This week couldn't have started much better for the Sixers. Landry Shamet scored a career-high 29 points and set a franchise rookie record for three-pointers made in a game, Shake Milton and Haywood Highsmith pulled double duty after suiting up for the Blue Coats earlier in the day, and the Sixers cruised to a fourth straight win, beating the Wizards at Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday night.
Then a few familiar, unpleasant realities resurfaced in losses Wednesday to Washington and Friday vs. Atlanta for the Sixers, who now sit at 27-16, fourth in the Eastern Conference.
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• As you'd presume, Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler, JJ Redick and Ben Simmons have the four highest usage rates on the team.
Wilson Chandler, the team's fifth starter, has the lowest usage rate on the Sixers, at 11.1 percent.
That stat is indicative of the predicament the Sixers are in with their lack of depth. Chandler, who no longer seems to possess the bounce to create his own shot, would ideally be supplementing the bench, not starting.
He sure didn't look like a starter for a contending team this week. After missing two games with an upper respiratory infection, Chandler shot 4 for 17 from the floor (1 of 8 from three-point range), with 12 points in 74 total minutes.
Still, he hasn't held the Sixers' starters back from being one of the top units in basketball. The starting five has the third-best net rating in the NBA, at plus-15.7, since Butler's first game with the team.
Given the starters' success, you can understand why Brett Brown hasn't deviated from that group unless forced to by injury or illness.
Could Brown try Mike Muscala or Jonah Bolden in Chandler's place? Sure. But those two players have a combined 24 NBA starts, 447 fewer than Chandler.
Though Bolden's athleticism and rim protection are intriguing and he's played well with Embiid (the two have a plus-13.2 net rating in 122 minutes together), it seems unlikely a team with the goal of winning the Eastern Conference would start a rookie who commits his fair share of bad fouls and turnovers and has shot 4 for 24 from three-point territory, 7 for 16 at the foul line.
Muscala had his best offensive game in over a month Friday, scoring 16 points against his former team, but he's generally a negative for the Sixers when he's not hitting shots.
Outside of their four best players, Chandler is the closest thing the Sixers have to a proven, reliable NBA player. There's a big drop-off after Redick, but Chandler remains the best option for the starting lineup with the current roster.
• Embiid is being asked to do a lot defensively. He's defended 346 field goals at the rim this season, more than anyone else in the NBA.
Friday's loss, which Embiid missed with a sore right ankle, was another reminder of how integral he is for the Sixers' defense. Embiid can't sweep every perimeter mistake under the rug - we saw that Wednesday in Washington, a game of which Brett Brown said to reporters "it was disturbing watching our bench guard."
But Embiid tends to make the Sixers' many below-average defenders appear less inept than they actually are. When Embiid is on the court, the Sixers have a 103.1 defensive rating, which would be second-best in the league. When Embiid is off the floor, the team has a 108.2 defensive rating.
• The Sixers should win their next two games, on Sunday against the Knicks and Tuesday vs. the Timberwolves. It'll be important for the team to take care of business in those games, and not only because of the two disappointing losses they just suffered.
Starting Thursday, the schedule becomes brutal. The Sixers are slated to play six of the top eight teams in the Western Conference, plus the Pacers and the Raptors, before the Feb. 7 trade deadline.
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