Can Joel Embiid save the Philadelphia 76ers?
Is Joel Embiid enough to save the Sixers? The Sixers’ fit issues can be solved if their star center is the best version of himself. One minute into their overtime loss against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Philadelphia 76ers traveled back in time. The play began on the left wing with the ball in Joel Embiid’s hands. He sized up Steven Adams, thought about launching a quick three and then passed out to Tobias Harris at the top of the key. Embiid then lowered his shoulder into Adams’ chest and threw up his arm. At the same time, Al Horford ducked into the paint, right in front of Danillo Gallinari. Harris considered Embiid, but then saw Horford call for the ball and tried to feed him. It was a basketball sequence that belongs in 1995. This is how it looked: Nine days before that, in crunch time against the Utah Jazz, Embiid stumbled through a clunky two-man action with Josh Richardson. It yielded a stepback from just outside the paint. Again, instead of spacing the floor, Horford did Utah’s defense a favor by running to the opposite block to position himself for a potential offensive rebound. We’re 15 games in and Philadelphia’s season is already stocked with needlessly ineffective possessions that resemble those two seen above. Diagnosing the problem is easy, but knowing where things go from here is not. Were both symptoms of an unworkable on-court partnership, or more just what tends to happen when new teammates need some time to figure each other out? Zoom out and an even scarier question pops into view: Is Embiid good enough to make everything OK? Awkward fits have been Philadelphia’s calling card for the past two years. By himself, Embiid has pretty much been able to elevate them over any self-created faults — including Ben Simmons’ unwillingness to shoot, Wednesday’s three notwithstanding — but this year’s roster is fused together in a particularly uncomfortable way. Embiid’s presence is what fuels the championship-or-bust urgency that’s felt through Philadelphia, and even though the Sixers have traditionally refused to function without him, right now their 18th-ranked offense hardly gets better with Embiid on the court. He’s their best player by a long mile, a generational center as powerful and gigantic as he is nimble and technically proficient. But this team limits his strengths in a way that should concern everyone who predicted a trip to the Finals. Embiid could be the most unstoppable player in basketball, and it’s a minor tragedy that he isn’t close to showing why on a nightly basis. His numbers aren’t disappointing, per se, but they’re also static, which should be a concern for any 25-year-old superstar. On a per possession basis, Embiid is essentially the same player he was a year ago. Similar usage while averaging nearly the same amount of points, assists, and rebounds. His shots are at the exact same volume — even if a few at the rim have been transferred out to the three-point line — and he’s posting up more often, but for the most part Embiid is what he was last year. This is simultaneously impressive and disappointing. JJ Redick and Jimmy Butler — Embiid’s two most complementary teammates — were replaced by Richardson and Horford. As a pick-and-roll shot maker with three-point range who doubles as a bloodhound on the other end, the 76ers need Richardson to provide the best of what Butler and Redick did in one body. So far he’s been a little turnover prone and hasn’t shot the ball particularly well, but he makes sense next to Embiid and the Sixers are pounding teams when both share the floor. And then there’s Horford. Being that Embiid’s long-term health is the most important variable for Philadelphia’s entire organization, acquiring the best available insurance policy always made sense. The risk was inherent — Horford is 33, has endured regular knee problems, and cost a lot of money — but he’s also incredibly smart, with a skill-set that’s as essential as it is scarce: the stretch five who passes, posts, and can anchor a quality defense. Thanks to Horford, the Sixers aren’t completely lost without Embiid, but when neither is in the game they play like the worst team in the league. And when you lose Redick’s three-point shot and off-ball wizardry plus Butler’s get-a-bucket star quality, then throw Simmons’ offensive handicaps into the mix, Horford and Embiid don’t make much sense together, especially in crunch time. (Horford was benched down the stretch of a close game against the New York Knicks on Wednesday night.) It’s too early to claim Horford benefited from Boston’s ecosystem as much as he elevated it, and too dramatic to say he misses Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving, or even Marcus Smart — a teammate who can explode off his ball screen or zoom around a dribble hand-off, draw two defenders, then kick back to him for an open three — but Horford was the connective tissue on those Celtics teams. Now, when beside Embiid, he sports the usage rate of a foot stool and a true shooting percentage that would embarrass Andrea Bargnani. (The Sixers are the least threatening pick-and-roll team in the league, in both volume and efficiency.) Philadelphia’s offense runs out of air when both big men share the floor. It scores at a bottom-five rate, and tends to be sticky, with talented, smart players all trudging uphill to give each other an advantage that may not even be possible. Brett Brown’s solution is to stagger his two centers, which makes sense but doesn’t solve any long-term problems. It also leads us to another simple yet devastating question: if Horford can’t make Embiid better what’s the point of bringing him onboard in the first place? Horford will eventually make more than 32 percent of his threes, but the Sixers need to involve him in more ways that accentuate his passing and vision. They’ve tried running him and Embiid together in pick-and-rolls, but it’s not the most complicated action to defend, and especially tough with Simmons also on the court. Plays like this add to the list of reasons why Embiid has been unable to dominate at the MVP level we’re accustomed to seeing. Some of his relatively lackluster production can be attributed to new teammates, as has been discussed. Some of it’s because the Sixers would rather Embiid be fresh in the playoffs than exhaust himself during the regular season. (He’s already missed four games and is averaging nearly five fewer minutes than he did a year ago — although a few blowouts and an ejection for wrestling Karl-Anthony Towns contribute here.) There’s also the slight possibility that Embiid simply isn’t as good as his gregarious personality might lead observers to believe, but I don’t buy that at all. His ceiling still might be higher than any player in the league. The crux of Philly’s offensive conundrum is that too often Embiid functions to serve his teammates instead of it being the other way around. In an ideal situation, Embiid would not launch over five threes per 36 minutes, or habitually spot up 28 feet from the basket to “drag” his man out of the paint. Whoever’s guarding him is usually happy to leave him there: He’s not a bad shooter, but the opportunity cost of drawing a double-team and kicking out to an open teammate, or muscling his way through single coverage on the block, or leveraging his unprecedented combination of size, skill, and explosiveness as a legitimate roll threat instead of someone who pops to the perimeter after a screen, is humongous. There’s no excuse for Embiid to average .75 points per possession as a roll man. It’s insane. Some of it’s because Philadelphia’s roster doesn’t brim with capable pick-and-roll playmakers. Butler is gone. Harris and Embiid’s relationship is oddly inverted, with the center feeding the wing for post-up chances. But hope is not lost entirely. Look at this late-game sequence with Raul Neto. (Notice Horford spotting up in the weak-side corner, and the absence of Simmons.) Embiid already averages more post-ups than every team except the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs, but that shouldn’t preclude him from operating with his back to the basket more than he does, even if defenses send help on the catch. Give him a cross screen, dump the ball down low, *et voila*: points! This version of him is literally unguardable. But if the primary cause for this dip in production is a calculated call for self-preservation then it makes sense to stick Embiid on the perimeter as much as possible. Instead of tussling in the paint he can mind his own business and snooze through entire possessions at a time. Moments like the one seen above illustrate why he’s moving slower than any other time in his career. If he’s playing himself into shape, that’s not great. If he’s catching in-game breaks like LeBron James used to do, all the power to him. Even though the regular season can be a drag for teams that think they can win it all, the Sixers are not positioned to coast through it with the confidence of an actual champion. They need to use all 82 games in ways that unwrinkle issues that will only expand in the playoffs. To start, that means playing Embiid with Horford more than the first five minutes of the first and third quarters, and ensuring those two have an opportunity to figure each other out in crunch time. This play below isn’t a reinvention of the wheel, but it does get everyone involved and lead to the type of shot Embiid should be taking. More of this: Philadelphia’s defense is not the problem. It’s massive and dominant and impossible to score on when their five best players are together. But putting the ball in the basket has been a lot more complicated than their overall talent suggests it should be. It’s too early to talk trades, and any significant ones made in the middle of the season (involving either Harris or Horford) won’t be easy to pull off. Embiid can stand to be more aggressive in the paint, and the Sixers can figure out more ways to get him the ball before the defense can collapse. In the past, he’s been powerful enough to overcome Philly’s bizarre roster makeups, but what we’ve seen so far might be an insurmountable challenge. Eventually, whether it’s next year or before the trade deadline, this team will need to find more players who directly complement their franchise everything. That’s traditionally how title contenders are built, and the Sixers can’t call themselves one until they figure out a way to correct their ongoing mistake.
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