The Philadelphia 76ers are intent on preserving Joel Embiid and James Harden for the playoffs. That means sitting their superstar duo for the odd contest in the final few weeks, regardless of Embiid’s MVP push.
However, is it possible the 76ers actually hope to slide in the Eastern Conference playoff standings?
Injuries loomed large for both Embiid and Harden at the end of the campaign over the past couple of seasons. Philadelphia surely wants to avoid risking setbacks for either player, which would almost assuredly threaten its title chances.
That said, the Sixers might accept resting their stars and taking losses so as to avoid a potentially unfavorable playoff matchup.
Joel Embiid and James Harden both missed Monday’s game between the 76ers and Heat
With the Sixers set to square off against the top-seeded Miami Heat in the second leg of a back-to-back on Monday, head coach Doc Rivers made the easy choice to sit his star players.
Harden had an opportunity to rest his hamstring, on he desperately needed. The Beard has struggled mightily with his efficiency in the last seven games, including a horrific showing against the Brooklyn Nets. Philly can ill afford a banged-up Harden running the offense come playoff time. The Sixers need him at his attacking best.
Meanwhile, Embiid was held out due to back soreness. Aside from an early-season bout with COVID-19, he’s been pretty healthy. He actually said (h/t NBC Sports Philadelphia) he expected to play against the Heat, but the medical staff recommended otherwise.
The personnel decisions are rather obvious on the surface. Being at full strength for the playoffs is more important than regular-season seeding for the 76ers, at this point.
Actually, is it possible that the Sixers could rest Harden and Embiid more often with the notion that losing games might put them in a better position?
It might be beneficial for the 76ers to slip a spot or two in the standings
The Sixers are currently the No. 2 seed in the East. Should they maintain that spot, they could well have a first-round date with the Nets. That’s a dangerous prospect.
Philly is just 1-3 against Brooklyn this season. The Nets destroyed the 76ers 129-100 in the City of Brotherly Love on March 10, showing what they can do with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on the floor together.
Maybe the 76ers are trying to duck Brooklyn?
The Nets (38-34) are still three games out of the No. 6 seed. Barring something miraculous, it’s likely they end up in the play-in game for the No. 7 seed. It’s one they could certainly win, almost even more so if they have to play on the road and have Irving in the lineup. That could hypothetically pit Brooklyn against Philly in the first round.
Conversely, if the 76ers fall to the No. 3 or No. 4 seed in the East, they might play the likes of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors, or Chicago Bulls. All three of those teams make for easier matchups, especially Cleveland and Chicago.
Philly is a combined 7-0 against the Cavs and Bulls. Cleveland probably doesn’t have enough shot-creation to match the Sixers, while the Bulls lack the size and defensive connectivity to slow down Philly’s offense. They haven’t contained Joel Embiid (32.8 PPG against Chicago) in any of their four dates with the 76ers and have greatly contributed to his pursuit of a scoring title.
Alas, it’s not the worst thing for the 76ers if they drop games and fall a spot or two. Knowing that allows them to spell Embiid and Harden minutes and give them even more rest down the stretch.
If that is indeed Philly’s strategy, though, it might not pay dividends. It certainly didn’t on Monday, as the undermanned Sixers defeated the full-strength Heat 113-106 in front of the home crowd. There are other factors, as well.
Would the 76ers really intentionally sit their stars simply to avoid a matchup?
Health is paramount. Considering playoff matchups, in all honesty, is critical, given how deep the Eastern Conference is this season.
Philly has tried to ease Harden in while also keeping tabs on Embiid. The 76ers might even feel comfortable coasting for the remainder of the regular season. But getting experience against elite teams is important, too.
For example: James Harden has missed both of the 76ers’ games against the Heat since he came to Philly. How does it benefit the team in the playoffs if he has zero experience playing against Miami, a top contender, with his new team?
That said, Doc Rivers and Co. also cannot afford a fairly rusty, jumbled group heading into the postseason. There needs to be some cohesion, particularly since Harden’s Sixers tenure remains in nascent stages. It’s still imperative for The Beard to get a feel for things and Embiid to continue learning how to optimize performance alongside his star guard.
Resting Harden and Embiid could give the 76ers a more favorable first-round matchup and avoid injury risks. But that strategy could also expose Philly to a frustratingly inconsistent team dynamic down the road.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.