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March 08, 2018

First bad stretch of Joel Embiid's career has come at a tough time for Sixers

Joel Embiid has spoiled Sixers fans from the moment he was finally physically able to play NBA minutes, producing like one of the league's best players for most of the last two seasons. His offensive variety and defensive wizardry has allowed Brett Brown to get away with playing limited players in his rotation, erasing mistakes that could otherwise sink the squad.

That has not been the case recently and after another rough effort against the Miami Heat in a 108-99 loss on Thursday night, questions are naturally being asked about what the cause could be.

Fatigue is the first place the mind drifts to considering Embiid's career context. Between his lone year at Kansas and the three previous years in Philadelphia — two of which were on the shelf — Embiid only amassed 1433 total minutes. He's up to 1658 and counting through 53 games played this season, a massive departure from anything he has experienced as a basketball player to date.

So of course part of the problem is fatigue. How could it not be? Philadelphia's No. 1 priority has been keeping him healthy enough to play, and that has worked out just fine so far this season. But while holding someone out of games and practices early in the year can help keep them active longer, logically there will not be as much endurance stored up in the tank as the grind catches up.

Embiid shot just 5/18 from the field against Miami on Thursday, and even that number looks generous after watching the game. One of those makes came on a desperate, banked-in three late in the fourth quarter that had the good fortune of going in. 

But he wasn't interested in using any cumulative fatigue as an excuse after the loss, dismissing it entirely during a meeting with reporters.

"I don't think it has anything to do with fatigue," said Embiid.

Has his offensive game changed that much?

There is an element of unreliable narration here because Embiid is almost never going to volunteer to the media that he's out of gas. For one, it opens him up to all sorts of criticism from talking heads, but more importantly, it sends a signal to the medical staff that they need to sit him down. If there's anything we know about Embiid, it's that he wants to be out there and competing with his teammates at almost any cost.

The thing is, any declaration about his level of fatigue is going to come from a completely subjective place, based on body language and a decline in overall performance people perceive as being connected to health. But I pause at attributing his struggles or choices on the court simply to fatigue.

For one, his shot selection is not changing a whole heck of a lot. Brett Brown's recent comments about wanting Embiid to shoot "6-8 threes per game" drew a lot of attention, but he has actually attempted the exact same number of threes per game (3.4) during his last five games as he's averaged for the full season. That data suggests the idea that he's "settling" is really just a way of framing his inability to hit shots.

Statistically, the numbers don't suggest a big departure from the player he has been all season. The distribution of his attempts has changed slightly over the last five games, which you can see in the chart below:

Distribution of Embiid shot attempts (last five games vs. full season splits)

 Shot distance (feet)% of FGA (last five) % of FGA (full season) 
 < 533.7 34.5 
 5-9 9.6 12.2
 10-14 18.1 19.6
 15-19 10.8 11.7
 20-24 8.4 6.2
 25-29 19.3 15.7

The drop-off in shots at the rim is there, but it is smaller than the drop-off across every mid-range category. Is it enough to blame on fatigue? I don't think I can go quite that far. It's more notable that Embiid's shooting percentage has gone down in every single category — in some cases by a lot — so we can't exactly throw fatigue out as a factor.

Even if fatigue can be blamed, there is a mental component to these slight tweaks, too. Embiid admitted this himself after the game, telling reporters he has to find ways to stay engaged when things aren't going his way, and that settling for jumpers is tied to his own frustration.

“I get frustrated when I don’t get the ball,” Embiid said. “But I’ve got to make sure that I stay up and that my teammates keep pushing me about playing harder even though I’m not getting the ball. That’s on me."

What's happening on defense?

Defensively is where I think you see fatigue and frustration set in more than you do on offense. Scoring the ball is fun and (comparatively) easy compared to digging in on the defensive end, where Embiid really makes his money, and Philadelphia has had a poor go of it lately for what has been an elite defensive unit for most of the year. In the raw counting stats department, Embiid's blocks and steals are down over this poor stretch.

But I don't think the film shows a player letting a lack of endurance get the best of him. In fact, there were several occasions when Embiid was hung out to dry by teammates, left holding the bag for poor reads elsewhere. When he had teammates making the proper reads around him, Embiid was mostly excellent contesting layups and jumpers alike.

Great as Embiid is on defense, he can't do it all himself. Against Miami on Thursday, there were several occasions when Embiid was forced to help on players who'd evaded their man, which left Hasaan Whiteside open for interior passes that he could easily finish.

The Sixers play a switch-heavy defense, which is risky with the personnel they have but has ultimately worked out for them rather well. That doesn't mean it comes without a cost. JJ Redick was put on an island against a much bigger James Johnson early in the third quarter and was quickly torched, forcing Embiid to help in order to prevent a wide-open layup.

But somebody has to help the helper, or it's all for naught. Simmons got outmuscled by Whiteside on the other side of the rim, and by the time Embiid was able to rotate back, it was too late.

(As an aside: if it seems like I'm picking on Simmons by highlighting these two plays, I am not. He has been excellent on defense this year, particularly for a rookie. But in real time, most people focus on the guy who ends up near the ball to end the play and not the process of the play.)

Once more: the Sixers scored after a timeout late in the fourth quarter on a lob to Simmons, with Embiid stationed in the strong-side corner to draw defenders out of the paint. After the dunk was completed, he was the first guy to start running back on defense and set up shop by the rim while his other four teammates instituted a press.

Unfortunately, they forgot to cover all the players on the floor, and Dwayne Wade was able to go streaking down the sideline. Embiid couldn't do much except offer a late contest since he was playing with five fouls.

Has Embiid been perfect on defense? Of course not. But I think pre-conceived beliefs about the root issue have colored how each play is viewed, and there has been an overreaction to plays that track with that narrative.

So, what do the Sixers do from here?

The truth here, as always, probably rests somewhere in the middle. Embiid is obviously feeling some level of fatigue having played the most minutes he ever has, but this funk on both ends goes beyond the strain of an NBA season.

Resting him at one point or another isn't even a question because the Sixers' schedule does not really relent until the regular season ends. Even their final two games, the last against a playoff challenger in Milwaukee, is of the back-to-back variety. In an ideal world, the Sixers would give a lot of their primary rotation players rest games between now and the end of the season.

Sunday's matchup with the Brooklyn Nets seems like a natural fit for a rest, as it would give him four full days between games if they choose to go that route. A lot of their games during this final push will take pressure off the Sixers to play him, as 10 of their 18 remaining games are against teams that have all but given up this season. Even if the Sixers don't sit him altogether, they should be able to spell him for longer in games against disinterested tankers.

Philadelphia also has to do a better job of creating shots for Embiid, instead of expecting him to do it for himself and others for entire games. Embiid posts up on over 41 percent of his possessions, an astranomical number in a league where that style of offense is less effective than ever thanks to rule changes and defensive adjustments.

Still, some of the onus is on Embiid to fight through tough stretches, whether that's due to physical, mental, or game planning problems. Just as young quarterbacks tend to struggle when NFL teams get a full season's worth of tape on them, Embiid now has to deal with being the No. 1 guy on the opposing scouting report every night. Film prep will be dedicated to stopping everything he likes to do, and he'll have to develop counters and counters to his counters in order to continue succeeding.

Everything we know about Embiid's demeanor and passion for the sport suggests that will happen eventually. For now, the supporting cast in Philadelphia has to pick up the big man, just as he has done for them time and time again during his first two seasons on the hardwood.