There are few players in the NBA tasked with an offensive and defensive workload similar to that of Joel Embiid’s. Paul George comes to mind. As does Giannis Antetokounmpo. Anthony Davis when he isn’t asking for a trade or abiding by a weird minutes restriction. Maybe Kawhi Leonard before his injury, though he’s been far too disengaged and undisciplined for stretches on defense this year. Beyond those players, there aren’t many.
Each night Embiid plays, the Philadelphia 76ers orchestrate the offense through their superstar big man, while simultaneously asking him to mask every flaw on a team that lacks credible perimeter defenders. Among qualified players this season, Embiid’s 32.2 percent usage ranks second behind James Harden (39.6 percent). Pair that with patrolling the backline and it’s not a role those in search of care-free possessions would envy.
Those anecdotes serve as a prelude to this: Joel Embiid’s offensive responsibilities should be tapered moving forward.
While Embiid has improved his conditioning every year he’s been in the league, there remain key stretches when he’s too gassed to get a bucket down low, make the quick help-side rotation or properly diagnose a pick-and-roll. With two capable scoring hubs in Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris now donning Philly red, white and blue, the Sixers no longer have to construct an offense rooted in past roster compositions. Last season, Embiid was the lone true shot creator on the team and his post offense was the primary staple. Those touches on the block should continue to be a focal point but shifting a couple of his shots to Butler and Harris could help alleviate some of the burden he carries.
In the playoffs, when teams can (and likely will) throw sporadic and timely double teams toward Embiid to flummox him, providing Butler and Harris — two players whose scoring repertoires are less easy to scheme against — could reduce live ball turnovers and improve the club’s offensive efficiency. Considering the Sixers’ lack of floor spacing, opponents are going to pack the paint and pester Embiid on the block. They will force guys like Butler, Mike Scott, James Ennis and T.J. McConnell to make open 3s. The fewer opportunities they have to exploit some of Embiid’s turnover-prone ways, the better.
Shifting away from such a post-centric offense is a worthwhile blueprint. Utilizing a post-heavy attack to win at the highest levels in today’s NBA is always going to be challenge. Methodical, back-to-the-basket possessions trim the margin for error if Embiid is stonewalled. It short-circuits rhythm and flow. Often, it’s score or bust in the post, without secondary options aside from catch-and-shoot 3s. Eliminating some of those occurrences is likely for the best.
This isn’t to suggest Philadelphia needs to turn Embiid into a spot-up shooter and drastically cut down on his post-ups — just space him to the corners or wings a few more times each night (truthfully, it seems like this has been the case a bit more recently, though I don’t have numbers to support it).
Embiid’s mammoth workload has also caused his defense to falter to an extent. He’s still the team’s definitive anchor and a top-10 defender league-wide, whose defensive ceiling from game to game ranks at, or near, the top of the NBA. Some of the stuff he does is jaw-droppingly incredible. But I have a tough time caping for him as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate this season, even on a per-game basis.
That’s not necessarily to knock him, but there are stretches he looks worn out from shouldering the offense one too many trips down the court. He’ll laze through a pick-and-roll. He almost always struggles with closeouts on the perimeter. He’ll get punked on the glass at times. Those are all effort- and energy-based patterns, though. If he’s willing to accept a background role on offense more often, he’s more likely to unleash fury on defense.
In a similar vein, that would enable the Sixers to adjust their defensive scheme. Rather than drop back in pick-and-rolls with Embiid, encourage the big fella to hedge or trap — maybe even switch! — ball-screen action. Drop coverage works because Embiid is a grade-A deterrent around the rim, but it’s also a crutch, allowing him to preserve some energy on defense. What if he didn’t have to worry about that as much? What if he was taking 16 shots a night rather than 19?
Unlock his monstrous frame occasionally — Philadelphia has done so recently, showing and trapping some pick-and-rolls. Hound ball-handlers on the perimeter. Have him switch on some screens, as he’s shown the mobility to periodically hang with guards and wings.
Drop coverage just isn’t a particularly tenable strategy, considering the litany of guards/primary creators with off-the-dribble craft potentially awaiting the Sixers in the postseason. It’s still a viable plan in certain matchups, but against guys like Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Khris Middleton, and even Spencer Dinwiddie, it’s inviting trouble.
Embiid is capable of excelling regardless of the pick-and-roll approach. He’s too smart, agile (relatively speaking), and skilled not to. Having him sit back in the paint as guys curl around screens with an open floor in front of them doesn’t maximize all that he offers defensively. Considering the Sixers are short on perimeter defenders who seamlessly slither around screens, Embiid is often left in 1-on-2 situations, forced to pick between two evils defensively. During the playoffs, the dangers hiding behind those evils multiply.
It’d be foolish to ignore the player-coach relationship aspect of this proposal. It might not be easy to cut out a portion of the franchise star’s offensive usage. That type of decision can’t arise out of the blue and perhaps Embiid isn’t comfortable with such an adjustment. But at his core, he seems like a competitor and a player who grins from ear-to-ear when spurring chaos on defense. If Embiid embraces slightly diminished offensive duties to heighten his defensive upside, it could have seriously positive ramifications, ones that might propel the Sixers to the NBA Finals. And that’s a transition worth making.