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Scaling the summit: to complete his quest, Joel Embiid must tackle these 4 final hurdles

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2021 NBA Playoffs - Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

While the Sixers’ front office and coaching staff are likely immersed in prospect evaluation and potential trade scenarios ahead of the 2021 NBA Draft next Thursday, their franchise player Joel Embiid may already be back in the gym working on his game. Having recently witnessed the remainder of the NBA playoffs, there should have been some frustrations (we should have had the opportunity to host the eventual champs at the crib) and some hope (look, if their MVP candidate can do all that, maybe we just need to add that Jrue Holiday and P.J. Tucker) that came from the NBA Finals. The Bucks, led by their superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo in many ways provided a template for franchises like the Sixers: if you have a top 5 talent, and some patience, and the right leadership, you’re going to find yourself in the thick of it just about every year.

And things might just break right one of these years.

Per Basketball-Reference.com:

Joel Embiid had his best career season this year. At age 26 he reached a level he’d never before reached. With career highs of 28.5 points, steals (1.0), free throw percentage (85.9), free throw attempts (10.7, which led the NBA on a per-game basis) field goal percentage (.513), three-point percentage (37.7) and basically every advanced stat from TS% (.636) to Win Share to VORP to BPM. Before a pair of knee injuries limited him a bit, he had been playing like the best player in the world.

So what can Embiid possibly improve upon after playing like a league MVP on a per-game basis this season?

If he merely had the exact same type of season again it would be a huge benefit for this franchise, so let’s acknowledge that this is all a bit nit-picky. Anytime you talk about a tier 1 player improving, you’re delving into very picky waters. Think: how can Luka improve his post defense? But the competition is fierce and even if the Sixers are better this coming season, they won’t have as clear of a path to the finals as they enjoyed this past season. The competition will likely only get stiffer. So if the Sixers are to win a title in the coming years, it’s probably because Embiid maintained his level of play, while also making a few enhancements.

Let’s look at the four areas he might improve upon in order to reach his full potential and help the Sixers scale that elusive summit.

4) Enhance that pick-n-roll, pick-n-pop game

Chicago Bulls v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

It seems very likely to me that the Sixers will look to upgrade their ball-handling situation in some way for the coming season. As gangbusters as their starting 5 was when active last season, playoff basketball (and specifically elite playoff basketball) is different from the regular season grind. There were certainly games this post-season where the Bucks, for example, lived and died by Khris Middleton’s ability to score in the half-court; especially when the Nets or Hawks did a good job slowing down Giannis’ rim assaults.

Now Ben Simmons is a player who may just find his name in trade rumors anywhere from Draft day this coming Thursday, through the end of his current contract. Who knows?

The Sixers are one of the “most aggressive suitors” for Dame Lillard’s services.

And just today, there was a rumor that Wizards’ star Bradley Beal might request a trade, and if he did he might include the Sixers on his “shortlist.”

Undoubtedly, if Daryl Morey pulled off a blockbuster like that, for a star guard who lives in the pick-n-roll game (like Lillard, and to a lesser degree beal) Embiid would need to adapt his halfcourt game a bit.

Embiid has never been the greatest “roll man.” Our sample here isn’t exactly robust. He’s never played with a traditional pick-n-roll guard. The closest he came was with Jimmy Butler in 2018-2019, and even then he finished in the 42nd percentile with a 51.7 % EFG percent on rolls. He was far from healthy during that series, and Butler isn’t close to the shooter (who’d command defenses trying to get over screens) Lillard is, but it’s never exactly been a strength of Embiid’s game. If he were to suddenly play with a Dame Lillard or a Bradley Beal, one would think Embiid might want to spend a decent chunk of his summer fine-tuning his roll (pun intended) in those situations.

If Ben Simmons is not generating trade offers that the Sixers feel improve the team’s title chances, they also need to prepare for the scenario where he is still on this team by the season’s jump.

The latest report from Kyle Neubeck of The PhillyVoice suggests the team may not be overwhelmed with current offers, and may not be in a rush to make a deal they feel is suboptimal. Per Neubeck:

“They are not coming to the table at all if the offer doesn’t reflect his status as an ultra-productive, multiple-time All-Star, and the team believes internally they can fix at least some of his on-court issues in the event that he remains a core piece...

Internally, team sources view a lot of the reported offers floated around the league as transparent attempts to lower Simmons’ trade value below where it actually is.”

If that’s the case, and Simmons is back, perhaps they still look for alternative ball handlers to add to this core. Kyle Lowry has been a name the team was linked to before and after the NBA trade deadline.

Holiday isn’t the greatest pull-up shooter in the NBA, but he was just good enough to unlock some things Milwaukee had been lacking in prior seasons:

The Sixers don’t need Embiid to roll like Giannis (and it shouldn't be impossible to find someone at least better than Seth Curry at running a P-n-R) but Embiid anticipating the team acquiring someone who might run more screen game with him would be prudent. If he could improve even a little bit there, it might boost their half-court offense by providing another dimension. By simply setting a screen for a capable shooter, and rolling into the paint he’ll occupy a lot of attention, even if the Sixers don’t wind up with someone who can thread the needle on the pass. Alternatively, he could retreat for an open triple or mid range look, since he thrives at each:

If Morey was asked “well what if you had Shaq and Lillard?” then his answer might have been different than the one he gave reporters a year ago.

3) Continue to improve as a play-maker and limit turnovers

2021 NBA Playoffs - Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

Nothing new here. Joel Embiid has been tasked with improving his passing and limiting his turnovers pretty much every off-season since 2018. He had his best assist to turnover ratio in 2019, but the eye test suggested this was actually his best season as a playmaker.

Embiid had much more space to work with thanks to Daryl Morey acquiring Danny Green and Seth Curry (than he had during the Josh Richardson and Al Horford days) which created more space and therefore easier reads.

Plus the offense was geared towards making his reads out of traps a bit simpler. From Head Coach Doc Rivers, per our Jackson Frank, back in January:

“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.”

Our Dan Olinger, writing back in April on the good and bad of Joel Embiid’s passing:

“He’s not a bad passer or processor either, but that doesn’t mean that some risk-taking improvement wouldn’t elevate him to even greater heights.”

And the improvements he made continued into the first round, and perhaps even into the first few games against Atlanta in the Conference-Semis:

Part of how Embiid made that important improvement was about trusting his guys. More from Jackson Frank on this theme:

“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.”

And in January, I hosted Embiid’s long-time trainer Drew Hanlen on the “No Particular Hurry” pod:

Per Hanlen, some wonderful insight on his megastar client’s improved passing:

“Again, I think that comes down to trust in his handle. He’s really worked hard on improving his handle so he has control of the basketball. and that’s something that really started last year before the bubble. Before the bubble, Chris Babock and I had really put an emphasis on passing out of double teams, we knew there be a lot of double teams and ever since then Joel spent a lot of time on it.

It also helps that the personnel has changed so that there’s more shooters around him and when you know guys are gonna make shots you trust them more to be able to make the easy pass instead of trying to make the heroic pass to a shooter that might be a better shooter on the weak side.

So I think that personnel helped some, I think that him working hard on reading where his teammates were when double teams came, just understanding where the coverages were kind of leading him to, and then also just him trusting his handle. Which I mean you’ve seen him probably more comfortable than he’s ever looked before as far as a face up position in like what we call “delay-action” where he’s at the top of the key and doing dribble hand offs....”

But when the team made it to round two, (albeit with the baked-in excuse that Embiid was now playing with a lateral tear in his meniscus), much of the improvements he made to his passing and in limiting his turnovers reverted to some carelessness and mistakes he’s made in the past. He had a staggering 21 turnovers in the final 3 games, two of which resulted in home losses. He had 16 giveaways in just the final two games of the series alone. He had 33 in the series.

Poor reads (do I pass or attack, which pass do I make) and simple carelessness, led to a bevy of offensive fouls, traveling violations, flailing attempts to draw fouls that went uncalled (to be fair some absolutely should have been) and passing turnovers wound up costing the Sixers dearly.

Reviewing the film on how Atlanta pressured and confused him and addressing those issues should be a priority for Embiid again this summer. He made great strides in this area over the last calendar year but it didn’t translate to postseason hoops.

That’s the next step.

2) Limit major injury risk

Philadelphia 76ers v Washington Wizards Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

It’s this old rallying cry, by now a cliche among Sixers’ analysts, you’ve probably heard Zach Lowe of ESPN run versions of this thread for years now: if this dude can ever get in shape and stay healthy, he can be one of the very best players in the NBA, if not the best. And just like the first half of 2019, we saw it again for the first half of 2021. And this time, it appeared he was really headed for the league MVP award. Process haters, eat crow!

Something, per ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, Embiid admittedly coveted:

“I want [Arthur, his son] to see me at my best, just like I saw my dad,” Embiid says. “I want him to see his dad as the best player in the world.”

And per Drew Hanlen, from the same ESPN article:

“This season Joel wanted a clean sweep of MVPs,” Hanlen says. “He wanted to win the regular-season MVP, he wanted to win the All-Star MVP, and he wanted to win the Finals MVP.”

“At that time he was the favorite to win the MVP, and he wanted to go and dominate the All-Star Game so he could prove that he was the best player in the world,” Hanlen says.”

Shelburne continues:

“That opportunity got taken away from him. That, obviously, was out of his control. But something he could control in the second half of the season was making sure everybody realized that he was the best player in the world.”

And then he forgot to fall like a tree on the night of March 12.”

That was the night he suffered a hyperextended knee and bone bruise, that cost him enough games to miss out on that MVP.

If Shelburne’s implication is to be believed, that Embiid, freshly back from a close-contact COVID-19 mandatory absence, feeling salty he missed a shot to send the world a message during a recreational game, it might benefit him to reevaluate priorities.

In that first game back, he appeared to go through the motions at times, refining his legs after the absence, but then he also tried to lob himself a dunk off the glass, and later posterize a couple of role players in an 18 point blowout. That’s where he got hurt.

The ESPN spot quotes the Head Coach:

“I didn’t have a great feeling right away,” Rivers says. “I had an ACL [injury] once, and he fell the way I fell. He didn’t land normally, he landed on the back of his heel....

“His falls are terrible,” Rivers says.

After one game, Rivers says, he heard from his daughter, Callie, who is married to point guard Seth Curry. “[She] called me and said, ‘Joel scares the s--- out of me every game.’”

In fact, many of the scariest moments of Embiid’s career seem to fit a bit of a pattern, accelerating into traffic in the paint then taking a huge leap, looking for a poster jam, or track down block, frequently landing in a crowd, and as Rivers says, perhaps landing on his heel:

So Embiid got half of the equation this year, he handled his body and got himself into the best shape of his life, utilizing trainers, chefs, and more.

But he still didn’t stay as healthy as he would have liked, as the Sixers needed him to.

I asked Hanlen, a question back in January:

“Have you worked with him at all on avoiding dangerous plays?”

“I haven’t, no. I haven’t. To be honest with you, my focus when I work with any of my clients is just trying to improve them and help them improve their team’s chances of winning games. I know that there’s a smart component, that guys start learning how to avoid fouls, how to avoid injuries, etc. when you’re out there on the court, instincts take over and so I’m not aware of any special kind of approach that has changed in his mentality.”

My response today would be that someone, if not Hanlen, working with Embiid this off season to identify and limit dangerous plays could very much “improve the team’s chances of winning games.” It might even be the most important element of all here.

Embiid had every reason to want that MVP trophy last season. Had he won it, (feel free to fact-check me here) he could have played out this upcoming season and been eligible for a 5 year Supermax contract, with a final year in the $50M range. As it played out, he’ll be eligible this off-season for a four-year Supermax, which one would imagine he’ll sign. (If he declined that he’d have to make another All-NBA team in 2022 to become eligible for that five-year version, assuming the team is keen to offer one by next summer).

And it sounds like from listening to Shelburne, and Hanlen that those awards, that proving things during All-Star games and regular-season games, matter to him a lot.

But I think about Nikola Jokic this season, who ran away with the MVP, yet nobody would dare to suggest he had a more successful year than Giannis with the playoffs now in our rearview. The same might be said about LeBron James in 2020, or Kawhi Leanord in 2019, or KD in 2018. They didn’t win MVPs, but few questioned their suremacy. The dude who wins the Finals MVP, is often regarded as the player of the year if not the current best player in the world.

And what if sending messages or clean-award sweeps increases Embiid’s risk of an injury and that costs him his best chance at a title?

Embiid may want to really analyze some of the scarier falls he’s suffered in his career, and his motivation for attempting the spectacular, when the boring Jokic, Deandre Ayton, Tim Duncan non-electric finish might have helped him avoid a surgery or an extended absence.

I’m not saying “never dunk.” But if you’re up 18 overly the lowly Wiz in march and haven’t played in over a week, if you’re up 3-0 in a closeout game against the same Wiz months later, there’s not an urgent need for flash. Context matters. Weight your priorities, and if the paint is wide open, stick the landing. And even then, you may risk someone taking a flagrant like LeBron James took sending him flying onto his back.

There are patterns we’ve seen now since 2017. Maybe it’s worth an inventory and reassessment. Maybe he should examine ways to mitigate risk.

Embiid fully embracing load management, letting go the need to make emphatic points, win regular season accolades, may not be sexy or fun. But it could dramatically increase his chances of being regarded as one of the greatest of all time. Ask Kawhi....

1) Develop as an emotional, vocal Leader

2021 NBA Playoffs - Philadelphia 76ers v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Our final point here is about leadership. This one probably gets overrated in general. I have a running joke with my buddies. “You want vocal leadership, the perfect lockerroom guy, and emotional rock? Call [insert nice player like Tobias Harris on the high end or Theo Pinson on the low end]. If you want rings? Call KD or Kawhi. You won’t get any soft skills, with them but you’ll probably be finals favorites at some point.”

And I think there’s plenty of truth to this. A heathy Nets team wouldn't have needed any emotional leaders, even if broadcasters might have selected Bruce Brown or whoever. But Embiid doesn’t strike me as so stoic, without a relatable emotional affect, like some of your typical scoring leaders. He connects very well with the Philly fans and seems like a compassionate guy.

Finding his way as a leader and what that means will be a personal journey. But it’s one he may want to begin or continue this off season.

There have been times throughout Embiid’s career where he doesn’t handle his frustrations in constructive ways. He’s taken more than a few passive-aggressive digs at Ben Simmons over the years, as the local beat knows well. He was quick to point to Simmons’ now notorious “pass” out of an open dunk, following the game 7 defeat.” His frustrations are relatable. But turning to the media to air the grievance rarely accomplishes any goal. It may not help the team get the best trade offer if they wanted to shop Simmons, with the perception there is a chemistry issue out there, and it may make for some awkwardness come training camp if they mostly run it back.

I’m reminded of game 4 in the playoffs of 2019 when Embiid didn’t look like himself. He was reportedly dealing with an illness that kept him up most of that night. Philly missed a chance to go up 3-1 on the eventual champs. And two years later, he didn’t look quite right in a similar situation in another game four, when he went 0-12 during the second half. It was another chance to go up 3-1 during the second round of a series they’d lose in seven. He looked off in both games; a level of aggression was missing. I wonder...was that a total coincidence? Is there some fear of failure or fear of success at play that is worth examaning? Why has it appeared to be a challenge to step on that proverbial throat and put someone away when you’re on top? Were the injuries especially worse in those two game fours but not in the games surrounding them?

I’m not exactly sure what the next step towards leadership might look like for Embiid. We know he vocally quarterbacks the defense, you can often hear him yelling “push push” to on-ball defenders when a screen is coming. Nobody gets the crowd going like he does following a continuation. Thrust the Process.

But it does seem like maybe he’d want to keep his criticisms behind closed locker room doors, and avoid some of the body language that appears blaming or mopey. When teammates really struggle, when he isn’t getting calls, when others can’t make shots, it does sometimes seem that Embiid can feed off of that negative energy, sit off on his own and maybe overthink things, rather than do a little more to pick his guys up with infectious positivity or even a Jimmy Butleresque win-at-all costs ruthlessness. There are plenty of different models for effective leadership. I don’t think Embiid has quite mastered his yet.

We saw him lose his composure in a couple of key instances, where thank basketball gods, it didn’t bite them and lead to an ejection in a must win game:

The next phase of Embiid’s maturation process should include a singularity of purpose on winning the title. Keeping his positivity, maintaining his composure even when teammates struggle or officials screw up, and keeping all dirty laundry inside that dang laundry room.

All of the above like we already mentioned might well be nitpicking. But if Embiid is going to win this team a championship, it seems that improving as a roll man, limiting his turnovers and continuing to develop as a passer, mitigating injury risk, and becoming a better leader are the four most vital areas for him to target. I think him tackling those issues this summer would be the team’s best chance at scaling the last legs of that lofty summit.