When the Philadelphia 76ers were winning, nobody really cared that Nik Stauskas was slumping pretty badly. It was fine: He wasn't contributing a ton of production to our starting lineup, but he was a willing ball mover and an improving defender, and the starting five unit with him in it posted awesome numbers, even with Sauce averaging just seven points a game on 34% shooting over the Sixers' Process-best 10-3 stretch. Of course, this wasn't black magic: The two-way brilliance of Joel Embiid was largely responsible for covering up Stauskas' ineffectiveness, which combined with a rebounding (both metaphorically and box score-ally) Robert Covington and surging T.J. McConnell briefly made the Sixers the hottest team in the league.
Needless to say, those days are over, and unlikely to return as long as Embiid rides the pine. The Process was announced yesterday as out for the next two games -- last night's 111-103 loss against San Antonio, and tonight's game in Orlando -- with no date given for his imminent return. The Sixers insist it's just that pesky bone bruise from a couple weeks back keeping JoJo out, and that there's no grave cause for concern, but the lack of concrete timetable for this injury is certainly concerning, and it's probably smart to start emotionally hedging against #21 returning before the All-Star break.
There aren't enough roster adjustments in the world to make up for Embiid's absence, of course, but Brett Brown made at least one smart one last night: he moved Nik Stauskas back to the bench, returning Gerald Henderson to the lineup in his stead. Sixers fans may recall that when things were going their rightest for Sauce at season's beginning, it was when he was coming off the bench -- part of the the Ginobili-esque destiny that Coach Brown was trying to help him realize -- and that in fact, he asked to be kept there, lest his groove be broken.
Well, injuries to Henderson and a temporary starting-five coherence with him penciled in at the two forced him into starting duty, and kept him there for over a month. But the magic ran out: Without Joel there to get his back, Stauskas' productivity remained limited, and the Sixers hemorrhaged points with him on the floor: In the Sixers' four losses before last night, he averaged about a -20 for each game. But last night, playing in reserve duty, he had one of his best games of the year: 16 points on 5-10 shooting (including 4-7 from deep), seven rebounds and seven assists. Some of those scoring numbers were padded in the final minutes, with the game already mostly out of reach, but it's still the first time Sauce has posted five or more assists and rebounds all season -- with no turnovers, to boot.
At this point, it's worth turning to Nik's basic splits -- his stats in the starting lineup vs. his stats off the bench -- to see if this disparity is legit, or more of an anecdotal mirage. Turns out, the numbers (courtesy of Basketball-Reference) are pretty unequivocal:
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That's his starter numbers (in 24 games) on top and his reserve numbers (26 games) on bottom. You'll notice of course that virtually across the board, his stats off the bench are vastly superior -- scoring nearly two points more a game despite averaging nearly five fewer minutes, and doing so on a true shooting percentage over 18 points higher. The only way in which Nik's numbers majorly lag is in the +/- department -- still significantly better in the first five -- though that almost certainly has everything to do with the world-swatting impact of Embiid, who Sauce plays with far more as a starter than as a reserve.
I'm not averse to the idea of Stauskas returning to the starting lineup by season's end -- particularly once Ben Simmons (hopefully) shows up to give them a new drive-and-kick weapon, Nik's ability to both knock down open threes and to put the ball on the floor to punish sprawling closeouts will be invaluable. And if Embiid returns sooner than later, the Sixers' Peak Starting Five probably have earned a shot at keeping the ball rolling together. But without Embiid or Simmons, let's let Nik regain his stroke and his confidence a little coming off the bench, the role he's clearly more comfortable in at the moment -- get Sauce back up to a nice simmer before reintroducing him to the Sixers' winning recipe.