The Philadelphia 76ers need to find help for Joel Embiid

(Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)
(Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images) /

The Philadelphia 76ers have an elite player in Joel Embiid, but they won’t go far in the playoffs unless they can surround him with a better supporting cast.

The Philadelphia 76ers are a curious case of mistaken identity. They are a team that has promised so much after enduring a process that spanned years of losing with no name players, but one that ultimately brought them three All-Star players and legitimate hopes for a championship.

But the biggest problem with the Sixers right now is that the big three of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Jimmy Butler just isn’t enough to beat the best teams in the NBA and on some nights, it’s not even enough to overcome the good teams.

It’s a bizarre feeling watching this team play; they give you the sense that they could be so great, yet there are nights with head-scratching losses that leave fans bewildered. The process might be over, but the result is far from polished.

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The 2018-19 season has been interesting thus far. New general manager Elton Brand traded away likable guys in Robert Covington and Dario Saric to the Minnesota Timberwolves in a move that brought them Butler, a player that fans had been lusting after ever since his name was mentioned as a possible target over the summer.

So far, Butler has provided the spark that the Sixers desperately needed. He’s been clutch late in games that Philadelphia would otherwise would not have won last season, and he’s added both a scoring touch to go along with defensive reliability that the team was so clearly lacking before his arrival. His points per game average is already up three points from his career average of 16 points per game.

Yet despite the addition of Butler, which has given the Sixers a veritable three-headed monster, the team still feels very much incomplete, and at times, appears confused about how it wants to play around its best player in Embiid.

Look no further than the marquee matchup against the Boston Celtics on Christmas day. This was the litmus test; this was the game where the Sixers were going to finally prove they could defeat a team that has been their nemesis since last season, a coach in Brad Stevens, who has had Brett Brown’s number every time they seem to play.

Unfortunately, this game was no different.

The Sixers actually kept this one close and even had a lead with only minutes to spare. But then Boston did what Boston does best by forcing the Sixers into turning the ball over and then scorched them in transition. Kyrie Irving was all over the court, and the Sixers simply had no answer for him on his 40-point night, as he feasted off the pick and roll.

Quite honestly, the Sixers have been unable to contain many of the more talented players in the league in addition to Irving, players such as Kemba Walker, Kawhi Leonard, and Blake Griffin. Even the Brooklyn Nets have given the Sixers fits defensively at times. It’s been a theme that fans are hoping will not continue into the playoffs, but that may require some personnel changes.

The Boston game was a frustrating loss, especially since this has been the recipe for Boston against the Sixers dating back to last year, even without an elite player like Irving on the roster. But this is the reality for the 76ers right now, as currently assembled, they don’t have enough depth on the roster to allow their best players to thrive in key situations.

Embiid is without a doubt the best player on the Sixers, an All-Star, and may one day go down as the best player in franchise history. He’s currently averaging nearly 27 points a game and has been an absolutely dominant force for the Sixers this season.

But Embiid still has holes in his game, and the Celtics continually expose them by walling off Embiid down low with the double-team and forcing him into bad passing angles or a lousy angle back-foot jumper.

Best case scenario for the Celtics was forcing turnovers, which happened in the waning minutes of the Christmas game amidst a 13-1 run where the Celtics stepped on the Sixers necks and squeezed the last remaining ounce of life from them.

We’ve seen this before, and it’s mind-blowing that Brown continually fails to adjust to this. While the Celtics were busy concentrating on Embiid, they left Simmons completely alone, knowing he isn’t a shooting threat, while also stepping off of Butler. So Unless J.J. Redick or Wilson Chandler gets open for a three-point shot, the Sixers offense is easily stymied late in games by aggressively attacking Embiid.

To pivot for a moment, the fact that the Celtics felt they could ignore Simmons is telling, and this has been a huge concern among Sixers fans this season. Simmons totaled 11 points against Boston while adding four turnovers. That’s just not good enough at all.

Simmons is a monster guard with the body of a small forward, who’s inexplicably playing point guard in an offense where he’s content to bring the ball down the court and drive the lane only to dish the ball back out to a perimeter player.

It’s nights like Christmas where one has to question whether the team would be more successful without Simmons, despite his massive upside. He’s averaging 16 points a game, which is fine, but Brown needs to figure out how to get more out of Simmons in key situations.

Back to Embiid, his 34-point night would go to waste, but he too committed critical errors, ending with six turnovers himself. But it’s hard to lay any blame on the franchise center.

Embiid is consistently putting up almost 30 points a night. He’s legitimately the best center in the game, and it appears the Sixers have hit a monster home run with the beast from Cameroon. But all that could be for nothing if the organization can’t figure out how to build around him in the coming years.

For starters, the Sixers need another guard. Redick is a nice option as a shooter, but defensively, he’s one of the worst in the league. Redick drew defensive duties on Irving for much of the game, and the results speak for themselves.

But moreover, the Sixers need another dynamic player who can draw attention away from Embiid and let him work down low on the post where there aren’t many players who can handle him. They have a few solid bench pieces in Landry Shamet and Furkan Korkmaz, but neither can be relied on in a starting role. This must be addressed before the playoffs.

Offensively, the Sixers are a bit of a conundrum. Right now they are running an offense with Simmons as the one, Redick as the two, Butler as the three, Chandler the four, and Embiid the five.

Butler is more a shooting guard than small forward, and Simmons is much more a small forward than point guard, which is why the Sixers need another guard who legitimately plays the position.

The offense as currently constructed does not put its best players in the best positions to succeed, and late in games, it’s this strategy which is dooming their best player by making Embiid do it by himself.

The injuries to Markelle Fultz and Zhaire Smith have not helped matters. Fultz is approaching bust territory, while Smith is dealing with the annual Sixers rookie injury, something that has become somewhat of a running joke at the Wells Fargo Center.

Smith’s sound defense would no doubt help this team, while Fultz, assuming he ever returns to the player he was while at Washington, would easily help the team with their deficiency at starting guard.

It’s certainly possible that Brand gets impatient and makes a move for a guard before the playoffs, as it is unclear whether Fultz or Smith will suit up at all the rest of the season. In that case for Fultz, it may be time to move on and find a more permanent, reliable solution.

Embiid is going to be the Sixers franchise player for the next decade if he can stay healthy, and could end up being a true generational talent, a player that only comes along once in a lifetime.

Next. Wilson Chandler needs to take more shots. dark

Right now, the Sixers don’t have enough talent around him to win a championship. Brand’s goal from here on out, and over the next couple of years, should be to surround Embiid with as much supporting talent as he can while deepening the bench with players who can fulfill specific roles. Do that, and fans may just get to watch Embiid lead them to the promised land.