Joel Embiid has largely established himself as one of the top defensive players in the NBA over the 223 career games he’s appeared in. A member of the ALL-NBA Defensive Second Team in back to back seasons, Embiid’s an imposing force in the paint, and just good enough out on the perimeter to dissuade teams from devoting game plans to catch him there (the way we’ve seen some teams limit Rudy Gobert in the past). Embiid now has a mastery of the entire court he can see from his usual vantage point in the paint. He doesn’t block as many shots as he used to, but he’s earned the respect from every superstar in the game for his predatory-like rim patrol. If you see him under the rim, you’d probably be wise to take the 12 foot pull-up or just pass.
Generally speaking, it’s better to look for someone else to score against when you play the Sixers. But even if you go after one of his teammates, he can often diagnose a play before it happens, tell you where to go, and then get to the open man in case you can’t. Watch him sniff this play before it happens, spot the hole in the coverage, then blow it up like a 7’, 280 Troy Polamalu:
Joel Embiid is so freaking smart and awesome defensively. He alerts Alec Burks about the Hammer action, but Burks still gets hit by the screen, so Embiid just closes out and blocks the open 3-pointer himself. pic.twitter.com/GJuQoLVltb— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) August 2, 2020
Indiana waited until The Process took a break to make their big 14-3 run when they seized control of the ball game. Our Sean Kennedy wrote in that piece:
“Zooming out at everything during the Pacers’ run, there isn’t one thing you can point to as the culprit. There were a couple shaky calls that went against the Sixers, they made a few mistakes themselves, and the Pacers made some good basketball plays. Maybe the point is just that this is how things would always go for the Sixers, except when Joel Embiid is in the game, he makes up for everything.”
From block boy to the big time
We have seen a bit of an evolution from Joel defensively. When he came into the league as a rookie he was a shot-blocking machine, averaging a staggering 3.5 blocks per 36 minutes in 2016-2017. Interestingly, his blocks per 36 minutes average has dropped each year of his career (1.6 this season). While it’s fair to point to a drop off from Embiid on both ends of the court this past season (where he may have been both saving his body for the playoffs and also feeling a bit down following some wholly disheartening roster decisions by the team last summer), he reminded us against Indiana his true value when healthy and our biggest reason for optimism after the tough loss.
Zach Lowe on his podcast Monday:— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) July 22, 2020
‘If he ever decides to get healthy & in shape & engaged for an entire season Joel Embiid could be the best player in the NBA. I don’t think that will ever happen….
My basic reason for optimism with Phi is that [Joel] can be that good.”
But was there a turning point for Joel, when he decided to block a few less shots?
Levin: “You are obviously one of the best rim protectors in the league to the point that you know people don’t really even try to go to the rim when you’re there anymore. But at the same time, you look at your rookie year highlights and you’re maybe not you don’t flash that bounciness..that you did back then as much....”
Embiid: “I think I’m just picking and choosing my spots, you know when I got to the league I was blocking way more shots than I am now....being a good defender is not about being a shot blocker or leading the league in blocked shots....
“First of all people don’t go up to me anymore. They don’t drive to the paint when I’m in there so its already harder to block shots and when they do you know it’s just about coach always calls that a cat-and-mouse game. Like you gotta pick and choose your moments.”
You can listen to the full quote below while you watch some of this cat-and-mouse game Embiid is talking about. Don’t get me wrong. Embiid’s blocks are still amazing. There are few things like when he takes an opponent’s sure-fire layup and sends the ball careening off the glass into the hands of Ben Simmons who then leads a break the other way. Those can be game-turning sequences, often worth a 4 or even 5 point swing and ignites the home crowd. But let’s be nerdy purists here and appreciate the value of this cat-and-mouse game, where opponent’s simply catch a glimpse of him on patrol in the paint and abort mission altogether:
Some historical precedent for blocking less contesting more
This from the book “Scorecasting” by Jon Wertheim and Toby Moskowitz:
“As one glaring example, in 2008-2009, Orlando’s abundantly talented, abundantly muscled center, Dwight Howard, blocked 232 shots, which factored heavily in his winning the NBA’s defensive MVP award. Yet his accumulation of blocked shots was actually worth less, Huizinga and Weil calculated, than the 149 shots blocked by San Antonio’s Tim Duncan. How? It turned out that Howard often blocked shots into the stands, whereas Duncan often tipped the ball to a teammate. More important, Howard also committed goaltending violations more often than Duncan did. (In fact, Duncan, despite being a prolific shot blocker, hasn’t goaltended in over three seasons.) Howard may have blocked 83 more shots than Duncan did but they amounted to a value of only 0.53 points per block for the Magic. Duncan’s average block was worth 1.12 points for the Spurs.”
A look at a Rushmore caliber G.O.A.T in Tim Duncan, who could softly reject a superstar’s shot into a teammate or his own hands:
You and your cool buddy
Your buddy (cooler than you in high school but who gets most of his sports takes from First Take and Kendrick Perkins): “Embiid blocks less shots these days, do you think he wants it enough?”
You (a late bloomer, never ‘cool’ per se but who really found some inner confidence and sort of hit your stride around 19 or 20): “meh, truth is flailing for blocks looking for highlights correlates with goal tends, personal fouls, side line out of bounds, open 3s, plus you risk landing on a dudes feet. Gimme the contest and rebound all day. He still gets swats when he needs to.”
Your buddy (not fully processing everything you said but wanting to bond with you nonetheless): Did you see his spike-style block the other night? I heard he played volleyball back in Cameroon.
Joel Embiid put this ball into the crust of the earth pic.twitter.com/1LMHm0nUXK— Kevin Rice #BLM (@TheKevinRice) August 1, 2020
You: (for some reason never in the mood for your buddy on a Monday): “Actually, and I know this is being hard on him but he’s just that good, I kinda wished he’d just lightly bopped it to Furkan to start the break instead of giving it back to Indy.”