Heading into Tuesday’s tussle with the Celtics, the Philadelphia 76ers were feeling themselves. After unveiling their new look squad in a win against a very good Denver Nuggets team, the Sixers dragged LeBron James and the rest of the Lakers trading block on national television. In practice the next day, Sixers head coach Brett Brown said he wished that his team could face a fully healthy Celtics team, rather than the Kyrie-less squad that was waiting for his team the next day.
Fast forward a day and those Celtics reconfirmed that they do not need Irving to take down the Sixers, taking a 112-109 dog fight in South Philly, while winning any potential playoff seeding tiebreakers to come down the line. After the boogeyman reared his ugly face again, opinions came flying in about why the Sixers can’t seem to crack the Celtics code. Although the Celtics’ dominance of the match up is multifaceted, the biggest reason is Al Horford’s ability to limit Joel Embiid.
Horford’s role as the Embiid Strangler is well documented, but he’s not the only one — fellow Eastern Conference contenders Marc Gasol and even Brook Lopez (to an extent) also have impressive track records against the Sixers superstar, something that will have to change if the Sixers plan on getting out of the East alive.
Horford entered the NBA in the 2007-08 season after winning back-to-back National Championships with forever Sixer Corey Brewer at Florida, and was followed by Marc Gasol and Brook Lopez the following season. That 2008-09 season marked the final All-Star appearance for Shaquille O’Neal, and began the whispers regarding the death of the NBA center — a narrative pushed very hard by Dr. Shaq himself.
As the next few seasons unwound, those whispers became screams, accentuated by the verbal jabs O’Neal would cast from his new role as a TNT commentator. The center position was believed to be in a full-fledged crisis mode. Overshadowed at times by perceived big man torch carriers Dwight Howard, Roy Hibbert and Andrew Bynum, it was Horford, Gasol, and Lopez who outlasted them all and eventually emerged as stars in the center position. Eventually, the giants all returned and the NBA is in the midst of a big man renaissance — led by none other than Joel Embiid. For years, Horford, Gasol, and Lopez were thought as the last of a dying breed, but it appears now that they were the first of a new age of NBA big men.
Horford and Gasol have both anchored top rate defenses of teams that made deep playoffs runs on multiple occasions, and are no strangers to the Conference Finals. The pair and Lopez have all adjusted their games as the league has evolved around them — each getting the chance to learn the ropes of the NBA while defending the block against legends like O’Neal and Tim Duncan, while adapting to eventually thrive in the era of rim runners and unicorns. The experience these three have cultivated over their years in an ever-changing NBA landscape give them a unique perspective on how to handle a talent like Joel Embiid, something the league has never seen before.
Marc Gasol and Al Horford have had more success defending against Embiid than basically any other players in the league. Highlighted by his performance in the Celtics’ playoff victory over Embiid and the Sixers last spring, Horford and his 10-2 career head-to-head record is the headliner of the Embiid Stoppers Tour. Embiid has the advantage in weight, height, and wingspan, but Horford is still able to regularly win one-on-one matchups while single-covering Embiid.
Horford’s combination of strength and speed give him the physical attributes to keep up with The Process, but his defensive discipline is what frustrates Embiid into the bad shots and turnovers that can swing the close games that routinely take place between the Sixers and Celtics.
While Horford is the headliner of the group, it is Gasol who has had the most success at stopping Embiid from scoring the ball. In their five regular season matchups, Gasol is 3-2 against Embiid, and has never allowed the Sixers big man to score over 20 points in a game or shoot over 50 percent from the field.
Like Horford, Gasol’s combination of physical tools combined with his savvy defensive prowess give him the ability to frustrate Embiid, whose best offense often comes off pump fakes and Dream-like post moves. When heady defenders like Gasol and Horford stay disciplined against Embiid, he and the offense around him struggle. If they can continue to single cover Embiid and make him work hard for the money, the Celtics and Raptors will have a huge advantage over the Sixers in a potential playoff series.
Embiid does, however, have a rather favorable track record against Bucks starting center Brook Lopez. As a member of the Nets, Lopez was victimized by a rookie Embiid, who was able to put up his first career 30-point scoring performance in their December 2016 matchup. Less than a year later, Embiid put up historical numbers against Lopez and his Lakers, en route to his first career 40-point game.
Defense, however, has never been Brook Lopez’s calling card.
Both Gasol and Horford have evolved with the game around them, but neither jumped quite as far into the future as Brook Lopez. During his peak, Lopez was a throwback big, doing his damage almost exclusively from the post. In his lone All-Star season, Brook Lopez was Kanter-esque in his approach, a far cry from being dubbed “Splash Mountain”. After taking seven 3-pointers in as many years to start his NBA career, Lopez is now launching 6.5 treys per game at a 37.5 percent clip, spacing the floor for Bucks superstar, Giannis Antetokounmpo. And he’s not just spotting up, Lopez turned heads earlier this season when he took a page out of James Harden’s book and splashed a step back 3 over Andre Drummond.
Runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year last season, Embiid has been in fine defensive form again this season, cementing his status as a two-way force (read Andrew Favakeh’s recent case for Embiid as DPOY), but Lopez, Horford, and Gasol all have the ability to limit his defensive impact with their ability to shoot the ball. Horford pick-and-pops once again thrashed the Sixers on Tuesday, and the Sixers should expect more of the same if they were to meet the Celtics again in the postseason.
The Sixers want to keep Embiid near the rim at all costs, especially when facing off with drivers like Pascal Siakam, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Kyrie Irving. When Embiid drops on a pick-and-roll or helps off the 3-point line to stop a drive, opponents get easy kick outs to open bigs. Even when Embiid runs them off the line, his closeouts are often sloppy, leading to penetration and essentially creating a 5-on-4 advantage for the offense.
At 24 years old, The Process represents the future of the big man just as much as his game resembles the greats of the past. Lakers TV analyst Mychal Thompson, Splash Father and former teammate of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, recently called Embiid the most versatile center in NBA history.
There hav bin GREAT GREAT Centers thru out NBA histry...But there has NEVR bin a Centre(Canadian spelling) like Joel Embiid...with his combination of skills...NEVER!! Most Versatile center in histry...He can do EVRYTHING..On BOTH ends of the cort...Wat a Player— Mychal Thompson (@champagnennuts) February 11, 2019
Teams typically don’t find playoff success if their best player is neutralized. For the Sixers to make it out of the East, Embiid is going to have to find a way to best the OGs of the modern big man.