How the Philadelphia 76ers weathered Joel Embiid’s finger injury

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

With Joel Embiid officially back, let’s take a look back at his nine-game absence to determine how the Philadelphia 76ers weathered his absence.

When Joel Embiid broke his finger midway through the Philadelphia 76ers‘ 120-113 win over the OKC Thunder, it felt like yet another black mark on a thoroughly frustrating season.

Between the team’s seeming inability to win a game on the road against even an average opponent, to a hot and cold bench, and an odd-fitting starting five, no one hates the Sixers more than Sixers fans, especially when a player like Embiid goes down without a clear return date.

And initially, any cynicism around the situation was justified.

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After beating the Boston Celtics in Josh Richardson‘s best game so far this decade, the Sixers dropped a pair of very winnable games against the Dallas Mavericks and the Indiana Pacers – the team’s second straight loss to both clubs in less than a month.

Without Embiid in the paint, and on the wings, and at the line, the Sixers offense was woefully ineffective and lacked even average shooting behind Richardson and Tobias Harris.

Needless to say, morale was at a near all-time low, but as these things so often go, you can’t keep a talented team down forever.

Since that loss to T.J. McConnell and the Pacers on January 13th, the 76ers have been borderline unstoppable behind the fast-paced point forward play of Ben Simmons, going 5-1 against five playoff-caliber teams (and the New York Knicks).

But what changed? Has Brett Brown finally settled on a consistent rotation? Did Elton Brand make a season-altering trade? Certainly, it hasn’t been the emergence of Simmons as a 20 point a night scorer, as he was playing just as well during the 1-2 stretch in the three games directly following Embiid’s injury.

No, what has seemingly turned the Sixers into a legit contender capable of manhandling a close-to-full-strength Los Angeles Lakers squad with the second-best record in the league is the emergence of Furkan Korkmaz as a reliable double-digit scorer coming off the bench.

I know, I know, technically that isn’t the only reason the Sixers have been playing their most exciting brand of basketball this season, as the team has been playing faster without Embiid anchoring the paint, and Al Horford has been given more chances to bruise in the paint as a full-time five, but having a reserve scorer putting up numbers may be the single most impactful factor in the team’s midwinter resurgence.

In 2018, the Sixers had Marco Belinelli. In 2019, the Sixers had Mike Scott, who they technically still have, but that’s another conversation for another day. This season, bench scoring has been woefully hard to come by at times and has directly correlated with the win-loss record in games where the starting five couldn’t get it done.

And look, I get it. When you have four players in the starting five signed to contracts worth more than $100 million, it’s going to be hard to fill out the roster with solid secondary options, but when Mike Scott, the only player on the bench making more than $3 million a season, is averaging less than six points in 18 minutes of action, it’s going to understandably take a toll on any team, regardless of their top-end talent.

For as crazy as it sounds when you consider he signed a one-year, vet minimum deal to return to the team after an unsuccessful free agency period in June, Korkmaz has averaged 15.3 points a game coming off the bench over the last six games. He’s knocking down 39.3 percent of his 3 point shots, he’s driving to the basket and scoring in the paint, and he’s even playing a little bit of defense.

Has Kormaz finally put it all together and elevated his game? Or is this just another hot stretch in the career of a relatively streaky shooter?

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Only time will tell, but if the last five, six, and nine games are of any indication, it’s clear the Philadelphia 76ers are at their best when they have ample space to operate, a ton of confidence, and a solid sixth man scorer coming off the bench. Now imagine if Furkan Korkmaz can keep that level of play up with Joel Embiid back in the fray – now that would be fun to watch.