7 for 6: Embiid, Home Court Advantage, and Eyes Around the League

This week on 7 for 6; The Joel Embiid benching conspiracy, Robert Covington breaks out of his slump (sort of), and checking in on the Lakers and Kings picks

1: Do the Sixers rest Embiid so much because they want to lose?

In a double overtime loss last Wednesday to the Memphis Grizzlies, the Sixers decided not to play Joel Embiid in the second overtime session, citing that he had already exceeded his minutes restriction set by the team (his limit is set at 24 and he had played 27 to that point). As you’ve likely seen by now, Embiid did not take being sat very well, at least initially. After the game, he did at least understand the rationale in being held out.

“It was frustrating, but those guys, they care about me and they’re looking out for me. I’ve got to trust the process” Embiid told reporters after the game.

While the outburst is somewhat concerning from a behavioral stand point, it’s also encouraging to see such passion from a player in a largely meaningless game in November. Even Head Coach Brett Brown found positives in the aftermath.

“I respect that, very much I respect it,” Brown said. “You see how much he wants to help us try to win, how competitive he is. But it’s just the way it is.”

Brown is correct; that’s just the way it is, and the way it will be for the immediate future. The decision to be so cautions with Embiid’s minutes this year has drawn some criticism from fans. Some people feel cheated if they buy a ticket and show up only to learn that Embiid won’t be playing that night. Others just think that the minutes restriction is a formality for the impressive rookie that rears itself at bad times, like overtime in a close game. Regardless of the stance one takes on the topic, the minutes restriction doesn’t seem to be going away soon.

I’ve written about this before, but one new thought that I did have in this latest instance is that Embiid might still be on this minutes restriction precisely because he has been so good.

Think about it. Is Embiid going to drag the Sixers from the lottery by himself? No way. In fact, staying in the lottery and as high as possible is probably still a priority for Philadelphia. If Embiid can make it through an entire season and learn along the way, all while the team doesn’t win substantially more games, it means that the start of next season could see Embiid, Simmons, and possibly another highly touted prospect. That would be a much better place to be than with Simmons, an injured Embiid (from playing every night or too many minutes) and a mid-tier lottery pick.

Basically, the Sixers have incentive to lose games even with Embiid right now. He’s shown that he’s legit, but adding better players around him could turn the ship around much quicker than rushing to let Embiid dominate before he’s even played a full year.

2: Let’s be clear; the Sixers are much worse without Joel Embiid

I know, I know, this isn’t much of a hot take, but it’s worth mentioning. As I said above, the Sixers are well aware of how good Embiid is and precisely how bad they are when he isn’t available. If one thing has become clear so far this season, it’s that Joel Embiid is the best player on the team. This could change when Ben Simmons returns, but right now Embiid is the alpha. It becomes all the more obvious when Embiid doesn’t play. The Sixers are 1-6 without the big man this year, and 3-8 when he does play. That may not seem like a huge margin, but you can definitely sense that the Sixers are a different team without Embiid. That lone win without him came only because Jahlil Okafor scored a season high 19 points and Wizards guard John Wall was limited to just 23 minutes of playing time. Without Embiid, the team has very little rim protection and no players that they can rely on to consistently score. Okafor was that player last year at times, but he is still struggling to find that regular rhythm.

If nothing else, Embiid gives the Sixers a chance most nights. Without him, things can get pretty ugly.

3: The state of the Lakers’ Pick and the King’s Pick Swap

All of that being said about Embiid, the Sixers are likely still a lottery team. But this year could be even more fortuitous if the ping pong balls fall in Philadelphia’s favor. The Sixers own the Lakers’ first round pick this season (top three protected) as well as the right to swap picks with the Kings if their pick falls in the top 10. Let’s check in on these two teams and see what it means for Philadelphia.

The Lakers are one of the more surprising teams in the league. After punting last year for Kobe Bryant’s retirement tour, Los Angeles looks like a brand new team. Under first year head coach Luke Walton, the team is currently 9-9 and holds the eighth seed in the Western Conference. They’re scoring 108.2 points per game, good for sixth in the entire league. And unlike under Byron Scott, the Lakers are shooting threes and shooting them well. Their 26 attempts per game rank 10th, and they’re shooting  almost 37%, good for 6th in the entire league.

Led by youngsters D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson, as well as former Sixer Lou Williams, all of whom are averaging over 15 points per game, the Lakers are hardly the doormat many expected them to be this year. The Western Conference is still a tight race for the final six seeds, so the Lakers could falter eventually, but the Sixers should prepare themselves for the possibility that the pick might not be as high as they’d hoped. In fact, I could see it being used as a trade chip to boost the return on a player like Nerlens Noel or Jahlil Okafor, should either be traded away.

The outlook is not so bright for the team in Sacramento. The Kings are just 7-10 despite Demarcus Cousins having arguably his best season yet. The big man from Kentucky is scoring 28 points per game and has added a three point shot to his arsenal. Despite Cousins’ high level of play, trade rumors have swirled all season even though the King’s ownership denying any interest in trading the talented center. Cousins won’t be an unrestricted free agent until 2018, so if the team really doesn’t want to trade him, he will be a King for the next two years. But where there is smoke, there is usually fire, and Boogie has been the subject of rumors for quite some time. If the Kings fade from postseason contention early this year, Cousins could be on his way out and that absolutely improves the odds of the Kings moving up in the lottery, which helps the Sixers. Sacramento may not be worse than Philadelphia this year, but with a slim chance of winning the lottery, the Kings’ situation is worth monitoring this season.

4: Hollis Thompson

Last week I touched on Nik Stauskas and the fine season that he’s enjoyed so far. This time I’d like to mention Hollis Thompson, who is often forgotten when talking about the Sixers despite the fact that he’s currently the longest tenured player on the roster. He’s been very consistent all season while putting up career high shooting percentages. Even fellow NBA nerd Zach Lowe gave him a shout out:

For the season, Hollis is scoring just seven points per game, but he’s shooting 46% from the field, 41% from three, and has an effective field goal percentage of 53.Those stats don’t blow you away, but he’s been a solid source of offense coming off the bench and his 6’8″ frame allows him to guard multiple positions on defense. With running mate Nik Stauskas, the Sixers have sharpshooters off their bench, finally giving them some meaningful production from that unit. Philly is getting 43.5 points per game from their reserves, good for third in the entire league. Thompson may not be a starter on most teams, but his value is starting to show now that his role has been simplified.

5: Covington breaks his slump (kind of)

It hasn’t been a great year for Robert Covington. Once a poster boy for the D-League and late bloomers everywhere, Covington hasn’t been able to shoot very well this year. While the volume of three point attempts have been available, the efficiency has been absent. The slump seemed to reach an apex last week against Miami. After missing his first four 3-point attempts in a close game, the boos began to rain down around Covington. It seemed as though he could do nothing right. Then, with three minutes to play and the Sixers clinging to a two point lead, Gerald Henderson found his slumping teammate for an open three. Covington didn’t miss that one and the Sixers went on to beat Miami 101-94 for the fourth straight (!!!!!) win at home.

“It was a great relief for me to see the ball go in,” he said after the game, “but even when the ball wasn’t going in, I was going to keep giving maximum effort.”

If there’s one thing you can’t blame Covington for this year, it is his effort. You can tell by watching that he is still pushing himself every night. And while the offense has slowed down this year, Covington is still collecting nearly two steals per game and blocking shots too.

Maybe all it takes is one moment to turn a season around. Maybe that three against Miami is what Covington needed to get going.

Then again, maybe not.

Keep shooting, Bob. There’s nowhere to go but up.

6: Jerryd Bayless debut

Another Sixer made his debut last week. After missing the first 13 games of the season with a wrist injury, point guard Jerryd Bayless scored four points, five assists, and pulled down two rebounds in last Monday’s win against the Miami Heat. Two nights later, he poured in 18 points (6-15 FG), dished out six assists and grabbed six rebounds in an overtime loss to Memphis.

Bayless gives the Sixers a more competent point guard rotation. When healthy, he is presumably the starter with Sergio Rodriguez providing offense off the bench. The combo of those two players also means less minutes for TJ McConnell which, despite his hustle, is probably for the best. Bayless and Rodriguez can both score from anywhere on the court and have good passing instincts. It certainly isn’t a high level NBA back court, but it is an improvement over recent years.

Unfortunately, Bayless aggravated his wrist injury and missed the team’s following games against Cleveland and Toronto. He is not expected to miss extended time, and could return as soon as Wednesday versus Sacramento. While Bayless has only played three games thus far, he looked good in those two contests and his (second) return will undoubtedly help Philadelphia.

7: Home Court Advantage?

I was fortunate to attend my first Sixers game in quite some time two weeks ago; the team’s 120-105 romp over the Phoenix Suns.  Joel Embiid scored 17 in the first quarter in one of his finest games of the season. Nik Stauskas couldn’t miss even if he tried. The team moved the ball and played defense and did everything right for the first time in a long time. It was simply beautiful basketball.

But more than anything, I was taken back by the atmosphere. I can’t remember the last time that Wells Fargo Center was so loud for a basketball game. The nearly 20,000 strong cheered for their team all night. The inevitable blown lead by Philadelphia never arrived. As far as games go, this was a pretty good one to attend.

The win was the team’s third in a row at home, a streak the eventually extended to four with another impressive win over Miami two days later. All four of the team’s wins have come on their home court, raising an important question; do the Sixers finally have a home court advantage again? Well, it’s hard to say. They’ve also lost eight games at home. But for that one Saturday night, there was an electricity inside the building. Perhaps I’m putting more stock into that game because I attended in person. But even after sitting on that thought for over a week, it doesn’t feel that way.

The thing is, that mantra, “Trust The Process,” which echoes through Wells Fargo Center every time Joel Embiid struts to the free throw line, is not just a line repeated inside the organization. It’s directed at us, the fans. For this process to work, there needs to be trust on both sides. From the fan’s perspective, that is admittedly difficult. After three miserable years of being told to trust the process, that game against Phoenix felt like a resounding response from the city; we do indeed trust this team. 19,000 fans don’t show up for a mid-November game against Phoenix if they don’t trust the direction of the team. And 19,000 fans don’t create an atmosphere like that without trust.

Is this team going undefeated at home any time soon? Not a chance. But four in a row at home? It’s not much, but like many things, it’s just part of the process.

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