Draped in a cream Under Armour sweatshirt with “The Process” printed in one corner, Joel Embiid slowed his words. A subtle grin crept across his face. He paused — ever so slightly, combing through his vernacular for the proper phrasing. Then, he continued, authoring an eloquent tagline to explain his passing upswing that’s allowing the offense to hum in recent games.
“I’ve rekindled with the love of passing,” said Embiid, who’s guided the Philadelphia 76ers to four consecutive wins and the NBA’s best record at 6-1.
To identify this growth necessitates watching the 2020-21 version of Embiid, who is averaging a career-best 3.7 turnovers per 100 possessions. His assist-to-turnover ratio is only the third-highest of his career and his assists per 100 possessions have only been lower his rookie season. He is not picking up an array of secondary or potential assists, either. The traditional barometers associated with playmaking development do not summarize the degree to which Embiid is catalyzing offense so effectively from the post.
A retooled roster and coaching staff have facilitated his improvement. Josh Richardson and Al Horford, a pair of middling floor-spacers who shrunk the court alongside Embiid, were swapped for Seth Curry and Danny Green, two of the league’s better off-ball shooters, particularly the former. Brett Brown and his offensive approach departed in favor of Doc Rivers and offensive coordinator Dave Joerger. Since Rivers’ arrival, the emphasis offensively has been centered on how to simplify Embiid’s responsibilities and maximize his scoring gravity.
“He’s a great player. All great players are gonna get trapped, whether they’re bigs or guards, and I’ve always thought it’s my job to make sure, when they get trapped, we’re in the right spot,” Rivers said. “We have this attitude: If you trap us, we will score. That’s gotta be our attitude and you can feel our guys believing that.”
During Brown’s tenure as head coach, the offense struggled to provide Embiid with a balance of static and motion-based passing reads. Rivers’ intention is to require both from his All-Star center, but designate certain players as cutters and shooters. Cutters move. Shooters, typically, are stationary, Rivers said. The philosophy is that if Embiid knows who may bolt to the rim and who will remain spotting up, discerning when and how to pass out of double-teams becomes easier.
“It’s all about post spacing. You gotta be in the right spot. When the defense moves, you move to a different spot. What we try to teach and what I try to teach post players is where they’re gonna be, so now the passing is easier,” Rivers said. “When you’re guessing and guys are moving around, it’s difficult. There’s different hands in there. But when you know where everyone’s gonna be, it makes it pretty simple.”
Embiid does not necessarily view his refined post passing as a product of increased floor-spacing or the spots he catches the ball on the court. It’s simply about the successive events after he chooses to relinquish control that are igniting trust in his teammates. The results, whether they’re occurring in practice or games, are instilling newfound confidence in his decision to embrace snappy passing.
That credence seemingly blossomed in games against the Toronto Raptors and Orlando Magic last week. Both teams were prompt and aggressive in sending double-teams from the strong-side. Whereas in prior years Embiid may have methodically surveyed the floor and retreated into the corner, placing himself in a precarious spot that complicates any sort of pass, he executed the simple read to spur ball reversals and open shots.
While Embiid triggers each play, everything is accentuated by off-ball instincts. Curry and Tobias Harris relocate to broaden passing windows. Ben Simmons sets a flare screen for Shake Milton to blockade oncoming defenders. Curry slips to the corner, elongating the distance of Markelle Fultz’s closeout. Harris catches on the move to scoot past his defender. Habits like those, minute details to alter a play’s success rate, represent change for Embiid.
“Last year, at times, doubled, you pass and you miss a couple, a lot of shots, and it gets frustrating. And then, you start thinking, ‘Oh, you gotta do everything by yourself,’ because everybody’s not making shots. This year, I just think I’ve been letting the game come to me,” Embiid said following Monday’s win. “It’s just the shooters, and I just gotta be a willing passer. Games like the last few games or the whole season, every game that I play, they keep doubling, triple-teaming me, trying to take me out of the game and I just gotta keep making the right passes. I might not get a lot of assists, but the whole goal of it is to get someone else open. Invite the double or the triple-team and just get a lot of hockey assists.”
Those hockey assists are critical to understanding Embiid’s maturation as a passer. Rivers said it’s a statistic the team tracks internally and estimated Embiid ranks second behind Simmons this season. If Philadelphia tracked them last year and they were publicly available, it’d be a vibrant indicator of his improvement.
Flanked by heightened shooting and more suitable ancillary personnel to play off of his gravity and creation, Embiid’s usage rate (27.4 percent) and points per 100 possessions (34.1) reside at career lows. Developing into a vastly more willing and impactful passer, he’s twisting opponents into a bind. He’s scoring a career-high 1.111 points per post-up, producing a career-high true shooting of 63.3 percent (6.8 points above league average, also a career-high) and career-high free-throw rate of .628, and yielding a career-best turnover rate of 12 percent.
“If you wanna double, I dare you ’cause we’re gonna knock down those shots,” Embiid said. “If you let me play one on one, it’s either a bucket or a foul.”
“You want them to go help, ‘Go help, I dare you. This is Seth Curry. This is Furkan (Korkmaz). This is Shake. This is Tobias. Be my guest,’ “ Rivers said. “What we’re trying to convince our guys of is it doesn’t matter who scores when you go through the post. It matters that we score, and we have to have that mentality. If you don’t trap Joel, Joel’s going to score on you. We’ve talked about that every day so far. If you do trap Joel, we’re gonna score on you. Every night, you pick it, but we’re scoring either way. That’s gotta be our mindset.”
One of the shooting additions acquired to complement Embiid is Danny Green, a three-time NBA champion who’s accustomed to functioning next to post-up creators like the Sixers superstar. He played with Tim Duncan and LaMarcus Aldridge in San Antonio, LeBron James and Anthony Davis in Los Angeles, and Kawhi Leonard in Toronto (and San Antonio). Such an accomplished history in those settings, winning titles with each franchise and low-block scorer, bestows him wisdom to alleviate pressure for Embiid and spread his teachings to teammates.
Green tells them how and when to cut or move off the ball. He encourages them to stay patient, spaced and ready. Let the offensive focal points dictate action. The ball will find you. Those experiences also forge an open dialogue with Embiid.
“Ask him where he’s comfortable with, what he feels in that area, what does he want me to do,” Green said. “I’ll also tell him, I’m gonna be here for you. I’ll be there. I’m usually gonna move this way or I’ll move that way, so it’ll be an easier pass for you. But it’s just a communication factor of feeling each other out and what’s comfortable for both of us to be successful.”
Only converting 30.3 percent beyond the arc this season, Green is yet to directly deliver on his shooting reputation. But the principles he’s imparting on teammates are evident and he’s shooting 77.8 percent on 2-pointers, seizing opportunities when run off the line. He positions himself well for kick-outs, shrewdly relocates when applicable and is a precise ball mover. His early session decision-making illuminates his understanding of how to thrive while playing in a post-oriented offense, and many of Embiid’s hockey assists run through Green.
A lot of talk about Joel Embiid's hockey assists, so here are the 12 baskets I'd classify as hockey assists that stem from his scoring gravity this season. pic.twitter.com/hJCrIVkPq6— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) January 5, 2021
The 3-point shooting and interior clip will likely regress to the mean in opposite directions, ensuring Green maintains his offensive contributions, while continuing to shape his contemporaries’ perceptions of their off-ball duties.
Teams are not solely sending double- or triple-teams from the strong-side against Embiid. The Charlotte Hornets and New York Knicks brought help from the weak-side corner or pre-rotated to cut off the strong-side kick-out. That sort of strategy complicates how Embiid capitalizes because he cannot just send it back to whoever fed him an entry pass, which is usually Green, Curry or Harris, three proficient shooters. The defensive alignment invites a skip pass to the corner or wing. Rivers wants Embiid to be prepared for all of these coverages. He said they’re working every day with him to emerge capable of exploiting any gambit.
Embiid’s previous affinity for complex post passing — to a fault, he’s long loved that cross-court skip to the corner shooter — aids him now that teams are reorienting themselves to eliminate the easy stuff. He’s nailing the initial read, and his talent allows him to benefit off of it.
“Now, he’s looking off and throwing that skip pass, which leads to the corner 3,” Rivers said. “I just love that he knows now, ‘If I can throw it to the first guy, something good’s gonna happen. If they take that away, something better is gonna happen on the other side.’
“We’ve got to keep making sure that Joel knows where the answers are. I think that’s very important on our end and when we do that, I think it makes him a more confident passer.”
The team-wide initiative to enhance Embiid’s offense with shooting and a scheme built upon that is logically profitable — and it’s playing out that way to open the year. But the Sixers employ one of the NBA’s least threatening shooters among non-centers in Simmons, who Embiid has shared the court with for 167 of his 192 minutes this season. Shaping an attack where those two occupy the floor together for long and vital stretches is more challenging.
“When Ben doesn’t have the ball, we have to make someone guard him every single time,” Rivers said.
Simmons is timing his cuts better over the last few games. He’s also not frequenting the dunker’s spot at the rate he did with Brown in charge, providing Embiid more real estate on the interior. The advantages of versatile off-ball deployment are manifesting. As a cutter, he’s occupying multiple defenders if he crashes inside at the correct moment. As an off-ball screener, he’s springing shooters open.
“Even if I cut, and I’m not the one open, the weak-side may be open,” Simmons said. “Everything we’re doing on the floor has a purpose.”
That purpose is augmented by Embiid’s playmaking development, which significantly broadens his partner’s off-ball utility. If Embiid is not sparking these pass-happy sequences, Simmons’ contributions to occupy defenders precipitously decline in value. Without a chance for the ball to find a shooter, the cutting and screening mean little. They’d just occur for the sake of it.
Rivers affords Simmons the freedom to let instinct be his compass. His flashes over the past three games convey a sense of shifting gears, with the fourth-year All-Star adapting to a new system, Embiid’s “rekindled” passing comfort and the role he’s asked to assume.
“Just making the right reads, depending on where the help comes from or the double comes from, I need to either get myself or my teammates open,” Simmons said. “Joel’s making the right reads and he’s playing with a little urgency once he sees that double, so guys are able to get their shots off, off that weak-side.
“That’s a good thing about Doc, is he allows me to make the right reads. He’s gonna tell me if he thinks there’s a certain spot I should get to. If I don’t do something, whether it’s a cut or a slash, or just spacing-wise.”
Embiid approaches the trajectory of this distinct star dynamic with cautious optimism. He said he tells Simmons he’s doing a great job playing off of him in the post, but also that he must sustain this progress. That sentiment — good, with ample space for more — was a repeated theme as he discussed the manner in which Simmons can amplify him off the ball. Simmons is unlike the other three starters or the bench players who surround Embiid. He will not be netting 3s after a string of passes. His avenues for impact present hurdles and opportunities.
“He’s cutting, taking two men with him. And then, it just makes it also easier for all the shooters to get wide open and knock down shots. We gotta keep on working it and working on it. We gotta keep on trying to get better and we’ve been getting better,” Embiid said. “A couple times, when he’s in the dunker’s (spot) and he ducks in, he needs to either duck in or, I don’t know, post up on the other side if they end up not recovering. Or, also, setting a flare screen for the man going to the corner, which we’ve done a couple times this season and it’s been working. That’s where I think he’s gotta get better but he’s been doing a fantastic job just playing off of it.”
The focus, through Embiid’s lens, must not be and is not on how Simmons can assist him. It is about how Simmons’ off-ball activity and decision-making influences the entire unit on the floor. The attention Embiid commands in the post and how he proceeds from that may be a possession’s firestarter, but there is a collective group into which Simmons is blending.
Philadelphia’s first few games brought about a handful of clunky offensive plays involving these two. The last few games, while headlined by congruity, have still featured spells of incongruity. Those instances are bound to occur when two All-Stars maximized on the interior lead a team in a space-driven league.
A six-game slate against the Knicks, Hornets, Magic, Raptors and Washington Wizards does not gauge how this pairing translates to high-leverage situations or how well the Sixers can manufacture offense with Embiid as the centerpiece in those settings.
Embiid will face more varying coverages. Stingier tests await. How he adjusts is paramount, especially against opponents who may be capable of containing him in single coverage. Reduced early season turnover totals from him are a three-year tradition now. Carrying this over an entire season and into the playoffs is the axis on which Philadelphia’s success rests.
“I’ve kinda figured out passing out of the post and why I’ve been doing such a good job this season is, just get rid of it,” Embiid said. “Then, hoping that the next guy, if he doesn’t have the shot, keeps moving the ball because, at the end of the day, there’s going to be a two-on-one, either in the corner (or) in the slot.”
If Embiid continues swiftly organizing those two-on-one scenarios and the Sixers continue to punish them, that subtle grin of his won’t fade away any time soon.