It’s getting difficult to properly grade the Philadelphia 76ers, though the season is already a quarter of the way in the books. The team started out sluggish, limping to a 1-4 start in which the offense played well but the defense looked non-existent. Then, James Harden went down with an injury, sidelining him for a months time. Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey followed suit, with both players in and out of the lineup. And yet, the Sixers boast the league’s highest defensive rating in November.
It’s a quandary that suggests, that maybe, just maybe, the Sixers’ best basketball is still ahead. If the team can keep playing high-level defense (which is a big “if” considering Maxey and Harden are below-average defenders) and marry it with the blistering offense we know Harden-Embiid lineups are capable of, the team could be a challenging out.
But first thing’s first: get everyone healthy. Ahead of Friday’s clash against the Magic, Doc Rivers shed a little light on how both Embiid and Harden are progressing from injuries.
“I know they’re both on the floor at the practice facility doing work, but there’s no update as far as a return or anything like that.”
No Stars, No Problem for the Sixers Against the Magic
With Embiid, Maxey, and Harden all out of the lineup, even a match against the lowly Orlando Magic looked intimidating. But without the team’s top three playmakers, point guard Shake Milton stepped up in a big way. Milton notched his first career double-double Friday in a 24-point, 10-assist evening that was one rebound shy of a triple-double.
It continues a string of strong performances by Milton, who’s seen a serious bump in playing time with Philadelphia’s lead guards out.
If Milton continues playing well, it could be a real boon for the Sixers in more ways than one. Milton could well establish himself as the bench’s best ballhandler (if he wasn’t already), providing reliable backup minutes to keep Harden and Maxey fresh.
But Milton could also play himself into a potential trade asset for Philadelphia as well. By the looks of it, Milton is a player who can thrive in a larger sample size of playing time. Bit roles here and there for the Sixers to start the season didn’t suit his game; he thrives once in a rhythm. If another team starved for playmaking searched the market, they could do worse than one who is averaging 16.6 points, 5.3 assists, and 5.9 rebounds per 36 minutes this season.
When Will Embiid and Harden Return?
While Embiid’s return remains up in the air, signs are pointing to Harden returning to the lineup in short order. According to an Eastern Conference executive who spoke with Heavy Sports’ Sean Deveney, the Sixers might look at easing Harden back into the rotation during Philadelphia’s long homestand in a few weeks.
“They have a long homestand (starting December 9) and from what it sounds like, that is about when he will be back. Maybe he gets back out there on the road before that but it sounds like by the end of that first week in December will be it.”
Having Harden rejoin in those conditions would be ideal. Further, Philadelphia plays the Hornets, Pistons, Kings, and Lakers during that stretch. Of the bunch, the Kings might be the most fearsome, though its bottom-four defense this season is less intimidating.