Throughout training camp and the first few games of the preseason, much of the talk surrounding Sixers’ big man Joel Embiid has been about “bully ball mentality” on the offensive side of the ball. Embiid has made it clear that he wants to highlight his physical strengths and his elite array of post moves to become the type of dominate post player the league hasn’t seen since the primes of Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal.
While the focus has been on his offensive game, the Sixers coaching staff have spent their offseason figuring a way to highlight Joel’s strengths on the other side of the ball. Embiid finished second in the 2018 Defensive Player of the Year vote for a reason: his ability as a rim protector. Embiid lurks the block like a Great White Shark wading through murky waters, and when an opponent drives towards the rim he springs into action to deny or affect their shot. Even more so than his ability as a shot blocker, Joel’s presence near the rim is enough to keep swimmers out of his waters, completely disrupting the opponent’s offensive flow. The challenge for the Sixers’ coaches is to keep Joel in a position where he can continue to that disruption.
Sixers’ Head Coach Brett Brown has emphasized keeping Embiid near the rim against “Five Out Lineups”, a reference to when teams will stretch all five of their players past the three point line, a tactic that the Boston Celtics used to perfection in their second round series win against the Sixers. Throughout that series, Boston was able to capitalize popping Horford out beyond the arc. The Sixers like to switch 1-4, meaning that when they are ran through screens they will switch defenders as long as their center is not in the action. When the center is in the action, the Sixers will typically play drop coverage.
Against teams with traditional big men and in the regular season, this strategy works well as Embiid’s size and skill allows him to deny the rolling big the ball, while keeping the ball handler in front of him. The overall length of the Sixers defenders is highlighted in this coverage as Embiid often can buy enough time for the wing defenders to recover and catch up to the play.
Boston, however, would pop Horford after setting a ball screen leaving the 42.9% three point shooter wide open at the top of the key. Although Horford only hit two threes in the series, the threat he posed from beyond the arc was enough to force sloppy closeouts from Embiid and force the Sixers defense into late switches that threw them into the spin cycle as they rotated behind the moving ball.
As playoff basketball becomes more and more about setting up and capitalizing on mismatches, the Sixers will have to continue to develop how they deploy Embiid to keep their defensive leader as dangerous as possible.
While it was clear that some of Embiid’s postseason defensive struggles were caused by conditioning, his defensive technique was sometimes poor on the perimeter. This, of course, is to be expected from a 7’2’’ big man who is arguably the best rim protector in the NBA. Rather than forcing Embiid out of his comfort zone, the onus should be on the coaching staff to develop a plan to keep Embiid at the rim.
In the regular season, the Sixers held opponents to just 34.9% shooting from three, but in Games 1 and 2 of the Celtics series, that number ballooned to 45%. In the regular season, Embiid’s ever present threat in the paint forced teams into taking contest threes over the Sixers long wing defenders. When Embiid was tasked with guarding a shooting big like Horford, the Celtics forced extra defensive collapses by the Sixers which lead to open threes on kick-outs. One key adjustment that Brown made in Game 3 was rather than sticking Embiid on Horford, he put him on non-shooters like Aron Baynes (14.3% on threes during the regular season). By placing Embiid on a non shooter, Brown opened up the ability for him to play a free safety roll on defense. Although Baynes was able to burn the Sixers for a few threes, this tactical switch was able to help keep the defense more static instead of the rotating mess Boston was able to turn them into in Games 1 and 2. In the remaining three games of the series, the Sixers held Boston to just 31.1% three point shooting.
The Sixers have not been shy about their goal for this season: to win the Eastern Conference and play for a chance to win the NBA Finals. If the Sixers are to accomplish that goal, more likely than not they are going to run into the reloaded Boston Celtics again come playoff time. To survive and advance, the Sixers are going to have to continue to find ways to maximize the impact of their best player on defense.