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November 13, 2019

How the Sixers can get the most out of Joel Embiid on offense

1_Joel_Embiid_sixers_76ersvsCeltics_KateFrese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid.

Joel Embiid looks like most of the great traditional centers throughout the history of the NBA. He is a mountain of a human being, at times almost unaware of just how strong he is as he's taking huge swings for blocks when drivers enter his painted area.

His own coach has called him Shaquille O'Neal "with soccer feet," and his two-way play has drawn comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon dating back to his days at Kansas. Because of this, many have the urge to seem him play like these greats of the past, constantly posting up on the low block and beating back against the small-ball paradigm that has taken over the league. His trips to the three-point line, depending on what he shoots there from game-to-game, are used either as fuel to dump on his conditioning or opine the coach should be fired.

And yet, the problem for Embiid is not that he doesn't post up enough, it's that the Sixers need him to be more than just a post-up machine. Slowly, they are getting there.

Getting the most out of Embiid as a screener

If basketball was simply about one player producing on his own without any other context necessary, posting up Embiid constantly would not be a bad numbers play. He is leading the NBA in post-ups by a lot (almost two possessions per game ahead of second-place Anthony Davis) and generating 1.18 points per possession out of those looks, a number that puts him inside the top-10 in efficiency.

But Embiid has much more to offer his teammates than that. Up to this point in his career, the Sixers have used him sparingly in pick-and-rolls, partially because their lead ballhandler isn't a threat in them, partially because it's not a staple play for Brett Brown's offense. And that seems like a shame on multiple levels.

Historically, the Sixers haven't punished poor defensive centers as much as they probably should have because they play into their hands. But they are capable of punishing players of all calibers by using Embiid's size to create separation for his teammates, and Tuesday's win over the Cavs provided a lot of examples of how to do so.

Take the game-winning play, for example. It took good execution in several ways to get Embiid his dunk at the rim to ice it, but the play only gets rolling in the first place because Embiid absolutely leveled Colin Sexton in the pick-and-roll with Josh Richardson. He follows that up with a second screen on Tobias Harris' man, which forces Tristan Thompson to switch and gives Embiid a massive size advantage with which he can create the seal and score.

On that play, the road eventually led back to Embiid. The trick is getting him to show the same buy-in when the Sixers are running plays that aren't necessarily designed for him to finish off the possession.

He's not always going to make contact as he did on Sexton on that final possession, but Embiid's screens have helped create windows for Richardson in the small doses we've seen from the two of them in pick-and-rolls. When you have an Embiid-sized target rolling toward the rim, the defense has to pick from two bad choices — let the big man get free around the rim or give a ballhandler a clear shot at the basket.

The Sixers are capable of punishing either option.

As it has for years, the Sixers' pick-and-roll frequency has lagged behind the rest of the league to start the season. That doesn't necessarily mean the Sixers are missing out on the benefits of this sort of action, as they can achieve the same results in handoffs, but it's an area that could (and perhaps should) see an uptick as the year rolls along.

Taking advantage of his face-up game

If there is an area where it feels like the Sixers can make the most out of Embiid's strength, it is here. It is okay for Embiid to start with his back to the basket in order to establish position on the low block, and it is just a matter of leaning into the things he already does well rather than reinventing the wheel.

The NBA is a perimeter-driven league for a lot of reasons, and some of them are just common sense. Which of these tasks sounds easier? Attacking a defense head-on with the ability to see the whole floor, or breaking them down with your back to the basket and most of the floor effectively invisible? That is the inherent problem with a traditional post-up, and it's part of why it has fallen out of favor leaguewide.

The tape suggests facing him up from the mid-post is an excellent way to achieve this. When Embiid is staring down the defense from a standstill 12-18 feet from the basket, he has good options in front of him. He can take a mid-range jumper he's capable of making, he can use two dribbles or less to get to the rim, and he can see over the defense if help is sent and the ball needs to swing. 

When people say they want to see Embiid post up more, what they really mean is they want him to in spots on the floor where he can best leverage his physical strength to create easy baskets. While posting him up means he can plant harder and create more power, it also means his opponent can say the same thing, and when Embiid is able to get moving downhill we see his physical advantages really start to shine.

Saying "Joel Embiid doesn't deal well with double teams" is broadly true, though his struggles in that regard seem more apparent when his line of sight is cut off. Help defense has gotten better and more sophisticated over the years, and when small guards and quick wings are darting in from the weakside, it is difficult for a seven-foot player with his back turned to consistently play mistake-free basketball.

But Embiid isn't a bad passer, at least if you put him in the right situations. At least once or twice a game, he is beating teams with over-the-top passes to open Sixers teammates, punishing doubles or skewed coverage the way he ought to.

In no universe should the Sixers attempt to turn Embiid into a Nikola Jokic type who passes first and thinks about scoring later. But if the Sixers are intent on playing through their "crown jewel," that comes with a level of responsibility to the rest of the team. Embiid has always been a player who lifts up the rest of his teammates on the defensive side of the ball, and he has to accomplish the same on the other side of the ball, which he has done in small doses but not on a consistent basis.

These are points of emphasis that should be easy to build on. When you compare some of these plays against him shooting contested fadeaway jumpers or over-dribbling of their worst possessions, the difference is clear, and saying something as simple as "face-up more" is not difficult to explain to him.

Anything the Sixers can do to speed up his decision-making and simplify the game for him, they should do. Just because he is capable of bulldozing through teams and matchups at times doesn't mean that should be the first and only option. The easier the game gets for Embiid, the easier it gets for the rest of his teammates, and though the season is still young, we have seen a blueprint for how they can make best use of their franchise player.

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