Through one quarter of Monday’s duel with the Chicago Bulls, the Philadelphia 76ers stumbled to a 123.1 defensive rating. Thanks to a 137.0 offensive rating, they held a 37-32 lead, but there were clear issues against the NBA’s sixth-ranked offense.
While not the primary culprit of that 32-point period, Joel Embiid had continued a recent stretch of inconsistent execution, a far cry from his peak performance or even the way he began this season with dominant defense. On multiple occasions, he failed to promptly rotate and wall off the rim, allowing easy points inside for Chicago.
Embiid has made a habit of dialing up the defensive intensity in the playoffs, which has rightfully and largely earned him a pass in the regular season, given his offensive workload. If Monday was a playoff battle, odds feel high he’s doing something to wield greater influence on those shots.
But it was still a game against a team jockeying with Philadelphia for seeding six weeks ahead of the playoffs. When the outcome of so many series are reliant on favorable matchups, and with the East still tightly bunched, Monday’s game carried some importance. Once Embiid returned for his second stint, his defense resembled that of postseason-caliber.
After the first quarter, Chicago scored just 74 points and concluded the night with an offensive rating of 107.1 — remember, it posted a 123.1 offensive rating in the opening frame. With Embiid fully engaged, he set the tone for a final three quarters full of prompt rotations, active help-the-helper situations and well-connected teammates concordantly playing off of one another.
Nikola Vucevic’s absence should be noted, though. His passing liquidates the Bulls’ offense considerably and a legitimate scoring threat on the roll rather than Tristan Thompson could’ve changed the calculus on many trips down. I’m sure Lonzo Ball (shooting, passing, transition volume) and Alex Caruso (cutting, connective passing, screening) would help as well.
Nonetheless, Monday’s game helped reinforce the notion that Philadelphia’s defense will always be in a good spot with Embiid around.
One of Embiid’s best traits defensively is his hands. He’s become exceptionally adept at perturbing initiators by swiping at the ball or keeping high hands to deter rhythmic pull-up jumpers, while avoiding fouls. His dexterity and coordination are elite for a big man.
Against midrange merchants DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine, Embiid complicated their endeavors around ball-screens by wielding those dexterous hands. DeRozan opened the game with 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting, but finished 6-of-17 for 23 points. Embiid’s heightened activity significantly contributed to that decline (to DeRozan’s credit, his passing was excellent).
When Embiid was in the vicinity, DeRozan really struggled to gather into his midrange pull-up. Over the years, he’s developed so many moves and counters to cleanly fire away, so the optimal way to disrupt him is prevent him from getting into those moves and counters. Embiid did just that, hanging around or above the free-throw line, taking away his airspace and forcing him to venture outside of Option A.
Although Chicago has been a borderline elite offense on the year, an array of its rotation perimeter players are questionable long-range shooters (DeRozan, Javonte Green, Troy Brown Jr., Derrick Jones Jr.). The Sixers exploited that by sagging off of the strong-side corners to help on drives and loading up at the nail, daring DeRozan, LaVine and Coby White to put the ball in the hands of less adept creators.
Even Ayo Dosunmu, despite his superb rookie season and 40 percent clip from deep, was someone Philadelphia seemed content to let operate with the ball.
So often, the Sixers are a defensive rotation short or two on a possession this season, relying far too much on Embiid as the do-it-all man inside. That wasn’t the case Monday.
Embiid shut down the paint with exquisite rotations. But his supporting cast narrowed driving lanes with astute position, ran shooters off of the arc and actively funneled the ball toward their defensive anchor instead of passively letting it happen and hoping for the best. The off-ball rotations were stellar.
Everyone worked in harmony, and it was spearheaded by Embiid changing his approach. Look how many of these field goal attempts are occurring in the final third of the shot clock:
Since the James Harden trade went down, much of the skepticism surrounding Philadelphia has centered on its defense. Yet the tried-and-true path to a top-10 defense for Philadelphia over the past half-decade is simply rostering a healthy Joel Embiid.
Besides 2018-19, when they still ended up as a very good playoff defense, the Sixers have been a top-10 unit every regular season since 2017-18. Even this year, without Ben Simmons, they’re ninth overall — eighth since Embiid returned from COVID and sixth since Harden’s debut.
This team legitimately might have the league’s premier offense. Pairing that with a top-10 defense puts it in title contention. When Embiid plays like he did Monday, as he’s known to routinely do in the playoffs, they’re a step up above top 10, too.
Help defenders like Danny Green, Tyrese Maxey and James Harden also deserve praise. Tobias Harris’ defense on DeRozan was impactful and Isaiah Joe was feisty in his on-ball matchups. Steady contributions from various non-Embiid dudes will be important, not that I’m introducing a new concept there.
While drop coverage is Embiid’s preferred method, he’s capable in all four of the most popular pick-and-roll coverages: drop, hedge/show, switch and trap. The idea that he’s a rigid ball-screen defender has been floated in recent weeks post-trade and it’s simply unreflective of reality. He’s comfortable and good across a litany of schemes; drop is just ideal.
The lack of point-of-attack depth beyond Matisse Thybulle is an issue, as is the rebounding. Chicago took three more shots than the Sixers and snagged 14 offensive rebounds. Those flaws are the sorts of reasons Philadelphia’s peak is closer to (or slightly below) a top-five defense than best in the NBA.
But no longer is half-court offense a looming, longstanding concern. Times have changed. This is an offense-first team now. Unlike yesteryear, the other side of the ball is likely good enough to win a championship. It starts with Embiid’s versatile greatness, which was brightly on display in Monday’s victory.