The Whiteboard: Is small ball the only answer for the Philadelphia 76ers?

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Even if Joel Embiid was fully healthy, the Philadelphia 76ers likely would have been underdogs against the Miami Heat. The Heat had the best record in the Eastern Conference, hold homecourt advantage in the series and have perhaps the ideal defender to deal with Embiid (Bam Adebayo) without having to sacrifice anything else at either end of the floor.

Obviously, Embiid’s absence puts the 76ers in an even bigger hole. Before the series began the best case scenario was him returning for Game 3, coming off a concussion and playing with a torn ligament in his thumb and an orbital fracture. But even that return date wasn’t a certainty. How the 76ers dealt with his absence in the first two games of the series would set the tone for what was to come and whether they’d even have a chance by the time he could possibly play.

In Game 1, the 76ers tried a fairly conventional replacement for Embiid, staring DeAndre Jordan and using him for 17 total minutes. The 76ers were outscored by 22 points in those minutes, meaning they outscored the Heat by six points over the course of 31 minutes in a game they lost by 16.

After the game, Doc Rivers defended the decision to start Jordan, saying that the team’s ball-handlers had wanted a roll man, that they had wanted to protect Paul Reed from foul trouble and that, “We’re gonna keep starting him whether you like it or not.”

Rivers’ public proclamations are one thing, but the reality is another. The 76ers were only able to use him for 17 minutes and Game 1 and those minutes likely cost them any chance of pulling off the upset. Rivers is obviously very familiar with Jordan from their shared time with the Clippers. But Jordan played just 214 minutes with the 76ers after getting waived by the Lakers and they were outscored by 7.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the court. He also didn’t play at all in the first-round series against the Raptors.

All that is to say, if things go badly at the beginning of Game 2, and that seems like a strong possibility, the 76ers are going to have no choice but to try and win with small ball. But are they equipped to pull it off?

Can the Philadelphia 76ers win with small ball?

Embiid’s dominance has meant the 76ers haven’t had a ton of time to experiment with small ball units. During the regular season, they played just 18 minutes with James Harden and Tyrese Maxey on the floor together and no traditional center. However, they have a few different things that could work in their favor in Game 2 (or beyond if Embiid can’t return).

The first is that Bam Adebayo is relatively small for the center position and doesn’t generally play with his back-to-the-basket. His size, mobility and offensive role make it much easier for the 76ers to get away with someone like Tobias Harris, Paul Reed or even Georges Niang defending him. The Heat surround Adebayo with on-ball creators and off-ball shooters so that sort of cross-matching doesn’t really create any ripple effects with negative matchups elsewhere.

The other potential upshot is Harden’s proficiency as an isolation scorer.

The initial offensive structure that unlocked Harden’s prime in Houston was with Clint Capela as a pick-and-roll partner and three other shooters spaces around him. However, gradually the Rockets moved away from that model, eventually trading Capela, and just letting Harden isolate with four shooters spacing the floor. He was always much more efficient as a scorer in isolation and arguably his most effective seasons as an offensive engine came when he was isolating more than twice as often as he was finishing possessions as the pick-and-roll ball-handler.

The 76ers let Harden bend more towards isolations than he had in Brooklyn but he’s still nowhere near the balance he played with in his last two seasons in Houston. And while the Harden we’ve seen this year is nowhere near as effective as peak Harden he’s still much more effective as an isolation scorer. The same largely holds true for Tyrese Maxey, with regards to efficiency. In addition, the 76ers only scored 1.06 points per possession during the regular season on possessions where Jordan set a screen for Harden, a lower level of efficiency than what he managed all on his own.

It may seem counter-intuitive to give Harden and Maxey less to work with and to remove complexity from the offense (especially against one of the best defensive teams in the league). But it might be a legitimate advantage for the 76ers, especially if it helps settle an offense that is without its primary fulcrum. It could also help put Miami’s best perimeter defenders in foul trouble (both Harden and Maxey draw fouls at a much higher rate in isolations than in pick-and-rolls).

As I said before, Rivers might end up with small ball units by default when Jordan’s minutes lead to another early hole for the 76ers. But moving the offense toward isolation and away from pick-and-roll would require a conscious choice. It may not be enough but for a team that needs some levers to pull, this looks like a pretty big one.

Other NBA stories:

If you’re not convinced the 76ers absolutely cannot play DeAndre Jordan, Christopher Kline went a lot deeper on the Game 1 issues at The Sixer Sense as did Dan Devine at The Ringer.

Jayson Tatum is learning the most important postseason lesson for a budding superstar right before our eyes — adaptation.

Jaren Jackson could be the most impactful defensive player in the entire league, if he could just cut his foul rate.

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