It’s one of the most difficult questions sports fans face, whether to be happy about an opposing star missing a game against the team you root for. On the one hand, it unquestionably increases your team’s chances of winning, which in the moment is important and worthwhile and matters. On the other, you’re deprived of a chance not only to see said star player perform but also for the team to be tested up against him, to trial ways to defend against him, and to learn for a potentially more important meeting down the line.
And so it is that the devil and god wage war inside us once again on Saturday, with Joel Embiid sitting out as the Philadelphia 76ers visit the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors could use the edge, looking to get off to a strong start ahead of an arduous six-game road-trip, but fans lose the opportunity to see one of the most singularly entertaining players in the entire NBA. In his fourth NBA season now, Embiid has famously played just 33 games, never once suiting up at the ACC despite his Sixers visiting seven times during his career now. Yes, that holds for Embiid and most teams. I am a selfish person and care only about my opportunity to watch him live and up close.
This does not leave the 76ers devoid of matchup problems. They employ Ben Simmons, one of the most unique prospects to enter the league in some time. He’s a point guard in a center’s body, too big to stick a guard on and perhaps to fast for a forward. J.J. Redick has long been one of the league’s matchup nightmares because of his mastery moving without the ball and his exceptional shooting. T.J. McConnell may be the only NBA player whose calves can rival OG Anunoby’s. There are challenges.
“There’s gonna be nights you have that,” head coach Dwane Casey said Friday. “They’re gonna have nightmares matching us, also. It goes both ways. What we wanna do is offensively be that nightmare matchup for them, to say how we gonna guard that with DeMar DeRozan bringing the ball down the floor? So it works both ways. ”
Those problems are significantly less intimidating without Embiid, a positive for the team’s chances of winning but a hit to the entertainment value of the last home game for two weeks.
The game tips off at 7:30 on Sportsnet One and TSN 1050.
Blake Murphy: We’ve talked so much about the 76ers together over the last couple of years, and we’ve occasionally got ahead of ourselves before the inevitable injury shoe dropped. As a fan of the team, with so much room for optimism and positivity this season, how do you manage the specter of impending doom? Intellectually, I feel like the answer is to ignore the recent past, Trust The (Spiritual) Process, and treat each new season as its own exciting thing. As a fan who has been hurt before, I know this is easier said than done.
Andrew Unterberger: This is a very good question, and I guarantee there wasn’t a Sixers fan that watched Gordon Hayward’s lower half snap in two on Tuesday and didn’t think oh god that’s going to happen to one of our guys and I’ll never be able to watch basketball again. The only real answer is that you have to approach every game with complete confidence that nothing bad will happen, even if intellectually you know it will. It’s like my mother once said to me about marriage: You can’t go into it picturing there being a potential end in sight. You have to just believe with your whole heart it will last forever.
Blake Murphy: Exciting though the 76ers are up and down the roster, the health of Joel Embiid will dictate a lot of where they can go. If he can play 60 games, they’re a certain playoff team. If it’s 50, maybe they’re on the bubble. The team is going to be cautious accordingly, giving him the “fucking bullshit” minutes restriction and likely sitting him out in some or all back-to-back scenarios. I don’t really have a question, I just want some space for us to appreciate the fact that Embiid is not only a singularly magnificent basketball player but that he’s also the type of dude who will call a team policy “fucking bullshit,” call out Hassan Whiteside for his “ass” plus-minus on Twitter (and take a shot at Kevin Durant while doing so), and be as open as he possibly could be as a person with the NBA world. Embiid is a damn treat. Naturally, he’s not playing tonight.
Andrew Unterberger: I keep trying and failing to properly stress to people just how unprecedented Joel Embiid is as a basketball player, as a general NBA phenomenon, and — in absolute particular — as a galvanizing force for Sixers fans. No other bond in NBA history has been like the one Sixers fans share with Joel; other fanbases may have players they love as much, but just not in the same way. I feel so grateful for having been in his orbit in some small way — even with just the 31 games in the three years, I wouldn’t trade it for any other fan experience. Him being healthy almost just feels like a bonus at this point.
I was talking with a co-worker the other day about the process of rooting for The Process. He was asking if Embiid will ever be totally healthy, and I said that him playing at all — with a minutes restriction, with maybe no back-to-backs — was most likely his version of being totally healthy. He asked me how I could live like that, with the knowledge that he’d probably never play more than 30 minutes a night, that he’d probably be injured for 40 games a year. I shrugged. “If he’s injured for 40 games a year, that means he’s healthy for 40 games a year. And if he’s playing 30 minutes, they’ll win most of those games.” That’s all you can really say at this point.
Though in reality, the story of the Sixers season is once again just pic.twitter.com/btSOzeZzN8
— Andrew Unterberger (@AUgetoffmygold) October 17, 2017
Blake Murphy: Embiid is flanked this year by a pair of No. 1 picks and other intriguing processors like Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and large-volume hair-spray user (and RTRS podcast guest!) T.J. McConnell. The most interesting part of this team’s build, though, might be Bryan Colangelo’s decision to fortify the young core with established, productive, and well-liked veterans on one-year deals. How will J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson help take this group to the next level in the building process?
Andrew Unterberger: J.J. Redick is the greatest shooter to ever set foot in the city in Philadelphia, and he makes me hate Jason Kapono five times as much in retrospect (and I already really hated Jason Kapono). Amir Johnson does a lot of things well but mostly seems to excel at having the ball stripped and whiffing on putbacks from < 3 feet. I do not look forward to watching the 20-30 games he will inevitably start for us this year.
Blake Murphy: What did you think of the new Front Bottoms album? I know we exchanged lists of favorites a few weeks back (thank you for putting me on to K.Flay, by the way, as that album is terrific), but has anything in the past month or two really resonated with you?
Andrew Unterberger: I have not listened to the Front Bottoms album yet! But I did finally get around to the Smith Street Band, and wowza. “Laughing (Or Pretending to Laugh)” definitely turned my head around.
Blake Murphy: I know predictions aren’t for everyone, but it’s opening week, so I have to: Where do you have the Sixers and Raptors finishing in the East? See you in April?
Andrew Unterberger: Raptors third, Sixers seventh. But it’s impossible to judge how good this team will be for their unavoidable stretches of games sans JoJo, since they seem to play better even when he’s on the bench, as long as he’s in the lineup at all. See you in the first round in 2019, regardless.
The Raptors seemed pretty comfortable with the rotation they used in the season opener on Thursday, primarily playing 10 players and even entrusting an all-bench unit for 12 minutes thanks to a long stretch without a timeout and then some very good play from that group. Casey’s choices included Jakob Poeltl over Lucas Nogueira, as expected, and also a minor surprise in the unleashing of OG Anunoby ahead of Pascal Siakam – Anunoby had looked good, but context cues hinted maybe the team wanted Anunoby to get all the way to 100 percent. Not the case, apparently, and Anunoby has done nothing but impress through three games.
Given the success that bench group had – a plus-61.7 net rating, to be exact – it would seem unlikely it gets tweaked unless there’s a good reason. Casey has warned, though, that at least a few of the spots are open to changing game-to-game, matchup-to-matchup.
“I’m gonna say this: It’s gonna be fluid,” he said. “There’s gonna be some nights where we may have to change it. You hate to more mess with the second unit, with their rhythm, with their togetherness, as anything else, but there’s gonna be some situations where we may have to change some people, and I don’t know if we can get locked into a certain matchups. But I really like the way the second unit’s playing.”
Casey isn’t going to give anything away before the game, anyway, but if there’s someone who qualifies as far as matchups concern, it’s Simmons. Anunoby might very well get a crack at him off the bench, and Siakam might be one of their better bets if he gets going, too. A starter has to draw that assignment initially – it’s probably Serge Ibaka since Norman Powell will be needed to chase Redick around – and there will be some opportunity to downsize in hybrid units to really ratchet up the switching potential, since Philly only has one natural interior threat healthy (and he’s drawn two DNP-CDs).
PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, Lorenzo Brown
SG: DeMar DeRozan, K.J. McDaniels
SF: Norman Powell, C.J. Miles, Alfonzo McKinnie
PF: Serge Ibaka, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Bruno Caboclo
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: Malcolm Miller
The Sixers held their home opener last night, a loss to Boston that renders Embiid unable to play due to the back-to-back scenario. Joining him on the shelf is Richaun Holmes, who has a fractured wrist. That means Jahlil Okafor may finally make his season debut, though old friend Amir Johnson probably figures to start at center since he’s been in the rotation to start the season. Otherwise, it’s a thin frontcourt for Philly, with Simmons, Dario Saric, and Robert Covington essentially working as interchangeable forwards when on the floor together. It wouldn’t even surprise me to see Brett Brown go with a five-out group that has neither Johnson nor Okafor on the court when Jonas Valanciunas isn’t in the game, a defensive risk to be sure but a way to potentially supercharge the offense and make Toronto uncomfortable.
PG: Jerryd Bayless, Markelle Fultz, T.J. McConnell, Jacob Pullen
SG: J.J. Redick, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Nik Stauskas
SF: Robert Covington, Justin Anderson, Furkan Korkmaz
PF: Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, James Michael McAdoo
C: Amir Johnson, Jahlil Okafor
OUT: Joel Embiid, Richaun Holmes
The Raptors opened as 6.5-point favorites but the line quickly jumped to Raptors -9 when the Embiid news made the rounds. The over-under is set at 216.