There’s a big, bold disclaimer that needs to lead this article: Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid have only played 2:15 of NBA basketball together. It would be insane to draw conclusions from such a minuscule sample; there is no data to extrapolate even if you wanted to do so. However, I was curious about a simple question -- what did it look like the first time the center prospects shared the floor together?
The answer — I suppose it depends on how you expected it to look.
There are concerns on both ends in a partnership involving Okafor and Embiid. On offense, you’re taking one guy out of his comfort zone and putting one less perimeter-oriented player on the court. This hurts spacing, the likelihood of cutters getting open going toward the basket, and the room in which the bigs have to operate. On defense, you’re creating a problem that doesn’t need to exist — either you dampen Embiid’s rim-protection by forcing him to guard more mobile fours, or you ask Okafor to chase players he hasn’t proven capable of staying in front of.
Because Atlanta’s setup represents a more “modern” pairing at the four-five — Dwight Howard’s shot-blocking and rebounding pairs nicely with Paul Millsap’s versatility — we can compare how plays unfold differently for both duos.
For Philadelphia, knowing how to act as a threat from the perimeter is what currently holds this duo back. Okafor is used to being the focal point on the low block; he’s been plying his trade in the post since middle school and has experienced great success doing so. His instinct, rightfully, is to go where he’s comfortable. Embiid looks like a capable shooter, but he should not carry the front-court burden of spacing the floor by himself.
On a possession that actually features some good work from the team, there are some trouble spots that pop up:
Embiid ends the look by utilizing a nice head-fake to get past Millsap and earn a trip to the line, but look at a couple different stages of this possession:
With all three of Okafor, T.J. McConnell and Gerald Henderson rim-running, Hollis Thompson is the only player providing value to start this play. The trio of cutters make things more difficult for Embiid, when simply standing wide open at the top of the key would have been helpful.
After a cross-court pass to Thompson opens things up a bit, the Sixers get some nice ball movement, leading to a one-on-one matchup with Millsap for Embiid. He’s able to get past Millsap with a pump-fake....
...but Okafor’s lane-camping adds an extra body to the paint. Embiid gets to the charity stripe, but the shot attempt is more difficult than it needs to be:
One school of thought spreads blame to Embiid — Thompson is open on the perimeter if he wants to kick the ball out. But it seems like a lot to ask for a relative novice like Embiid to serve as a floor-spacer, use that threat to blow by one of the league’s best defenders, and then read the court well enough to see and hit Thompson on the perimeter with a pass. Getting out of the way and providing an outlet, on the other hand, is a much simpler task.
On the oopposite end of the floor, Atlanta looked quite different:
When Howard catches the ball on the block, matched up one-on-one with Okafor, Millsap is already out to the elbow. By the time Howard faces up to assess his options, Millsap is open on the perimeter thanks to Embiid cheating toward the paint:
This is a much easier play to ask your big man to read. It may have ended in an Embiid block, but the process for this play is something the Sixers should have their bigs study.
Part of this is an experience thing — Millsap is a highly-intelligent player and decorated vet, so his off-ball movement is naturally better than a young big man’s. There’s something to be said for having well-fitted pieces on the court together, though; because Atlanta’s players aren’t fighting natural instincts, their movement and placement in their sets is intuitive rather than forced.
Instinct is the basis of all free-flowing systems. Defensively, playing two bigs is supposed to be an advantage primarily in terms of protecting the rim and rebounding. Theoretically, there should always be someone lurking as the last line of defense, providing peace of mind for perimeter players to close hard on their matchups.
On one play prior to Howard re-entering the game, everything went haywire after Embiid contained a Malcolm Delaney drive. Once the offense reset, the Sixers ended up in complete disarray, with Stauskas having to shade toward the rim to dissuade a cutting Millsap. That led to this tragicomedy of a still image:
There are a number of ways this could have gone wrong; the team is fairly unprepared for a backdoor cut from Delaney, equipped to handle a weakside post-entry with either Nik Stauskas or McConnell on Millsap, or about to surrender a wide-open three. Only Bazemore’s hesitation allowed the Sixers to get away with it.
There were possessions when the young Sixers got in the right positions and just botched the execution. On this look, Okafor establishes good position and his team flanks him accordingly:
This is just about the ideal look for the Sixers. Embiid’s plus-size allows him to pass over just about any defender, and his touch sucks defenders out with him. Okafor in a one-on-one battle with kick-out options is a look Brett Brown will take every time. Unfortunately, Embiid ended up throwing the entry pass too high for Okafor, resulting in a turnover.
The question staring down Brown and his staff is what it looks like when kinks like these are ironed out. They may end up concluding the goofy floor-spacing and defensive miscommunications are a direct product of forcing this marriage, and that the team would be best served allowing both players to spread their wings separately. That’s was my hunch when Brown first said they'd toy with it.
But given the talent discrepancy between the team’s top prospects and everyone else on the roster, you can bet the team will try to find a way to get both Okafor and Embiid on the court whenever they can. And why not? Continued reps don't figure to make things worse, and enough scraps of positive play emerged for the dreamers among us to hold out hope.