Last season I wrote a series of articles looking at how a few members of the Philadelphia 76ers could improved based on the struggles they experienced in the NBA playoffs. Here is the second episode of the 2018-19 series; the first installment covered Ben Simmons.
Joel Embiid went up a level in numerous areas in 2018-19. He became the NBA's fourth-leading scorer at 27.5 points per game, his free throw rate went through the roof (second in the league at 10.1 per game), his efficiency rose, his rebounding (13.6 per game) was second to Andre Drummond, and his assist and turnover numbers were better than ever. As a fringe MVP and top Defensive Player of the Year candidate, he became a top-10 player in thrilling fashion.
Evaluating Embiid in the playoffs is rather different, given how he dealt with knee troubles and illness. He wasn’t the same player. Yet even still, his franchise-altering impact and defense shone in the second round against the Toronto Raptors — the Sixers were plus-90 for the series with him on the floor and plummeted to minus-111 without him.
Besides his gaudy numbers this season, his passing statistics in particular stand out when looking at his development and how he can continue to grow. Embiid recorded career-bests in assists (3.7) and turnovers (3.5) per game, as well as assist percentage (18.4) and turnover percentage (13.2).
Even though his ball security was particularly impressive early on and decreased somewhat through the season, the improvement was clear. His awareness, processing speed, composure against double teams and willingness to pass were all a little sharper. For a player who’s always had a high turnover rate and was described as an occasional “black hole” in last year’s playoffs against Boston, it was an encouraging element of his season.
The playoffs highlighted more flashes of that growth, but also where the room for further improvement lies.
Missing passing reads
This is the obvious way for Embiid to mature as a passer. Before getting into some other specifics, the simple issue of missing open reads can cause possessions to break down for Embiid, particularly when opponents are sending extra help and double teams.
When Embiid sets his sights on the basket, he can get locked in to the point that he misses players finding space around him. And even though his teammates deserve criticism at times for not always maintaining fluid movement around his post-ups, he needs to continue sharpening his overall court awareness to find others when open and accelerate his overall decision-making.
Take plays like this, for example. As he settles into his post-up and an eventual missed hook over Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet completely loses track of JJ Redick. Instead of being able to survey the floor while Ibaka was draped over him, Embiid keeps his focus locked on the basket and misses the chance to find Redick for an open corner 3:
Sometimes shot selection is part of the problem. Embiid happily takes a trailing 3-pointer here, but with Ibaka dropping back into the lane, Pascal Siakam shifts over to contest, leaving Tobias Harris wide open. This is where Embiid needs to know that as cold as Harris may have been from deep in the playoffs, making the extra pass to his sharpshooting teammate once Siakam had helped out of position is the right decision:
On this play, it’s understandable that Embiid wants to exploit a drastically undersized Brooklyn lineup with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson at center. He finds a mismatch in the post, yet settles for a fadeaway jumper just below the elbow. If he moved with a little more urgency with DeMarre Carroll covering Ben Simmons in the dunker’s spot and Spencer Dinwiddie helping from the corner, Embiid would have had a clear chance to whip a pass over to Harris in space:
The same issues of awareness apply to Embiid when he's on the move, too. He has a perfect opportunity to fire a pass over Danny Green after pump-faking past Ibaka and bringing four defenders into the paint. Harris has all the space he needs in the corner, but Embiid doesn’t find him and throws up an awkward runner:
Improving his ability to read and react on the move will make Embiid even harder to stop.
Beating double teams
Embiid was fully tested in the second round of the playoffs this year. He faced an elite, eventually championship-winning defense while he wasn’t healthy. The Raptors could easily send double and triple teams his way with their array of smart, switchy personnel. A lot of what I mentioned above in terms of missing passing reads also applies here, as despite his growth as a passer, Embiid still has work to do when handling extra defensive pressure.
Unsurprisingly, Embiid's turnovers trended up in the playoffs following a seven-game series against the Raptors' stellar defense. He averaged 3.6 turnovers per game to 3.4 assists. It's part of the reason he only ranked in the 60th percentile on post-ups through the postseason, as he turned over the ball on 19.6 percent of such possessions.
Plays like the following demonstrate Embiid’s lack of composure at times when facing double teams. He tries to react quickly to the double as Jared Dudley leaves Simmons to help, but remains fixated on the corner to make a pass to Butler. Embiid forces the play even though D’Angelo Russell has shifted into position for the steal, rather than looking elsewhere. See how open Harris is for a free throw line jumper:
It's not just about beating double/triple teams when they arrive, though. Embiid can also learn to let double teams come and then look to pass once a teammate has opened up, rather than rushing decisions beforehand.
In the play below Ibaka starts moving across the paint towards Embiid. If Embiid waited a couple of seconds, he could have found James Ennis open in the corner by floating the ball over the collapsed defense. Instead, Embiid opts to fire up a well-contested jumper before Ibaka arrives:
However, it's still important to note the signs of progress from Embiid. He made a fair share of plays where he did show growing recognition of how to read the floor, hit open shooters, show more composure against double teams, and keep the ball moving more than he did against Boston a year ago.
Plays like those in the clip below — starting with what has to be the best pass of his career to help secure a Game 2 win against Toronto, as he somehow perfectly swept the ball over a smothering double team from Siakam and Gasol into the arms of Jimmy Butler — are good examples of that:
On occasion, Embiid has shown that he can beat double teams with his dribble to make a play if he acts quickly enough. Here, he clearly has a plan and doesn’t let the Gasol-Siakam double lock him into the post. Embiid dribbles straight up the lane, clears out the Raptors’ rim protection as Gasol and Siakam follow, and promptly finds Simmons on a great cut to the rim:
Continuing to tighten his ball handling in traffic, up his awareness and processing speed, and willingness as a passer will do wonders for Embiid in 2019-20.
Embiid has never been a very skilled or explosive rim roller. It’s not who he is. The Sixers ranking at the bottom of the league in pick-and-roll frequency over the last couple of seasons hasn’t helped him develop this area of his game either. Provided the Sixers re-sign their star free agents, though (especially Jimmy Butler), they’ll have the personnel to continue some of the increased pick-and-roll play they used in the playoffs. This was particularly the case against Toronto, as Butler took over far more lead ball-handling responsibilities while Kawhi Leonard guarded Ben Simmons.
For a start, when Embiid is in these situations, he needs to make sure he’s diving hard to the rim. He can get the best of slower centers to go ahead and finish if they hedge on the ball handler and can't recover to the rim, as we saw against Marc Gasol.
Indecisive possessions like this are examples of how he could benefit from changing his mindset at times. Rather than committing to diving after the dribble hand-off, or at least posting up Danny Green before Gasol had a chance to recover from Redick, Embiid stopped at the foul line and had nowhere to go:
Embiid will need to embrace rolling at times even though it’s not his forte, and cut out a few (often ineffective) pick-and-pops in the process. Furthermore, he’ll need to develop the kind of play he simply hasn’t needed to make too often before: passes out of short rolls.
Pick-and-roll play doesn’t need to be an integral part of Embiid’s game. It’s hard for that to be the case in lineups also including Simmons. But Embiid is capable of a little more, and it opens up another way for Butler and Harris to create (Harris in particular needs more of these possessions if he stays).
Embiid has now shot 30.4 percent from deep over the last two seasons, including a round 30 percent in 2018-19. While his free throw shooting went up a level in terms of accuracy (80.4 percent) and volume, his mid-range shooting was the worst of his career by a significant margin (36.1 percent, down from at least 41.3 percent in each of his first two years) and his limits as a shooter were clear. More than ever, this is where Embiid needs to grow and space the floor for the added stars around him.
We saw how opponents can defend the Sixers by sagging way off Embiid in some big matchups late in the regular season against teams like Milwaukee, and that continued for stretches in the postseason.
This possession is a prime example. With no concern for Embiid at the arc, Gasol fully drops back into the paint and doubles Butler in the post so he can’t attack Kyle Lowry. Once the double comes, Butler is forced to pass back out for a missed Embiid triple:
Harris runs into similar trouble here after initiating from the perimeter. He can’t find any space with Allen dropping off Embiid, forcing Harris to reset with a pass back outside:
It’s harder for opposing teams to utilize drop coverage and thwart Harris, Butler and others on drives and post-ups if Embiid can pose more of a pick-and-pop threat.
Embiid is happy to pull the trigger from distance. His mark of 4.1 attempts per game is part of the reason that opponents don’t always ignore him and fly at his slow pump fakes when he's only a 30 percent 3-point shooter and would much rather look to drive. If Embiid can maintain his solid volume and up his percentage to around 36 or 37 percent, the increased respect he'll command as a catch-and-shoot threat will make everyone’s lives a little easier.
It’s hard to be complacent about Embiid’s 2018-19 campaign for all the reasons mentioned at the start of this article. He was phenomenal. He’s gotten better every season and I’d be surprised if that trend doesn’t continue in 2019-20. And as much as poor health hampered Embiid and the Sixers’ playoff success, we still got to see ways he can build on his career year from a technical standpoint.
If these developments can be supported by Embiid boosting his conditioning and better load management early next season (preferably not ranking second in total minutes at the end of November again), then he can take another step towards reaching his remarkable potential.