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A deep dive into the Sixers’ odd couple

Joel Embiid and J.J. Redick didn’t find each other on Tinder, but the harmony in their games might suggest otherwise.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

On the surface, Joel Embiid and J.J. Redick couldn’t be more different.

Embiid is a 7-foot-2 marvel from Cameroon. Redick is an unassuming 6-foot-4 guard from Roanoke, Virginia. Embiid was a one-and-done Kansas Jayhawk who picked up basketball less than a decade ago. Redick was a decorated four-year star at Duke, drafted when Embiid was still pursuing a professional volleyball career. Embiid, the No. 3 pick in 2014, entranced franchises with his blend of size, quickness, and burgeoning skill set, and has been an NBA star since his first jump ball. Redick lasted until the 11th pick back in 2006, with questions circling around his athleticism and defense, and wasn’t a consistent rotation player until his fourth season.

Yet, Embiid and Redick are proof that opposites attract. Together, there wasn’t a better complementary pairing for the Philadelphia 76ers last season. In 1,324 minutes together — the most Embiid played alongside anyone — the duo tallied a plus-13.0 net rating, third among all Sixers pairings with at least 500 minutes.

Only the Ben Simmons-Embiid (plus-16.1) and Robert Covington-Embiid couples (plus-15.7) were better for Philadelphia, and league-wide, the dyad was 12th (min. 1,000 minutes).

The sharpshooting wing and brazen big man harmonized like peanut butter and jelly. Embiid benefitted from Redick’s magnetism on the perimeter, while Redick was given freedom to bob through screens and dart around the court as defenses fretted over Embiid’s low post acumen.

That type of gravity commanded between Embiid and Redick — each asserting themselves from contrasting regions of the court — opened up the hardwood for the rest of the Sixers’ rotational pieces. Among the four players who attempted at least 100 shots both with and without Redick and Embiid on the floor, each one experienced a significant decline in their effective field goal percentage when both teammates were not on the court:

Beyond simply elevating the offense, Redick and Embiid tortured defenses with dribble handoffs. Redick was second in the NBA with 255 dribble handoffs, producing 0.98 points per possession (67th percentile), and punctured teams with a quick release. His constant motion kept defenses engaged at all times, and when they dozed off, Redick struck faster than a bolt of lightning:

Redick’s 255 dribble handoffs were nearly 40 percent of the Sixers’ 640 on the season and, in fact, Embiid’s 63 assists to Redick — often coming on dribble handoffs — were tops among all Sixers players. It became such a staple between Embiid and Redick that the two slowly evolved the action to flummox defenders:

Averaging the second-most assists of his career last season (3.0), Redick shouldered a secondary playmaking role in Philadelphia, partially born out of necessity due to thin point guard depth behind Simmons. The majority of Redick’s assists originated within the flow of his traditional offensive usage, as he often faced a herd of bodies after catching the ball and proved capable of slipping passes into tight quarters.

When defenses sold out to contain Redick on dribble handoffs or pick and rolls, Embiid was often the beneficiary, showcasing his grace and fluidity in space:

Such a dynamic featuring dribble handoffs and makeshift pick-and-rolls is commonplace among guard-big tandems in today’s NBA, though. Where the novelty truly materialized between the two is in Brett Brown’s penchant for utilizing Redick as a screener.

Redick has long had a knack for setting punishing picks, and Brown harnessed that talent to diversify his two-guard’s role. Most often, he’d open possessions with a cross-screen for the second-year center — almost always from the left to right block — springing Embiid free for an easy bucket:

Defensively, teams were left scrambling to track both Embiid and Redick, underscoring their contrasting equity as scorers. Switching the screens wasn’t practical, as it left a guard on Embiid in the paint — an unenviable scenario in any context. If the coverage was stout and they attempted to prevent a layup, Redick could curl around the arc for an open three. It was an especially challenging set to defend when Covington, or any plus shooter, was the entry passer. If his man opted to make a helpside rotation to seal off Embiid, forcing the Sixers to look elsewhere for a basket, Covington was unattended beyond the perimeter.

The relationship extended beyond simple cross-screens, though. Other times, Redick blindsided defenders with back screens after Embiid established possession on the elbow. Once his man was caught in Redick’s web, the runway was clear for takeoff:

Rarely was Embiid greeted by a rim protector on these plays because both the 4 and 5-man were drawn away from the hoop. Philadelphia had its power forward — Trevor Booker, Dario Saric or Ersan Ilyasova last season — initiate the action at the top of the key while the center was tangled up with Redick’s imposing screen.

The Sixers intentionally loaded up the weakside of the court to isolate Embiid and Redick, making rotations that much more difficult for opponents. Any error was exposed without the safety net of help defense looming. Watch what happened here when Austin Rivers tried to snuff out this set and double-team Embiid, abandoning Redick in the corner, with nobody in shouting distance to salvage the defensive possession:

The final frequented connection between Embiid and Redick also had its origins at the elbow. This time, though, the goal wasn’t a post-up or bucket off the bounce. It was simply to launch Embiid into orbit and let him flush home a jam:

It was a fascinating quandary for defenses caught off guard, neither of which was likely to produce positive results: prevent the dunk or risk leaving one of the league’s elite snipers open.

As was the case in each of these three plays, Redick’s hard-nosed, abrasive screens and general off-ball zippiness — he’s always a threat to slip the pick and rise for three — gave these sets life. There is more to screening than simply plowing into a defender, and Redick, despite his stature, embodies that concept.

Despite divergent backgrounds, Redick and Embiid exhibited synergy from the outset last season, roasting defenses with traditional plays like dribble handoffs and pick-and-rolls. However, Brown, holstering an array of offensive schemes founded on screening and movement, recognized the versatile weapon standing in front of him.

And thus, paving the way for the NBA’s odd couple: J.J. Redick and Joel Embiid.

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