Joel Embiid nailed a three, euro-stepped for a layup and forced a wild Dwight Howard attempt to start the game. It was all downhill from there, with the Sixers coughing up an early lead on their way to a 104-72 loss.
Or at least, it went downhill for the collective unit. Embiid, despite struggling through (unfair!) foul trouble in the first half, had some scintillating moves throughout the game. This breathtaking move from the perimeter...
... and this weak-side help to prevent Dwight Howard from getting an easy bucket...
... show off just a sliver of Embiid’s skill collection. He gave Howard unsolvable problems in the post, forcing him into a quick fourth foul early in the second half. Assuming he can stave off foul trouble of his own, this is an emerging sub-plot to watch; Embiid’s ability to draw contact and keep the opponent’s best players on the pine could have a dramatic impact on the Sixers’ ability to stay in games.
He’s not the only beneficiary there. Jahlil Okafor couldn’t get it going from the field today, but he got to battle against the likes of Kris Humphries and Mike Muscala while Atlanta kept their starting center benched. Embiid imposing his will against starters makes the game easier both for those who share the court with him and the reserves spelling him.
For the second game in a row, Embiid went to work against top-tier defensive players and still found a way to shine. Guarded by Paul Millsap early in the fourth — one of the best defenders in the league — Embiid initiated from the perimeter, shrugged the Hawks forward off with a well-placed shoulder, and drained the jumper once he got space:
His final line: 14 points on 5-9 shooting, two rebounds, one assist, one steal and two blocks in 15 minutes. Two games into his professional career, Embiid is already flashing star-like potential. Regardless of the loss and the other issues facing the team, that’s a clear win for the franchise.
What We Learned
Things fall apart without Embiid on the court
The Sixers added a bunch of new faces to the rotation this summer, but most of their woes have remained. Embiid is an elixir that alleviates issues on both ends, but they continue to struggle with basic problems whenever he’s on the bench.
He’s been far from perfect, but it’s shocking how far the level of play drops when he sits due to his minutes restriction or foul trouble. Pairings like Okafor-Saric in the front-court got torched on the defensive end, and the Sixers offensive flow stagnated without Embiid’s inside-out game opening things up.
“Team gets worse when best player sits” isn’t a big scoop, but the extent of the Sixers’ ineptitude is the troubling part. As we’ve discussed plenty on this site, in-game plus-minus stats are supremely noisy. But Embiid emerged from the first half as the only player on the plus-side of the ledger (+6), and it matched the eye-test perfectly.
Off-ball movement is still terrible, and maybe that’s on the coaching staff
One of the worst holdovers from last season’s 10-win team is the state of off-ball movement on offense. There’s simply not enough action away from the ball, and at this point the team’s scheme has to be questioned, not just the personnel running it.
Xylon summed this up well:
Sixers offense moves less than that guy you went to high school with who works middle management at your hometown grocery store for 25 years— Xylon Dimoff (@xylondimoff) October 29, 2016
A few players remain from past seasons, but the coach and his system are the constant. There are still times when we’re left wondering what they’re running at all, aside from, “Give the ball to our big dude and watch him create something out of nothing.”
Embiid is the fulcrum for this team. If the offense and the players running it don’t start evolving to deal with that reality, something has to change.
The Sixers don’t have enough two-way players
Like everything else in Sixers world, two-way play is a hope on the horizon. Brett Brown keeps preaching the team’s desire to build a defensive identity, but it’s nearly impossible for the team to strike a balance with the personnel on hand.
Embiid might be the only player on the team who is a legitimate plus — or at least close to one — on both ends. Look up and down the rotation, and you’ll find lots of specialists; Gerald Henderson’s tough defense is offset by his anemic offense, while Sergio Rodriguez is as strong in pick-and-rolls on offense as he is weak on the other end.
The team’s issue is not in having specialists, but the volume of one-way guys on the team. Even if you count Robert Covington — who has been uneven from preseason on — there’s no one on this team you can put alongside Embiid and think, “Okay, we’re solid there.” With a jump-shot, a guy like Jerami Grant might get there, but that day is still off in the distance.