Joel Embiid and Shake Milton bail out 76ers, who look very much like a team that needs James Harden

Somewhere, Brett Brown is feeling vindicated. It wasn’t his fault. After one game with Doc Rivers at the helm, the 76ers looked like the same-old team with the same-old problems despite pulling out a 113-107 win over the even-more-flawed Wizards in both team’s season opener on Wednesday. 

You can call this an overreaction to one game — the first game of an expedited season, no less. It’s not. The Sixers, save for the short-lived Jimmy Butler layover, have been swimming upstream in the half-court just about every minute they’ve played during the Ben Simmons-Joel Embiid era. 

On Wednesday, it was actually hard to watch the starting lineup. Sloppy ball handling. Zero space creation off the dribble. The starters were literally running into each other, five bowling pins looking for space in a phone booth. We all made a big deal out of the Seth Curry and Danny Green additions, or at least I did, convincing myself the Sixers would turn into an entirely different half-court team with a couple shooters back in the fold. But shooting is not the Sixers’ only problem. 

The simple truth is, shots have to be created. And the Sixers’ starting lineup is devoid of even one player who can consistently create leverage off the dribble, either for himself or for his teammates. If you’re going to argue Simmons is that player, save it. He’s out of his depth as a point-of-attack playmaker, but often in the way when he moves off the ball. 

On Wednesday, Rivers had Simmons in the infamous “dunker’s spot,” which gets made out to be some kind of super creative positioning but is really just a default place to stick non-shooters who are capable of dunking a lob pass. Meanwhile, Simmons being in that spot cramps Embiid’s post space. 

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If this sounds like a broken record, it is. If the Sixers don’t create an open look in early offense, someone is going to have to go one-on-one. Simmons has to go bull-in-a-china-shop to do this, and it almost always ends in some awkward, off-hand finish or out-of-options throw-out to a shooter who usually isn’t even open because Simmons didn’t beat his man to draw help in the first place. 

That leaves the recipient of the pass to try to create for himself. To produce efficiently from these positions is out of Tobias Harris’s depth. Same for Curry. Let’s not get started on Danny Green, who was 1-for-6 and a cool minus-27 on Wednesday. Philly’s starting lineup didn’t score a single point for almost the first six minutes of the third quarter, and somehow it looked even uglier than such statistical ineptitude would suggest. 

Thank the basketball gods for Shake Milton

I don’t know if it’s more encouraging how well Milton played on Wednesday, or discouraging that the Sixers needed a bench player to play that well just to have a chance against the Wizards but, either way, Milton was fantastic, finishing with 19 points on 6-of-11 shooting, including 2-of-4 from deep and 5-of-7 from the free-throw line. Milton was a game-high plus-33 in his 30 minutes and replaced Green in the finishing lineup. 

“[Shake] was great,” Embiid told reporters. “Offensively and defensively. … He did his thing as a point guard and he made shots and he made plays.”

He certainly did. When Milton is on the court, the Sixers actually resemble a fluid offensive team. He’s a slithery ball handler coming off screens and he can pull up on a dime. He spaces off the ball and knocks down 3s. He’s stronger than you’d think at the rim and might be the silkiest left-handed finisher in the league. If you drop on him, he’s hitting shots. If you come out, he’s getting into the lane. He poses actual modern problems for a defense. 

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If Simmons is truly a superstar, why is it such a relief when Milton and rookie Tyrese Maxey come into the game for him?

And then there’s Embiid, who went on a few runs in this game, notably when Simmons was out and the dunker’s spot was unoccupied. It’s pretty simple: Put shooters around Embiid and don’t cramp his space, and he’s going to dominate. It’s the reason James Harden feels like a championship co-star as that potential trade continues to hover over the franchise. 

Whether facing up and hitting short jumpers or bullying his way to the basket in the post, Embiid simply decided to take over in the fourth quarter, in which he scored 14 of his 29 points including the eventual winning bucket with just over a minute to play. He added 14 rebounds for good measure. 

But it was all hard. And that’s the point. The Sixers don’t create anything easy, and it’s a copout to talk about “chemistry” or the always popular “still getting used to each other” period. The Sixers are plenty used to each other, and certainly to these issues. It’s not about execution, because they executed fine with Milton in there. 

Again, that can be encouraging that they employ Milton, or discouraging that a team with two All-NBA-level players is this desperately dependent on a guy who has played in exactly 61 NBA games and averaged 7.7 points over that time. 

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For me, unfortunately, it’s the latter. Milton is fantastically fun. So is Maxey. But there’s a ceiling on a team depending on guys like that. The Sixers can win with defense and size and every now and again Harris and Curry will make shots and they’ll look good for a night or two. But in the end, today’s NBA is about space creation, both on and off the ball. And the Sixers are just not going to create that dynamic easily. Everything they do offensively is going to be hard. The first game simply confirmed a reality we have long known. 

Which brings us back to Harden. I’m not making any rash proclamations here. I’m not saying the Sixers have to trade Simmons for Harden. There are a lot of layers to that discussion. Contracts. Age. Defense. A lot of things. But there is no way that Daryl Morey isn’t sitting up, probably as we speak, pondering these very obvious issues his team has, and the tantalizing potential that would result from putting the best one-on-one creator perhaps in league history on a team that might not be missing one other thing. 

For now, the Sixers are 1-0. It’s always better to look bad and win than look good and lose. But eventually, as they say, how you look is how you play. And the Sixers looked flat-out terrible for most of their first game. And it doesn’t bode well for the future so long as this roster stays in place. 

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