April 25, 2019
There are not many players in the league who can claim to have flummoxed Joel Embiid through the first three seasons of his career. The Sixers' franchise player is a walking nightmare for opponents — he draws fouls at an elite rate, he's as big and strong as anybody in the league, and he has the touch of a player half his size. You can't put him on the line, you can't concede mid-range jumpers, and most of the time you can't hope to stand him up in the post.
Toronto's Marc Gasol, however, is not like most of the matchups Embiid faces around the league. No one this side of Al Horford has proven better equipped to stop Embiid since he entered the league.
As a continuation of our series looking at individual matchups before the series begins in Toronto, let's take a look at what the numbers say about Embiid vs. Gasol, the competing interests in Toronto and Philadelphia, and where we might all end up when the dust settles.
Grabbing Gasol at the trade deadline this year was a statement of intent from the Raptors. Kawhi Leonard is an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and Toronto has spent all season trying to convince him to stick around for the long-term despite the noise that he will flee for Los Angeles come July. Rather than playing it safe and hoping the incumbents would be enough to do so, the Raptors sought out an upgrade to make a real run at the title this year.
"When you look at what Milwaukee did or the 76ers did or Toronto did prior to the trade deadline, everybody loaded up," Brett Brown said Thursday. "It was an arms race for the Eastern Conference Championship. Gasol was an incredible acquisition for them, he really fits perfectly to the point where after the trade was made, they're the best three-point shooting team in the NBA."
To get there, the Raptors will have to get through Embiid's Sixers. And while Gasol's skill package is useful for any team, the veteran center is particularly important if your goal is to slow down the big man from Cameroon.
The NBA only provides matchup data for the last two seasons, but Embiid's numbers against Gasol when he was still with the Grizzlies were an absolute trainwreck relative to his lofty standards. Embiid is 10/29 from the field on possessions where Gasol has covered him the last two seasons, a drop-off of 14 percentage points from his season averages over that time. It is in many ways a product of his shot selection — Embiid is 0/9 on threes with Gasol guarding him, which we'll revisit in a second.
If you ask the head coach, Embiid's struggles against Gasol are pretty easy to understand.
"His experience, combined with his sort of physical gifts and intellect, make it sort of [an] apples for apples body type matchup. It's not like you have [Jarrett Allen] on him," Brown said Thursday. "You get to the other end of the floor, Marc is an incredible quarterback passing from wherever. Passing out of pick-and-roll, passing in trail, he doesn't to me at this stage of the career need to be a high-volume shot guy, he's a great distributor."
Those two halves of the whole are not disconnected. Gasol can step out and shoot threes and attack you as a passer, which puts stress on Embiid on the defensive end of the floor. Embiid has thrived against some of his matchups with big, traditional centers, but most of them don't have the passing and/or shooting talent of Gasol.
The short version of the answer — it's going to take some problem-solving from the coaching staff and the players on the floor.
"To feel you're just going to turn out JJ, throw the ball to JJ, and dump it into Joel with Gasol on him would be pretty naive. You need a greater plan than that," Brown said. "I gotta do a good job of helping free Joel up."
It will be up to Toronto to decide how they want to defend Embiid with Gasol on the floor, but I can't imagine it will be all that different than most gameplans look against him at this point. When Gasol was in Memphis, they were aggressive leaving Embiid open from behind the three-point line, and he wasn't able to make them pay. There's nothing Gasol is doing here to prevent Embiid from making this shot:
Looking back at the away trip to Memphis this year, I think there's a case to be made that Embiid simply had tired legs. The Sixers were on a back-to-back and woefully shorthanded after agreeing to the trade that brought Jimmy Butler in the day of the game, and Jaren Jackson Jr. gave Embiid plenty of problems when he tried to set up shop on the low block, too.
The game in Philly offered more insight, but there is context to consider there, too. Many of Embiid's misses came late in the shot clock in that game, and not on plays where he just dribbled out the clock by himself. The stats count the same, but it's not necessarily about a particular struggle with Gasol if Embiid misses a late-clock jumper after responsibility fell into his lap at the last second.
That said, there are times when those late-clock shots are a reflection of the battle with Gasol. The vet makes you work hard to establish position against him, ditto when you try to hold it. Gasol is a master of leaning into you enough to keep you off-balance without resorting to the pushing or tugging that leads to foul calls.
Face Gasol up, and you run into a lot of the same problems. He has never been especially quick, but he doesn't necessarily need to be. He will sit back in a stance and establish his footing, preparing for the moment you make contact.
You can't go through him, and the Sixers will want to avoid a world where they have to rely on dragging him out, because that means Embiid needs to take and make a lot of threes. I'm more progressive on that front than many of you, but you want Embiid around the basket as much as possible. So what do you do?
The simplest approach is to simply work around this. Much like the Ben Simmons vs. Kawhi Leonard issue, you're not going to solve this by trying to barrel through it. Luckily, the Sixers have already incorporated some of the plays they'll need to in order to navigate around Gasol.
Getting the ball to Embiid on the move has been a struggle for the Sixers for years, and part of that is tied to how he wants to play. Embiid doesn't want to be relegated to a mere roll man on offense, nor should he. But his aversion to those sets cuts down your options.
But if Embiid takes the initiative to turn sagging off of him on the perimeter around on an opponent, he becomes dangerous. Late in the Brooklyn series, we saw him take the initiative as a cutter away from the ball, and nobody really wants to get in the way of Embiid if he comes through the lane with force.
Granted, I would expect Gasol to be a little more attentive than Allen was on these plays, and Toronto's help defense is on another level than Brooklyn's if indeed Gasol screws up.
The Sixers have also done a better job of designing lobs for Embiid in recent months, a product of the time Embiid and Simmons have spent on the floor together the last couple months. Simmons' passing is high level, so he can hit the big man at the perfect time when he goes up to flush the ball.
As Brown pointed out, you might not be able to have JJ Redick just dump the ball into the post. But you can use the threat of Redick's shooting to help out Embiid. With the Nets top locking Redick to try to prevent him from reaching the perimeter, the Sixers had him run his own man into Embiid's guy, effectively screening two players at once to clear the lane.
You're not going to eliminate post-ups or face-up jumpers altogether for Embiid. But the Sixers will need to sprinkle in different looks to keep Gasol guessing, and to take some of the burden off of Embiid in a tough matchup.
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