December 02, 2021
In the best of times, Joel Embiid is a two-way behemoth who locks down the paint on defense and demoralizes the opponent on offense, hitting jumper after jumper and marching to the free-throw line anytime his man gets even a little greedy on a reach-in.
These aren't the best of times. Embiid's shot has been off all season, and he is fresh off of a long layoff due to COVID-19, trying to find his foot again. If there was ever a time to take a hard look at what they're doing, it's this moment, where they need to figure out how to help the big guy while still expecting him to shoulder a heavy burden. And Embiid said as much during his postgame availability on Wednesday night:
“The whole season I haven’t gotten any easy ones. It feels like I’ve got to work for everything, that’s why I say we’ve got to communicate," Embiid said. "I’ve got to let my teammates and my guys know, and I probably got to come up with it myself, find ways that I can get easy ones. It just feels like I have to work for everything. I get doubled every single possession.”
Matched up with the Boston Celtics on Wednesday night, the Sixers saw a lot of examples of where things are going wrong, and the fixes range from "easy as can be" to "team construction problem." Let's take a look.
The most basic and important job a coach has is simply putting the right players on the floor at any given time. Fans might yell, "but his rotations!" a little too often during the regular season, but at least they're looking at and caring about a thing that always matters.
Down the stretch of the Celtics game, Rivers opted to go with a lineup of Tyrese Maxey/Seth Curry/Matisse Thybulle/Tobias Harris/Joel Embiid, a five-man group we have discussed in some detail lately. Thybulle was on the floor ostensibly to deal with Jayson Tatum, an understandable choice, but his presence on the floor absolutely craters Philadelphia's offense.
We'll start with the numbers. In 82 possessions this season, that lineup has been outscored by roughly 37 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass, scoring at a rate worse than the worst team offenses of all time. Simply putting Danny Green in Thybulle's place sees their effectiveness jump by a net of 53 points per 100 possessions, which is hard to wrap your mind around. What's worse is that group with Thybulle hasn't defended well, so his whole reason for being there hasn't shown up on the tape.
Granting that it's a small sample, the tape doesn't show us anything to suggest it's a group that will work over the long term. The Celtics pounced on the opportunity to hard double off Embiid away from the play by simply ignoring Thybulle, making it difficult for Embiid to get the ball in the first place.
The problem is less that Rivers tried it and more that he had other options to turn to and stoppages to make substitutions and continued to roll with that look anyway. The Sixers rolled with this lineup until there were just 37 seconds left in the game when Green checked in and immediately hit a three on Philadelphia's next possession.
Thybulle has his place on this team and in the rotation, but Rivers has to be able to see this stuff in real-time and correct it. How does Shake Milton, who had one of the best offensive nights of anybody on the team, check out of the game with 7:30 to play and never see the floor again? Who does that make sense to? This is not a team with entrenched stars where removing somebody from the game is a political decision. You have to ride hot hands and go with the flow.
When the Sixers deliver the ball to Embiid on the block, you'll frequently see the entry passer immediately cutting through the paint after getting the big guy the ball. That's not unique to the Sixers and it's not a bad idea on paper, as it gives Embiid a quick target to hit if the defender lags behind and clears out a side of the floor for the big guy to operate on.
The problem is that the off-ball movement is often slow and deliberate, hardly useful as a cut, and more often than not it allows teams to use that second defender to either immediately double Embiid or crowd him when he has the ball.
On this set, Shake Milton is the guy throwing the entry pass to Embiid. Milton's three-point numbers are down this season, but broadly speaking, you'd rather have him available for a quick kick out one pass away than sliding through the paint and offering no utility to Philadelphia whatsoever:
Honestly, the sad thing about this play is that this is a relatively purposeful cut compared to the average possession where the strong side passer flees the scene. Watch a full game filled with Embiid post-ups and you will want to claw your eyes out at the lack of pace from Philadelphia.
Later in the first quarter, the same two players are involved in an Embiid post-up, and Milton remains on the strong side. Embiid ends up firing up another face-up jumper that he misses, but he is set up for either a quick swing pass to Milton if he needs it or a relatively simple cross-court pass to an open playe
(Let's ignore for a moment that Thybulle is the guy on the weakside and being mostly ignored by his cover, Jayson Tatum. I'm not trying to pile on the kid.)
You don't want to have static targets around Embiid on every possession, and Embiid having credible options to go to on the second look didn't stop him from taking a face-up jumper over Enes Kanter that he missed.
It's easy to pin blame on guys like Thybulle, though that is low-hanging fruit to some degree. Nobody is expecting Thybulle to be a reliable scoring option or floor-spacer when it matters, and the Sixers are merely hoping shooting variance swings in their favor anytime he's on the floor.
It's a different sort of calculus when we start talking about Tobias Harris, who was left alone on numerous occasions throughout the Boston game in service of sending pressure toward Embiid. The Celtics calculated that leaving Harris alone on the perimeter, where he's often hesitant to shoot even when he does get clean looks at the basket, was a sensible way to attack Philadelphia.
Harris' anemic shooting numbers this season lend credence to the idea. This is his worst year from deep since he was a 21-year-old swingman for the Orlando Magic in 2013-14, with Harris shooting 29.8 percent from three for Philly seven years and three teams later. Thybulle missing shots and being ignored is one thing, their $30 million forward doing so is another.
Even on successful possessions, Embiid faced pressure as a result of the Harris portion of Boston's gameplan. On Embiid's last made shot of the game, a bucket over a double team, Marcus Smart helps off of Seth Curry of all people to double the big guy, with Jayson Tatum sliding into position to help on Curry before Embiid takes and makes the shot.
A snapshot mid-possession shows what we're getting at here:
This is a possession where a cut might actually help Embiid and the offense. If Harris can make Jayson Tatum sink toward the rim, a kick out to Curry becomes viable. If anybody else moves to cover that area, other passing lanes open up.
Again, this is not to put responsibility all on other people for Embiid's issues and shortcomings. Smart is sending help here because Embiid is their franchise player, but also because teams are aware that Embiid can get tunnel vision, choosing to hoist shots up or try to draw fouls instead of trusting teammates and using double teams against the opponent. He's not the only star who goes into hero ball mode, but as a post-up center, Embiid is also not equipped as well as a lot of other franchise players to beat that pressure and dribble out of tough situations.
To use an example from earlier in Wednesday's game, Danny Green did his usual baseline cutting on a possession in the third quarter, with Robert Williams leaving him in order to send an extra body at Embiid while Green made his way to the corner. Already committed to a scorer's mindset, Embiid never even thinks about hitting Green here even though it's one of the easiest passes he could make all season:
At least in Embiid's case, these woeful offensive performances can be made up for with high-level defense on the other end. No such luck with Harris, which puts a lot more pressure on him to be a creative and flexible piece on the offensive end of the floor.
There are health-related reasons to think Harris is not himself right now. Like Embiid, he had a symptomatic COVID case and spent time on the shelf as a result, in addition to several bumps and bruises that have forced him to miss games and practices dating back to preseason. Losing absolutely any burst is a killer for Harris, who often profiles as just strong enough and just fast enough to beat smaller or slower opponents. He's neither right now.
Regardless, they need him playing the purposeful, pacy basketball he flashed at the start of last season, when Rivers got in his ear and got him back on track. Unlike Thybulle, there's no chance Harris is going to sit down in crunch time, so they need him to find himself and find himself quickly.
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