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Joel Embiid hero ball was fun before, but it won’t be with this much talent around him

The Sixers seem like they entered the year hellbent on establishing Embiid on the block, rather than finding a more egalitarian attack.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Philadelphia 76ers v Miami Heat Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The season is young, the Sixers are 0-2, and you probably already started to panic. But then you reminded yourself of just how silly that would be. They’ve faced two of the best teams in the league, one on the road. James Harden looks awesome. That’s so vital to everything. If he looked like he did in Game 6 vs. Miami, then you could panic. There’s a bunch of new key players, it’ll all take time. You can breathe, they’ll be better than this moving forward.

But there is a troubling trend going on here. Joel Embiid has come out to play hero ball, and doesn’t seem to have spent his offseason addressing what has been, arguably, his biggest weakness to date: passing/turnovers.

He may not be fully healthy, or well-conditioned. So he’ll probably look better over time. But from a process standpoint, The Process’s approach has been off.

A bit of context stemming back to last postseason (I’ll spare you the 2021 stuff vs. Atlanta, although the live ball turnover issue was very much there as well).

The 2022 Miami Heat swarmed Embiid before he touched the ball and limited his total possessions:

That had an added benefit for Miami. When the Kansas product finally did get a touch, he’d appear frustrated enough that he predetermined he was going to barbecue some chicken and shoot, regardless of what kind of defensive look he got, regardless of how open a teammate might be:

It’s an oversimplified version of what happened. But it’s also true. So how would Embiid, who always improves a lot, spend this offseason, when he wasn’t recovering, rehabbing?

Kevin O’Connor gave us a clue, last June:

“Sources say Embiid is already working this offseason on perimeter attacks and finishing with touch at the rim. Embiid and the Sixers hope he can become even more dynamic bringing the ball up the floor himself on the break and driving in the half court.”

Ummm, so like Giannis style? Luckily, his trainer, Drew Hanlen gave us more clues:

“Our job is just to kind of continue to make him more versatile, continue to improve his playmaking and passing. I think he’s taken a big step in the right direction at getting his teammates better looks and so hopefully if the teams do continue to just throw their entire team at him he’ll be able to kick out and get easy looks and let his team beat them on those nights that they decide to commit all the bodies to Joel.”

But two games in, it seems like he’s playing too ambitiously. Not intentionally looking to set up teammates. Instead of “when I dribble, I’m gonna draw two, then kick for a swing-swing,” he looks like he’s thinking “let’s try the new dribble, spin, fade, fire.”

His very first possession of the year, he’d clearly predetermined his move, on this fade, below. He didn’t seem ready, or care about the dig, which could have sprung Tyrese Maxey. Maxey didn’t seem to expect a pass either. Instead, we got a shot Boston loves to see.

And there have been plenty of other shots that just don’t seem like he’s making the right choice. Some predictable digs and traps, often from the nearest defender, are still catching him completely off guard, just like last May.

You can see in that one above that Joel also falls a ton after shot attempts. That leads to transition opportunities for the opposition, as Stan Van Gundy noted on the TNT broadcast. Reducing his regular season FGA may save him 300 falls, improve their transition defense, and unlock dangerous perimeter weapons.

On this one below, P.J. Tucker keeps the possession alive, and shrewdly runs to his corner office, but Embiid never looks that way.

It’s not an example of hero ball. But with an overall approach of “how can I use the tremendous amount of attention I command to help my guys win,” might have helped him anticipate it.

So what gives?

Remember that streamed Sixers practice, when we got some seemingly candid coach-player conversations? Something Doc Rivers said to Harden made me think...

“I’m just gonna stay on you, because I get what you’re saying. Alright, I want you to hear me first. I get it 100 percent. But what I’m trying to get Joel first is to establish himself, be a better post player. We were a horrible, would you agree, a horrible post passing team last year. (Yes.) Horrible. Alright, so, our objective is getting that first. And that’s why you gotta have the right spirit about it. And you gotta be a leader...”

There was this stuff too:

We wondered on podcasts if that was indeed the right approach, since it was worrisome. Post offense is harder and harder to prioritize these days.

Doc would also tell Harden “we got to establish Jo and you. It’s pecking order, this ain’t a democracy.”

So is it possible that Rivers has set out to establish Joel in the post, the way some NFL teams insist on establishing the run? Was that the game plan heading into the year?

If so, did he have them work really hard on better entry passes because the focal point of this offense is going to be Embiid post/iso? After all, that’s worked in the regular seasons in the past. And is it possible that Joel worked really hard on his ball handling and his coast to coast stuff and he’s trying to show us some new moves, some new turnarounds, but doesn’t quite have his conditioning, because he’s maybe not 100 percent healthy yet? Doesn’t quite trust new teammates? Or something? Is it possible that how he responds to being swarmed wasn’t the team’s top priority in practice? The spacing hasn’t looked great around him either.

If so then it seems like we have the backdrop for hero ball on our hands here. The presidency, then everyone else.

But I don’t think the best version of this Sixers team predetermines to post. I think the best version of this team runs through a combination of Embiid, Harden, and Maxey, gets more natural looks for Tobias Harris or guys like De’Anthony Melton, and routinely has a different leading scorer.

We know he’s capable of prioritizing helping others.

We heard some lip service about him perhaps prioritizing the defensive end of the floor more, although it seemed establishing him as the top gun offensively, was still very much a priority.

Maybe they need less of a scoring distribution like the 2021 Bucks:

and more of one like the 2014 Spurs?

I picked two extreme examples, but there could well be a happy medium. If Embiid showed more of a willingness to draw a crowd and find the open man, with the talent around him now, he’d eventually reduce the number of bodies teams are comfy throwing at him. That would make his own scoring life much easier, and elevate the team’s ceiling.

Because if he doesn’t have his wind yet, if he’s getting over a plantar issue, if he’s 0-7 with 3 turnovers in the second half, if Harden is on absolute fire, why are we drawing up the last play for Joel to attack a double from an isolation?

Are we trying to “establish Joel in the post” because that’s our “President’s bread and butter” and we have a “pecking order to maintain” regardless of context?

Predetermination has been a hallmark of Doc Rivers teams. He decides what he thinks will work best, and then doesn’t tinker a ton. Prior positions don’t change with new context very quickly.

On the one hand, it’s just two games and the Sixers could easily be 1-1. On the other hand, it’s a bit concerning that the issues that were big problems the last two playoffs don’t seem to have been addressed much this offseason. If they have, we haven’t seen signs yet.

The team’s differential is +25.8 per CleaningtheGlass with Harden on and Embiid off. The solution isn’t to bench Embiid. But it’s a stark reminder they may not be better served asking Joel to chase another scoring title. They have real weapons, true perimeter weapons, for the first time since Jimmy Butler was around.

Brett Brown used to use the phrase “egalitarian” offense a bunch. They need a lot more of that. Like, right away. Hero ball was fun for the regular season award stuff the last couple years. But there’s real talent here now. To win the title, they need to share. A wide open shot for Maxey or Tobias Harris is a better shot than a contested fadeaway over a double, even when it’s an MVP attempting one.

Maybe the president pecking order metaphor isn’t the best idea. The sky isn’t falling but it’s weird they entered the year with this type of approach after the way things ended last go round.

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