The main narrative spawned from the Sixers’ Game One loss to the Celtics was the lack of ball touches for Joel Embiid in the second half. It seemed as though he could score whenever he wanted to in the post, yet either through the failure of the coaching gameplay, his teammates’ passing, or his own lackadaisical effort, the franchise center was too often turned into a tertiary tool rather than the focal point of the offense, as our own Jackson Frank examined earlier this week.
In the midst of all this hullabaloo, The Athletic’s Danny Leroux posed an imperative on Twitter that piqued my curiosity.
Research project for someone: Boston’s PPP right after halfcourt possessions where Embiid never touches the ball— Danny Leroux (@DannyLeroux) August 17, 2020
It’s quite interesting when you think about it. How does one team’s failure to involve their superstar in the offense conversely set up the opponent’s scoring opportunities. Naturally, I went back and rewatched Game One, tracking all of Boston’s possessions following a Sixers possession that failed to see the 7-foot-2 Cameroonian touch the basketball. Before we dive into the numbers/film, some rules I used:
- If Joel Embiid was not passed the ball but managed to grab the offensive rebound and either score or draw a foul, I counted that as a possession in which he did touch the ball.
- Delineating between half-court and transition offense can be tricky at times. Out of the 27 no-Embiid ball touch possessions I tallied, I remember two that could perhaps be qualified as transition attempts, but ultimately decided that they were more the production of half-court offense.
- I also tracked how many points the Sixers scored on the no-Embiid possessions as a way to create some sort of Net Rating for this situation.
- Possessions where Embiid was on the bench obviously weren’t included, as there has to at least be a possibility of a touch for the team to be affected by Embiid not touching the ball.
- One possession, the Celtics intentionally fouled Alec Burks in order to stop the game for the injured Gordon Hayward, so I didn’t count that possession. I also ignored the final possession, where following a non-Embiid touch trip down the floor, the Celtics were simply draining clock, not looking to score.
- I didn’t include offensive rebounds as new possessions, as I still counted it as one “possession” or chance in the opponent’s half court to score. That might be different from how Synergy tracks it, but this is my weird, niche research project, and I make the made-up rules. Deal with it.
Okay, let’s go.
In the 27 possessions I tracked, the Celtics scored an outrageous 34 points, or 1.370 points per possessions. For perspective, the Dallas Mavericks posted the most efficient offense in NBA history by scoring 116.7 points per 100 possessions, i.e. 1.167 points per possession, meaning the Celtics on those possessions were roughly 20 points better per 100 than the 2019-20 Mavs.
Now, to be fair, in the 27 possessions that preceded the Celtics’ opportunities, I determined that the Sixers scored 33 points, averaging out to a rate of 1.222 PPP. Just looking at that, one might think that this wasn’t all too bad for the Sixers, as the trade-off on Embiid-less possessions was only a minus-4 for the game. But those four points mattered. The Sixers lost Game One by a score of 109-101, and were trailing Boston by a mere four points with under three minutes remaining. Don’t give up as many scores off of those possessions, and we’re possibly looking at a different outcome, a manageable 2-1 series deficit rather than a 3-0 mark from which no team has ever come back.
In particular, the Sixers were burned on these possessions by (surprise, surprise) Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who logged 1.713 and 1.750 PPP respectively.
(Note: For Boston’s player-specific numbers, I counted each shot a player took as his own possession, while drawing free throws counted as a possession too. That’s why those possession numbers in the table add up to 28, and not 27, due to two offensive rebounds that gave the Celtics second shot attempts, and it’s not 29 because one possession ended in a Matisse Thybulle steal. I know that’s messy given it’s contradictory to what I used for my calculations above, but I view team and individual statistics in different lights.)
It was important that the Sixers scored on possessions when Embiid wasn’t involved, as six out of the 13 possessions in which the Sixers failed to score resulted in transition opportunities the other way for Boston. Their efficiency on those transition chances? An absolutely ludicrous 2.33 PPP, the equivalent to setting the world on fire while doing backflips. A sharp increase from half court to transition should be expected, as transition offense is inherently more efficient, but 2.33 is still outlier good.
It’s hard to understand why the Sixers’ defense turned to mud whenever the team couldn’t get the man they call “The Process” the ball. My working theory is that on at least some of the possessions, Embiid became disengaged and disinterested in playing defense whenever he felt like his teammates failed to do their job. Think back to that now infamous Josh Richardson post entry that was thrown to the complete wrong side. Embiid threw his hands up in the air in disgust and lazily jogged back on defense. Embiid’s frustration as a big man that can’t really bring the ball up has been well-documented, and given that he’s often the only thing that keeps the Philadelphia defense from burning to ashes, he probably feels less obliged to bail them out on those possessions.
To be fair, getting Embiid the ball isn’t a guarantee for offensive success against the Celtics. Even as JoJo has poured in 30 points per game on 60.8 percent true shooting in the series thus far, Jared Dubin of FiveThirtyEight recently examined whether Embiid actually is effective in the post against the C’s, and found less than desirable results. Some numbers Dubin dug up from Second Spectrum.
- In that past three seasons, Embiid had a FG% of just 44.1 in his previous 17 regular season and playoff games against Boston, down from his usual 47.8 percent.
- The Sixers have only averaged 1.089 PPP against Boston on possessions with an Embiid post-up, the fourth-worst figure they’ve ever recorded against the 21 opponents Embiid has posted at least 50 times.
- Embiid’s average post catch against all non-Boston teams is 13.8 feet away from the rim. Against Boston, it rises all the way to 14.5 feet, and even farther to 14.9 feet from the hoop in Boston playoff games.
- Boston has only fouled Embiid on 14.4 percent of his post-ups, a precipitous fall from the usual 18.5 percent he draws. Though, a better way to phrase this might be that Boston is only “whistled” for fouls on 14.4 percent, if you know what I mean.
- Embiid passes out of the post 28.9 percent of the time against Boston, a 3.2 percent increase from his usual pass rate.
Overall, the biggest takeaway isn’t that Embiid-less offense was the indisputable cause of the Sixers’ faulty defense, but that the Sixers probably need to play better defense on the whole. The team already needs to shoot above their heads to have a chance of coming back in this series, and hemorrhaging points on the defensive end to the C’s really hurts their chances. It’s not a foolproof formula, but if I’m the Sixers, I’m getting Embiid touches on every possession if possible, and hoping that leads to some lockdown D from the big man.
Daniel is a rising sophomore in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, a Staff Writer for Liberty Ballers and an Associate Editor for the Northwestern SB Nation Blog — Inside NU. He also runs his own personal blog called backtothebasket.org, and is very active on Twitter. You can follow him @dan_olinger.