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January 03, 2019

Sixers center Joel Embiid may be the NBA's best first-half player

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121518-JoelEmbiid-USAToday Bill Streicher/USA Today

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) reacts in front of Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner (33) after a score and foul during the second quarter at Wells Fargo Center.

Whether watching from the comfort of your own home or in the stands of the Wells Fargo Center, it has been clear that Joel Embiid is having a remarkable third season for the Philadelphia 76ers. He has lagged a bit in MVP conversations as of late, but the numbers he is producing on a nightly basis are remarkable no matter where he finishes in the race for the NBA's top individual honor.

Wednesday night's game against Phoenix was no exception. Embiid managed one of his best halves of the year to start things off, pouring in 30 points, 14 rebounds, three steals, and a blocked shot in just under 17 minutes of action. For many players around the league, it would have been their best game of the year. For Embiid, it was just another dominant first half in a season full of many.

First-half Embiid has officially been a thing long enough that we can begin to measure the phenomenon against the rest of the league. And as it turns out, Embiid has not just been dominant for players in the first half this season, he has been one of the best first-half players in recent league history.

The numbers vs. current peers

As a frame of reference, let's take a look at how his numbers compare against a short list of the league's elite players, many of whom are in the conversation for this year's MVP award (all numbers are based on first halves only, and courtesy of the NBA's stats database):

King of the First Half?

 Joel Embiid16.0—7.2—1.9 17.3 
 Stephen Curry 15.2—2.7—3.0 10.3
 Giannis Antetokounmpo 12.4—5.8—3.1 9.5
 James Harden 17.2—2.9—4.3 7.1
 Kawhi Leonard 12.8—3.9—1.5 6.5
 LeBron James 13.5-4.4—4.1 5.6
 Anthony Davis 15.0—6.1—2.3 —1.5

Embiid's counting stats are up there with all of the league's best players, but it is the level his team is able to hit in first halves that truly sets him apart from the group. Many of the other players who rank near the top of the individual NETRTG leaderboard in first halves are comparatively low-usage players or guys who have missed long periods of time due to injury. Controlled for games played, Embiid is the only player in the top-45 to have a usage percentage higher than 30, and no one else in the top-10 is higher than Paul Millsap's 22.4.

In other words — the Sixers lean on Embiid to an insane degree in the first half of games, and he blows teams out of the water at a rate that is far outpacing that of his contemporaries.

It is Embiid's march to the free-throw line that may explain a lot of his first-half success. He is the NBA's leader in free-throw attempts per game during first halves, a stat that is supported by the eye test as well as the numbers. Embiid's willingness to bang in the post and hunt free throws is on another level in the first half of games, which the Sixers benefit from on a number of levels. By putting the Sixers in the bonus and other starting big men in foul trouble, Embiid is able to force bench players into larger roles for the opponent, which is a bit harder to quantify but a benefit to his team all the same.

Can this hold up over time?

Once you see where Embiid places in comparison to today's NBA players, the natural next step is to see what that first-half success looks like next to some of the game's best players in recent memory.

To filter out some of the noise, I searched only for players with a usage percentage greater than 30. While this will certainly leave out some players who were high volume (and high efficiency) in their own right, I wanted to make sure we were comparing Embiid's outlier production and team success this season to similar campaigns in the past.

Few players since the turn of the century have had this sort of team success while carrying the responsibility Embiid has on offense. For reference, here are some of the leaders in player NETRETG from past seasons compared against Embiid, with a note that each of these players appeared in at least 50 games (once again, number are first half only):

Player (season) NETRTG 
 LeBron James (08-09)18.4 
 Joel Embiid (18-19)17.3 
 Tim Duncan (04-05)16.9 
 James Harden (17-18)14.6 
 Shaquille O'Neal (01-02)13.6 
 LeBron James (11-12)13.5 
 Russell Westbrook (15-16)12.4 
 LeBron James (09-10)11.6 
 LeBron James (14-15)11.5 
 Dwyane Wade (10-11)11.4 

A couple of things become clear here. No. 1: LeBron James is really effing good at basketball. No. 2: Joel Embiid's performance in first halves puts him on the same level as a handful of recent all-time greats, even if you account for the likely slide he will take before the season ends.

The only star in recent history whose team performed better in first halves was LeBron during the 2008-09 season, one of the most dominant statistical seasons of all-time and likely the best individual season of the post-Jordan era. And that's important to establish before we get to the next part.

How do the Sixers help Embiid sustain this in the second half of games?

So far, the biggest hurdle to the Sixers joining the elite tier of teams (and Embiid truly putting his name alongside the players listed above) is spreading that Embiid production across both halves. There are multiple reasons for why it hasn't happened, but thus far Embiid has been a far superior player in the early portion of games.

Perhaps this is just the reality of being a big man in the modern NBA, particularly one with the load Embiid carries. He is a foul-drawing machine who camps out near the paint in first halves, but his time spent near the basket drops in the final 24 minutes. 42 percent of his shots in first halves come from the restricted area, a number that drops to 35.5 percent in the second half of games. If we include shots from the paint outside the restricted area, 61.7 percent of his attempts are paint shots in the first half vs. 56 percent in the second half. His free-throw attempts (5.5 vs. 4.2) drop accordingly.

All of this matches up with the eye test. There is a noticeable tendency for Embiid to drift further from the basket as games wear on, whether by design or due to fatigue setting in. Embiid is unique compared to many of the other high-usage players in the way he operates offensively; playing a back-to-the-basket game that relies on physically wearing down your opponent takes its toll on Embiid, too. And that's before discussing how large his share of defensive responsibility is in comparison to players like Harden, LeBron, and the other non-bigs he's compared to.

Those historic NETRTG numbers Embiid has managed in first halves drop off a cliff in the second half. That gaudy +17.3 drops to a —2.7 in the second half of games, and if you asked a Sixers fan for their thoughts on that number, some might suggest it flatters Philadelphia's second-half performances.

So is there a way for the Sixers to spread out his touches more to allow him to finish games stronger? Perhaps, though I'm not sure it would come without drawbacks.

Logically, you could assume that if you went to him less on the block early that you could take advantage of extra energy in the third and fourth quarters. But despite how ugly a lot of second halves are for the Sixers, their strategy is ultimately a winning one. And keeping the big man engaged with touches on offense is important for keeping him happy enough to bust his butt on defense. Asking Embiid to take a backseat earlier on risks losing his interest and his passion on defense — if you were exerting energy to get down the floor and establish post position, it probably wouldn't take you long to get irritated if you weren't getting the ball enough.

The answer may be in the sets Philadelphia runs. They have slowly begun to incorporate pick-and-roll action with Jimmy Butler and Embiid, a lower-stress style that should help cut down on Embiid's fatigue over time. The less offense he has to physically create for himself, the better.

Do not discount the bench's impact here any more than you would elsewhere. Fatigue is cumulative, and Philadelphia's inability to put away games, which is tied directly to their lack of quality depth, forces Embiid to play more minutes than he often should on any given night. They may not seem like a lot, but those instances where he has to play an extra five minutes here or there all add up, and that can come back to bite him (and the team) when they need Embiid the most.

The good news is that yes, Embiid has been dominant in those first halves, and Embiid's play during the first two frames has been enough to carry them to wins throughout the season. They're still in the process of incorporating a major piece and have little help from the bench to speak of, and the Sixers continue to pile up wins anyway.

A lot of that comes down to the Sixers wiping opponents off the floor in Embiid's first-half minutes. If the Sixers can ever find a way to get first-half Embiid for 48 minutes, the rest of the NBA is in big trouble.

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