably, has over the last seven games been third-worst in the league, allowing a hideous 115.5 points per 100 possessions. Their net rating during Embiid’s stint in the protocols is fourth from the bottom of the league. Their losses (minus a 35-point thrashing in Utah) have all been within a couple possessions, but the net of all of it is a picture of a team performing both absolutely as well as it can under the circumstances and just about how you’d expect when robbed of its two superstars. The Tyrese Maxey Sixers compete like hell, but are not, in the end, very competitive.
What they’ve earned is salvation, in the form of a hero emerging from the tunnel and lending them the star power they’ve lacked. Embiid should be along before too long, and that will do the trick for however long Embiid lasts in a given stretch. But Embiid has never in his seven-year NBA career played a full season, and with his huge and vulnerable frame it’s incredibly unlikely that he ever will. Simmons never made too much sense in an offense oriented around Embiid, and vice versa, but he sure works as the fill-in fulcrum for those inevitable stretches when Embiid is sidelined. That Maxey might someday be capable of keeping everything afloat on his own is an individual and organizational win, but it will be a bitter reward if that day comes after Embiid’s body has begun its inevitable and inexorable breaking down.
When you have Joel Embiid you don’t much need Ben Simmons, or for that matter anyone for whom Simmons could be traded. But it’s when you don’t have Embiid that the fallout from alienating Simmons and then refusing to trade him winds up making a big fat waste of all the heroism you could ever ask of the guys left behind.