This is a weekly series where we’ll look back at one player’s performance to see who stood out and why. Whether it’s the best player on the team, someone at the bottom of the bench who stepped up, or anyone in between.
Last week’s results: 108-104 L vs. Miami, 117-98 L vs. Dallas, 125-108 W vs. Washington.
The Philadelphia 76ers weren’t at their best last week. First, they sustained a loss to the Miami Heat and were immediately swept up in discussion of how they can be crippled by a zone defense. Even though, despite some struggles, they created plenty of good shots and an overlooked combination of shooting just 12-of-39 from three (30.8 percent) and lacking defensive intensity was the bigger problem. A 117-98 loss to the Luka Doncic-less Dallas Mavericks followed. The Sixers faced many more possessions against zone defense and shot a mere 10-of-34 from three. And again, they lacked the kind of defensive effort they need to endure those kind of offensive struggles.
Joel Embiid wasn’t at his best last week either, with his own defense falling below its typical elite standards at times. Miami’s zone prevented him doing as much work in the post as well, especially earlier in the game. However, his highs and excellent production earned him Sixer of the Week.
Over Philly’s three games, Embiid averaged 25.3 points (48.3 percent shooting, 28.6 percent from three, and 94.1 percent on 5.7 free throws), 16.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists to only 1.7 turnovers, and 1.7 blocks. This kind of performance in a rough patch is a testament to how talented Embiid is.
The Sixers did have some difficulties against Miami’s zone, due to players not always cutting or looking for offensive rebounds in space, and most importantly not shooting immediately when given room at the arc. This is a problem the Sixers have not just against zone defense but in general. For instance, Josh Richardson, and even Tobias Harris (who needs to up his three-point volume) pass up too many shots when defenders are a little closer than they’d like. That said, Embiid’s improved passing helped create some of the open looks the Sixers did get.
While he missed a few reads here and there, he still helped find openings for others operating out of double teams and when he was positioned in the middle of Miami’s zone around the free throw line and elbows. Embiid finished the game with 22 points (8-of-19 shooting, including 1-of-5 from three), 19 rebounds, 3 assists to only 1 turnover, 1 steal and 2 blocks. In the fourth quarter alone, as the Sixers surged late and Embiid found a rhythm attacking through the middle of Miami’s shifting zone, he tallied 12 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists.
Embiid showed yet again that, when he’s alert and decisive, he’s a good passer. Take these two assists to Harris. On the first play, Embiid recognizes that as Duncan Robinson and Jimmy Butler are crashing around him Harris will be left open on the weak-side, so Embiid immediately turns and fires over a skip pass. On the second play, Embiid drives and swiftly kicks the ball to the corner as Kendrick Nunn starts to help off Harris:
Embiid’s biggest game of the week came against Dallas on Friday, with 33 points (12-of-24 shooting, including 3-of-7 from three), 17 rebounds, 2 assists to 1 turnover, 1 steal and 1 block. He continued to be a force on the glass and scored in a variety of ways. Post-ups, duck-ins, face-up jumpers, pick-and-pop threes — everything was clicking for him against a Dallas frontcourt that couldn’t match his footwork and power inside.
Embiid wasn’t so good at the other end of the floor. Maxi Kleber had a few strong drives to score on Embiid, and the Sixers’ center didn’t cover the Mavs’ pick-and-rolls and ball handlers as well as he could have.
Of course, Embiid is a phenomenal defender when he’s engaged. As is the case for everyone on the team, avoiding these declines in effort — particularly when the team’s offense isn’t clicking and games can get disheartening — is key.
To end the week, as the Sixers bounced back against the Wizards’ league-worst defense for a 125-108 win (after a few drops in energy that let the score get closer than it should have, which has been somewhat of a trend), Embiid did all that was necessary in his 29 minutes. He recorded 21 points, 13 rebounds, 3 assists to 3 turnovers, and a pair of blocks, again scoring all around the floor, from using duck-ins to several smooth face-up moves.
Embiid’s turnover percentage is a hair above the career-best 13.2 he recorded last season at 13.4, but given the team’s decline in spacing and the perimeter help he’s lost to make his life easier, it’s fairly impressive he’s maintained possession as well as he has. He’s continued to show more growth as a passer and decision-maker against double teams in recent weeks.
When Embiid is making quick reads and surveying the floor, he can be a really sharp playmaker. The main problem is that a tendency to slip into more carless play at times can undo that. The next step for him is to establish more consistency.
The Sixers have their problems and some critique of Embiid is fully justified, but a lot of criticism surrounding him this season has gone way too far. He’s one of the NBA’s top-tier talents, and even when he isn’t at his peak, he’s still a force to be reckoned with.
Next week, Embiid will have two prime opportunities to assert his dominance again: first, the Sixers’ Christmas day game against the Milwaukee Bucks, followed by a rematch against Jimmy Butler’s Heat in Miami on Saturday.