For the second consecutive postseason, Philadelphia 76ers’ head coach Brett Brown has ratcheted up his team’s pick-and-roll frequency. Last year, with Jimmy Butler in tow, Brown shifted Ben Simmons off the ball and let the star acquisition operate how he pleased. This year, Butler is gone and Simmons is sidelined, so those sequences have been portioned primarily toward Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson and Alec Burks instead. Over the past two seasons, Philadelphia has upped its ball-screen volume from 15 percent to 18.7 percent (2018-19) and 18.3 percent to 25.2 percent (2019-20) during the playoffs. The ripple effect of this transition is Joel Embiid assuming greater duties as a roll man — evidently clear during the late stages of Game 1.
The drawback of this alteration occurring again is two-fold. Harris, Richardson and Burks do not compare to Butler as a decision-maker or advantage creator, while Embiid has never served as a particularly novel roll man on limited usage throughout his career. With the Boston Celtics allocating more minutes to Enes Kanter in Game 2, a trend likely to continue moving forward because of his post-up defense versus Embiid, the Sixers sought to exploit him in pick-and-rolls.
A prudent tactic, undoubtedly, but the execution seemed insufficient more often than not. Whether it be trying to weave into a congested lane because of cramped floor-spacing, impatient choices from the ball-handler or Embiid’s inconsistent screening, Philadelphia didn’t do enough to boot Kanter off the court. He remained on the floor, stymieing some of Embiid’s face-up package, flummoxing him on the offensive glass a few times and reducing the star center’s opportunities against Daniel Theis, who has struggled to contain him in two games.
Wednesday’s Game 2 did not provide many encouraging takeaways, but chief among the select few was Embiid’s improved screening, particularly as the Sixers’ pick-and-roll total mounted throughout the night. That elicited more switches from the Celtics, leaving undersized defenders on Embiid or Kanter playing the ball-handler. Generally, Philadelphia failed to strike in those moments, though, with perimeter creators opting for tough pull-ups and not reaping the benefits of a well-organized pick-and-roll — though, again, the floor-spacing combated much of this as well.
On multiple occasions, an Embiid screen that achieved adequate contact, which is all he really has to do because he’s a humongous human, prompted switches and landed Kanter onto a guard/wing. The proper exploitation of that development would be to retreat, lure Kanter outside of the paint and either manipulate his problematic lateral mobility or target the mismatch Embiid has going. Instead, these plays resulted in low-efficiency shots that didn’t pan out.
(I know the third clip is a dribble hand-off, but the theme of poor decision-making from a ball-handler and ignoring Embiid’s mismatch remains pertinent.)
When genuine switches were sparked and the Sixers prioritized Embiid, or he navigated his screen-setting duties perceptively (slipping, making contact, etc.) and the pick-and-roll partner was composed, sound processes led to profitable results.
Nothing particularly remarkable happens in the latter two clips involving Kanter. But that’s entirely the tenet of running pick-and-rolls to target him. Kanter is a crippling ball-screen defender. He’s slow to rotate, heavy off the ground as a rim protector and reluctant to venture away from the hoop at almost any cost. Execution doesn’t have to be sterling each time. Given the personnel at the Sixers’ disposal, that won’t be the case.
If Embiid grows increasingly fluent as a screener and slips when possible, such as the second play — side note, the timing as to when he spins off of his own screen is encouraging and convey improving instincts — Kanter’s post-up services (his best defensive trait, by a wide margin) will be less valuable and his flaws become more salient. When he’s on the floor, Philadelphia still has the option of feeding Embiid interior touches contingent on his capacity for inducing switches with technically sound screens and ball-handlers focusing their efforts to send the ball inside.
Despite not actually being much of a rotation-caliber player, the Sixers have enabled Kanter to serve as one because of poorly operated pick-and-rolls. These possessions are derailed by Embiid’s inconsistent screening and comprehension of how to move into open space, as well as complementary ball-handlers masquerading as lead creators.
To Embiid’s credit, he appeared significantly more comfortable functioning in pick-and-rolls during Game 2 compared to Game 1. It has long been a shortcoming in his offensive toolkit, but the influx of reps, something he has never experienced much of yet, could help augment this part of his game. And, in defense of Harris, Richardson and Burks, they’re being tasked with responsibilities above their talents. Much of the criticism directed at these four players is far more of an indictment on the front office that has failed to land a long-term lead initiator during their four-plus years at the helm, despite an infatuation with star-hunting and chasing flashy names.
The implications from Brown’s reorienting of the offense could turn Embiid into a viable roller. Premier superstars are adaptable. Embiid is a superstar and his defense has proven scalable to playoff settings. But the offense faltered during his first two playoff cameos, and that dampens some of his allure as an offensive hub. He’s a post-up big with questionable decision-making and processing against double-teams who hasn’t shown to be a credible floor-spacer. Whenever, if ever, the Sixers acquire someone capable of regularly directing pick-and-rolls — or Embiid plays alongside one elsewhere — he will need to be better as a screener and roller than he currently is.
These playoffs, in which it seems he’s going to run a hefty amount of pick-and-rolls, present a launching pad. Last year’s loss to Toronto looked the part of a launching pad, but that never materialized for him this regular season, due to an array of details, some within his control, others independent of it. Carrying such a heavy workload against the Celtics might foster greater perspective. Posting up is laborious, physical and draining. Pick-and-rolls, while demanding, are a simpler route to scoring value for bigs. Philadelphia has to run the majority of its offense through him. Nobody else triggers advantages to play off of like he does, especially with Simmons out. But Embiid cannot wrestle for deep seals and position every time. It’s unsustainable. He cannot be Joel Embiid if he has to do that and the Sixers need Joel Embiid, not a run-ragged version of Joel Embiid.
In Game 1, his offensive contributions dwindled after a blistering start because of his deficiencies as a roller once. Fatigue set in and he didn’t create prime post opportunities as often, so the Sixers turned to pick-and-rolls, which were less fruitful. Following another dominant opening stint in Game 2, he etched greater success as a scorer later in the contest than he did Monday, functioning more effectively in pick-and-rolls.
The Sixers, almost certainly, will not come back to steal this series. They’re undermanned and less talented, lack the resources to contain Boston’s wealthy offensive cohort and the adjustments Brad Stevens made between the first two games lapped Brown’s. Even so, the pick-and-rolls will likely keep coming from Philadelphia. If Brown is steadfast with this philosophy, Embiid has to maintain his on-the-fly note-taking and his table-setters have to better juggle shooting and passing responsibilities. Rather than conceptualizing pick-and-rolls through a traditional lens, the Sixers should consider them a means of drawing switches, a tactic Simmons is known to apply and one Embiid can emulate if he slips screens slyly like his teammate.
Lessons are taught in the playoffs. Embiid is rampaging through the Celtics in a manner he has never accomplished during his brief postseason career. All the while, the depth of his offensive utility is being stretched, perhaps springing toward an offseason devoted to refining his pick-and-roll limitations, engendering a superstar newly equipped to succeed as a complementary scorer when needed.