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Joel Embiid’s case for Defensive Player of the Year

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at New York Knicks Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

At the ripe age of 24 — with just under two full seasons of games under his belt — Joel Embiid is already a dominant NBA player. Offensively, he single-handedly takes over games, producing 23.9 points per game in his career, the main catalyst for his two All-Star appearances. It’s his defensive prowess, however, that deserves more recognition.

In a game on December 28 — in which the Utah Jazz shot 38 percent from the field and Embiid recorded five blocks — Brett Brown argued his starting center’s case for defensive player of the year.

”I think we’re all seeing the impact Joel Embiid has defensively,” Brown said. “In my opinion, he is the Defensive Player of the Year ... his impact on this team is overwhelming. [Embiid] is our Commander in Chief behind the scenes [of the defense],” Brown said. “He sees the entire floor from the floor spot he’s positioned at, and he’s a traffic cop. He does it with authority, he does it with an element of intellect.”

The Cameroonian big man is posting a 2.7 D-PIPM, sixth in the league, behind only Rudy Gobert, Myles Turner, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Robert Covington, and Hassan Whiteside. Defensive statistics, however, aren’t the most-telling measure. Narratives hold more weight in the discussion of DPOY, which presents a problem to Embiid’s case.

What stands in the way of Embiid is the overall defensive unit in his backdrop. Like the MVP award, the defensive player of the year is synonymous with overarching team success, as the last four defensive player’s of the year teams have placed 4th, 1st, 1st, and 3rd in defensive rating, respectively (Gobert, Draymond Green, and Kawhi Leonard twice).

The Sixers, on the other hand, have posted a 108.3 defensive rating, placing them 11th in the league. That pales in comparison to their 103.8 defensive rating of last season, which placed them third in the league.

This team is worse defensively than last season for a variety of reasons, chief among them is the change in scheme. The switch from Lloyd Pierce — who was hired by the Atlanta Hawks — to Billy Lange caused the change in pick and roll defense to drop coverage.

In the early stages of the season, drop coverage presented the team with issues. I wrote about it late in December, when opposing guards were gifted easy mid-range shots and floaters and bigs were gifted easy layups. Changing the big’s defensive positioning is the first step of improving the team defense, and thus Embiid’s case for DPOY.

When Embiid “aggressive drops” instead of “deep drops,” he has the speed and length to recover and block the roller if he receives the pass:

When the screener doesn’t roll, Embiid uses his cat-like instincts to contest the ball-handlers mid-range shot:

Over the last ten games, the Sixers have posted the 18th-ranked defense in the league, with a 113.2 defensive rating. He has the résumé — the numbers and the highlights — his team simply needs to improve their overall numbers.

Philadelphia needs Embiid on the court in any situation. He is crucial to a team that bleeds a 113.7 defensive rating with him on the bench — which would place them second to worst in the league, sandwiched between the Phoenix Suns and Cleveland Cavaliers. With him on the court, they post a 106.7 defensive rating, seventh defensive rating tied with the Miami Heat.

He is their lone bright spot on a roster which lacks rim protection elsewhere. Amir Johnson dropped out of the rotation at the beginning of the season. His age showed too many times. Jonah Bolden recently lost his spot due to inconsistency. And Boban will (probably) lose minutes come playoff time, as he is too lumbering to keep up on switches.

Embiid is the defensive safety net of Philadelphia’s starting unit. J.J. Redick is attached to the hip of his center — the two-man lineup of Redick-Embiid is the most common pairing on the team (1288 minutes) — not only for offensive fit (their handoff-play is one of the most deadly plays) but for defensive reasons as well. Redick struggles to maintain solid positioning on and off the ball, falling asleep in either case far too often.

Embiid mops up Redick’s and other teammates’ messes at the rim:

Embiid is necessary to the fabric of Philadelphia’s defensive lineup, but it’s important to note he is one of the most-skilled individual defenders in the entire league. Elite defenders are impactful, capable of swinging the pendulum of the game in their team’s direction like MVP’s do on the other side of the ball. Embiid packs that kind of individual punch.

For players who have tallied 1,000 or more minutes on the season, Embiid is eighth in blocks per 36 minutes with 2.1. From game-to-game, he rides hot-streaks of blocks like an MVP rides shots on offense, swatting three or more shots 17 times this season, and the team goes 13-4 when he catches fire.

Highlights play a major part in winning awards. Watch Embiid’s defensive film and you’ll see a highlight-reel. He chases down opponents in transition and pins shots to the backboard in a disrespectful manner. Aside from statistics, these type of plays help his case:

To call Embiid just a highlight-creator or statistic-producer is cutting him short, though. He is also a player who carves an impact in less tangible aspects. You might miss some of his impact if you don’t rewind the film. In other words, his impact goes beyond swatting shots, as he alters anything in the vicinity of the cup.

He forces players to avoid taking normally easy shots. Here, he forces LeBron to make a silly pass, spurring a fast-break on the other end:

And when opponents do enter his personal bubble, oh boy, do they regret it. The Sixer center posts a defensive field goal percentage of 53.6% within six feet, fourth in the league for players who defend at least six shots in that range per game. Shift the criteria back to eight shots defended per game, and Embiid is the second behind only Myles Turner (53.5%).

He also plays tough post-defense with solid fundamentals. He uses his forearm to subtly shove post-players off the block, stands between his man and the basket, and keeps his arms straight-up when the shot releases.

None of this — not the blocks, not the highlights, not the statistics — is to cement Embiid as a unanimous selection for Defensive Player of the Year. His ceiling is the highest among other potential candidates.

His case can get even better in a short amount of time, so long as the Sixers improve their defense. Not to mention, the starting center grows fatigued by the end of games, slowing him down on the defensive end. A way Brown can preserve his energy is by pinpointing a true backup center, which will allow Embiid to see extended minutes with better defensive lineups. Part of the defensive regression and occasional mishaps can be blamed on Brett Brown, but point being, it hurts Embiid’s case.

A winner of a variety of awards in the past, it’s time for Joel Embiid to be crowned the Defensive Player of the Year and it’s up to the Sixers to confirm that status.


Who should win Defensive Player of the Year?

This poll is closed

  • 59%
    Joel Embiid
    (123 votes)
  • 17%
    Paul George
    (37 votes)
  • 9%
    Rudy Gobert
    (20 votes)
  • 2%
    Myles Turner
    (6 votes)
  • 3%
    Giannis Antetokounmpo
    (8 votes)
  • 6%
    Robert Covington
    (14 votes)
208 votes total Vote Now

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