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The Sixers’ defense can be much better — and it starts with Joel Embiid

Philadelphia has regressed over the past three games defensively and its anchor inside is part of the reason.

Philadelphia 76ers v Houston Rockets Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

From Oct. 29 through Nov. 28, the Philadelphia 76ers, despite Joel Embiid, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey missing a combined 26 games, went 11-5 and touted the league’s third-ranked net rating (plus-5.0). Fueling them was an NBA-best defensive rating of 106.5, more than two points clear of the second-place Milwaukee Bucks (108.7).

Over the past three games, the Sixers are 0-3 with a minus-14.6 net rating, despite Embiid, Harden and Maxey only missing a combined four games. A 24th-ranked offense is undoubtedly a culprit. Between Harden and Maxey being sidelined for those first two losses and an unimaginative scheme, the offense has generally looked stuck in the mud. But worse than that is the defensive regression. Philadelphia is 27th defensively during this span.

Some of this dichotomy stems from shooting luck in both directions. Across that month-long stretch of a top-ranked defense, opponents shot 32.2 percent beyond the arc, the worst mark in the league. The Sixers surrendered the third-lowest effective field goal percentage (52.5) to opponents. Based on shot location, however, their expected effective field goal percentage was 14th (54.6), according to Cleaning The Glass.

Throughout the past week, opponents are shooting 41.3 percent from deep — the 28th-ranked clip. Yet somehow, Philadelphia’s opponents are underperforming their expected effective field goal percentage, yielding a 56.3 percent mark (22nd overall), while Cleaning The Glass projects them at 56.5 percent (30th).

These sorts of marks are by no means infallible. The definition is explained as “if this team allowed the league average field goal percentage from each location (rim, short midrange, long midrange, all midrange, above-the-break threes, corner threes), what would their opponents’ effective field goal percentage be?” Not every team shoots league average at every spot. Teams are better or worse from different regions of the floor and each side crafts game plans to account for those disparities. Nonetheless, it’s reasonable to glean that beneficial and detrimental luck factor into those contrasting defensive stretches.

In watching all these games, though, it’s unmistakable to recognize how often Embiid’s execution and precision alters these results. During much of that first-place run, and even a bit before it began (yes, he missed half of it), he was rather excellent defensively. He promptly rotated to deter downhill drives, toggled across ball-screen coverages to disrupt events, relished anchoring feisty Philadelphia’s 2-3 zone and boisterously attacked rebounds to punctuate possessions.

As of late, he’s offering ineffectual contests in the paint — relying more on his arms for influence than proper positioning with his whole body — failing to maintain lively hands (his hands are glued to his side an alarming amount) and providing a runway for teams to corral easy second-chance opportunities. Granted, he’s also still put together numerous impressive sequences, just on a much more selective basis than the prior four weeks.

When Philadelphia paced the league defensively, it ranked 14th in defensive rebounding rate. Amid this 0-3 slog, it’s 29th. Embiid is certainly not alone in this issue. The majority of the rotation is either small, slow or ground-bound. That’s a challenging trio of traits to work past and field a viable defensive rebounding group.

Yet Embiid has shown flashes of effectively patrolling the glass. He was awesome in a Nov. 28 win over the Atlanta Hawks while wrangling with Clint Capela, a premier rebounder. On other occasions, he identifies a man, bludgeons himself into them and high-points the ball. As a dexterous 7-footer, he should be serviceable, at the very least. He’s eschewed all of that lately, especially the last two games.

The engagement level on Friday against Steven Adams, the NBA’s foremost offensive rebounder, was entirely insufficient. Whether his slow retreats after a Memphis stop produced advantageous cross-matches for the Grizzlies’ jumbo-sized 4-5 pairing or he let Adams saunter around him for boards, he failed to pair his offensive brilliance with attentive defense.

A similar issue manifested in Monday’s loss to the Houston Rockets. Memphis (first) and Houston (second) sit atop the league in offensive rebounding rate; they snagged 35 combined offensive rebounds against Philadelphia. Embiid, as well as basically everyone else, didn’t approach these outings as though that’s the case. That’s an indictment of both the players and the coaching staff. The preparation and execution level fell short. Embiid’s rebounding has always been a subtle weak point of his game and it’s apparent throughout this defensive slide.

Over the years, this season included, I think back to some of the Sixers’ most dismal defensive stretches. They seem to routinely coincide with Embiid playing below the standard he set for himself when he burst onto the scene half a decade ago. Not only is he the ultra-skilled, keenly aware, multifaceted nucleus of Philadelphia’s defensive peaks, he’s the metronome, too. Everyone else feeds on his energy defensively or lack thereof. It permeates. Whether it’s fair to bestow the actions of others upon him, I’m not sure. It’s probably not entirely fair, yet that is life as an MVP-caliber superstar with longstanding, vocalized championship aspirations. It is reality of the 2022-23 Sixers and a theme of the Joel Embiid Era in Philadelphia.

Without Harden and Maxey around, Embiid’s had to elevate himself offensively and do so in spite of a cumbersome, bland, rigid scheme. I cannot overstate how limiting the offensive Xs and Os are for this team; there’s too much offensive talent on the roster to be so predictable.

Over the past 10 games, his usage rate is 41.1 percent (100th percentile among big men). On the year, he’s fifth in usage rate (37.9 percent), trailing Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ja Morant and Trae Young. Only Antetokounmpo approximates Embiid’s defensive duties and he shares the floor with a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Brook Lopez, while being flanked by stalwarts such as Jrue Holiday and Jevon Carter. This is not to take away from Antetokounmpo, merely to illuminate the difference in their surrounding contexts as it pertains to balancing an enormous offensive and defensive workload. Harden’s return, headlined by wretched shooting and passivity, didn’t really ease the burden for Embiid either. That’ll have to change.

At Media Day in September, Embiid made clear a goal was for Philadelphia to have the NBA’s best defense. Through six weeks, he’s sometimes backed up that objective. Other times, he hasn’t and it’s glaringly clear. He can be a game-changer. Everyone knows it. The ripple effect of the tide that is his defensive motor is evident. Everyone sees it. Philadelphia rediscovering its defensive identity starts with its superstar center. Everyone follows him. The last few games are a confirmation of this season-long trend.

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