The final time during the 2021-2022 playoffs that Joel Embiid was healthy, he was averaging 27.6 points, 13 rebounds, shooting 51 percent from the floor and 80 percent from the stripe on an overwhelming 11.3 FTA per game. He’d given the Sixers a 3-0 lead over the Toronto Raptors with a game winning triple on the road. The ligaments in his thumb were already damaged, but the crucial digit had yet to swell, the adrenaline still pumping. Then he called game:
But by the end of that first round series Embiid had a torn shooting thumb, a broken orbital bone, and a concussion. No one could have been stunned if his season ended there. But he was cleared to play after missing two road games. By the time he returned, his team trailed 2-0, and playing far more tentatively, limited significantly by injury, he never fully regained MVP form.
The 2022 Sixers ultimately lacked depth, defense, shooting, health, toughness, and heart. But still, fans are left to wonder how things might have played out if Joel avoided those two freak occurrences. Could they have at least advanced one more round?
Beyond our injury what ifs, there are lessons learned, still crucial areas for Joel Embiid to improve upon. Let’s see if we can figure out what he’s up to this summer during those #unseenhours.
Embiid takes great pride that he’s addressed weaknesses each offseason. He always comes back better. Fans should be genuinely excited for what’s next given his track record as a summer worker. Here was how the 28 year-old described his offseason goals following the final loss of the season:
“My goal remains the same, it’s to win it all and every single season I feel like I’ve gotten better and there’s still another level that I can reach... every postseason I’ve seen adjustments kind of made me wanna make changes in what I work on during the summer. And you look at in the second round the way [Miami] played me whether they denied me the ball and every time I had the ball there was two or three guys on me I couldn’t drive to the basket cause everything was just crowded so I guess the goal this summer is to be better and to figure it out.”
So what does that entail? Does it mean less fighting for post positioning without the ball, the stuff which is exhausting and makes him susceptible to being fronted and dependent on teammates hitting precision lob entry passes?
Here is some of what Embiid is referring to, Miami’s ruthless ball-denial and swarming traps:
You can bet teams will try this stuff again next postseason after seeing it work so well for Erik Spoelstra’s club. But what should he work on to counter that?
“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.”
We interviewed Joel’s Skills Trainer Drew Hanlen back in June.
At one point I asked Hanlen about that Ringer report. Is that what they’ll be working on together?
“Yeah, it’s just continuing to add versatility to his game so he can’t be as doubled and triple teamed in the playoffs. If you look, the last really dominant center that won a championship was Shaquille O’Neal and he was playing out of a triangle offense where it was very pass-oriented, cut-oriented. And you look, Joel is so dominant when he gets the ball in the regular season obviously, leading the league in scoring, but in the postseason teams are just throwing two, three guys at him and so we’re trying to just continue to be more and more versatile where they can’t double team him as much. That just means more perimeter-oriented where he can face up and drive from the perimeter which is a lot harder to kind of throw schemes and adjustments at.”
So Hanlen touches upon a lot of the same themes Embiid did during his exit. My guess is they want Embiid to feel more comfortable operating out on the wings where it’s easier to get him the ball, and then harder to effectively smother or confuse him.
The Sixers may want to take advantage of him as more of an initiator as well. Note, in the clip above, Embiid is banging, working tirelessly just to get open, often cannot, and his teammates (even one of the game’s most skilled passers of all time in Harden) still have trouble getting him the rock.
There was also this tweet Hanlen posted a couple weeks ago, to the same overall point:
Driving, shooting & creating off the bounce… https://t.co/tkwxGlMvYR— Drew Hanlen (@DrewHanlen) July 7, 2022
(Obviously, it couldn’t hurt if he’s better at those things. But is the idea like more point-JoJo?!)
Notably, Hanlen talked about how it’s easier for Embiid to dominate in the regular season because teams simply don’t sell out as much to stop him as they do come playoffs. And sure enough, the impact of Miami’s strategy had a compounding effect:
- The ball denial decreased his total touches, while the frenetic traps limited his total shots.
- After going several possessions without an attempt, it appeared to increase his sense of urgency, leading him to force shots.
- Everyone got frustrated. Joel worked tirelessly for positioning only to watch a lob sail out of bounds, or he’d get it and predetermine to shoot in lieu of open kick outs he had been hitting instinctively vs. Toronto.
- Body language became an issue. Joel and Danny Green, in particular, appeared to get on each other’s nerves at times vs. Miami. Harden caught his teammate’s gesture-wrath as well.
See below how Embiid sometimes stranded his outlets, keeping the context in mind; namely, the regular season’s scoring leader perhaps feeling he needs to assert himself amid lengthy droughts:
If Miami was essentially saying “we’ll let anyone but Embiid beats us,” how much offensive burden was Embiid comfortable sacrificing in order to win? I’m sure the torn thumb and clunky mask didn’t help, but Miami clearly made the bet that Embiid wouldn’t make all of the right passing reads and they were proven right.
If Embiid is working on perimeter skills (the thinking might go) he can spot up and make it easier for his teammates to get him the ball in the first place, drill jumpers and attack close outs, while making his passing reads simpler (as opposed to a post ups where his back is to all the action).
Sending a double or triple if he’s standing 23 feet away also leaves the paint vulnerable to attack.
Bad miscommunication for the Heat, Butler stays high as Thybulle slips the screen thinking Oladipo is going with him, so Miami has three guys defending two and Embiid finds Thybulle for the dunk pic.twitter.com/XAtNzIlTU7— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) May 9, 2022
Does that mean we’ll see more spot up and less post ups or even less pick-and-roll action with James Harden?
Hanlen doesn’t think there will be less pick-and-roll with The Beard:
“[James and Joel] yielded great numbers when they were in the pick-and-roll together, why go away from something that’s working? .... But we’re just making sure that Joel has all the tools and skill sets that he needs to be able to perform against any type of junk defense that he’s gonna see in the playoffs.”
But maybe there will be less post ups. Joel saw 9.8 post opportunities per game last season, (9.0 once Harden made his Sixers debut). But that number plummeted down to 4.8 come playoff time. It might make sense to wean the team off some of those looks next reg. season, in preparation for the 2023 playoffs when he’ll likely be doing it far less.
But getting back to beating doubles and zone schemes. We asked Hanlen who they’ve watched film on for beating these all out blitzes. And he said there wasn’t much to work with film-wise but that he thinks Embiid can continue to improve his passing:
“Yeah I mean, we went back in the film Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were about the only two guys that even came close to getting as double and triple teamed as him, even LeBron, we went back and watched all of LeBron postseason stuff. LeBron never in his career got as fronted and denied as Joel did this postseason so there’s not much film to look at to be honest with you. 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.”
LeBron may have seen the least because he’s the best passer of that group.
So piecing together clues, it seems like Embiid will operate further from the hoop than he has in the Doc Rivers era. Maybe there will be more grab-and-goes, maybe he’ll take more threes, and save his legs a bit during the winter slog; especially if his focus isn’t on MVP like Hanlen alluded to as well. Maybe he’ll swap out a few post ups for pick-and-rolls or dribble drives from beyond the arc.
We know that Brett Brown used to deploy Joel as a spot up player more often than Doc Rivers has, in an attempt to spread the floor and ignite a co-star like Jimmy Butler or Ben Simmons. Maybe Harden would’t mind if they tried that. But this is another version of Embiid than Brown had — older, stronger, smarter, better. So if Doc looks to do more of that, with some welcome reinforcements on the wing, all without reducing the Harden-Embiid two-man-game, the Sixers should have some real room to grow here.
We can be confident Embiid will make progress this offseason. It sounds like he’s focused on upgrading his wing skills and passing. His new teammates might just be the biggest beneficiaries.