There are few superlatives that didn’t apply to Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid over the past few years. He’s led the NBA in scoring in back-to-back seasons, and after finishing second to Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic in the voting for the league’s Most Valuable Player twice, he finally broke through for his first MVP last year.
Somehow, Embiid is playing even better this season. New head coach Nick Nurse deserves plenty of credit for that.
Heading into the season, the Sixers made clear that the offense under Nurse would look far different than it did with former head coach Doc Rivers over the past few seasons. Whereas Rivers’ offense prioritized pick-and-rolls with Embiid and James Harden, the new-look Sixers said they’d be far more egalitarian in their touch and shot distribution.
To some extent, that has proved true. Nurse appears to have empowered nearly anyone on the team to begin a fast-break attempt off a rebound, which is a noted difference from the Rivers squads’ tendency to have Harden initiate the offense. The Sixers still revolve around Embiid and Tyrese Maxey (in place of Harden), but they have plenty of other legitimate scoring threats alongside that duo.
That’s helping Embiid play at a career-best level in some regards.
Fresh off his season-high 50-point outing Wednesday night, Embiid is again leading the league with 33.1 points per game on 51.1 percent shooting. He’s also averaging 11.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game, both of which are on the higher end of what he’s done in recent years.
His biggest development by far has been his passing, though. Embiid had never averaged more than 4.2 assists per game heading into this season. He’s currently at 6.6 assists per game through 17 outings this year. His improvement in that regard is a teamwide effort, spearheaded by Nurse and team president Daryl Morey.
After trading Harden, P.J. Tucker and Filip Petrusev to the Los Angeles Clippers for Marcus Morris, Nic Batum, Robert Covington and KJ Martin (along with a ton of draft compensation), the Sixers suddenly had far more playable wing depth than they’ve had in recent years. Their offseason signing of Kelly Oubre Jr. to a one-year, veteran-minimum contract was a boon in that regard, too.
The Rivers-led Sixers were often stagnant outside of the primary offensive action. When Embiid and Harden ran a pick-and-roll, the other three Sixers would typically stand at different spots along the perimeter, ready to serve as a catch-and-shoot outlet if defenses shaded extra help at either Embiid or Harden. Knowing where to throw the ball helped Embiid navigate those frequent double-teams, but the lack of off-ball movement didn’t put much stress on opposing teams. They weren’t at risk of glaring defensive breakdowns; the Sixers’ stars often just had to out-talent whoever was guarding them.
This year’s squad has featured far more off-ball movement, which has helped Embiid elevate his game as a passer. When Embiid faces double-teams, he now has teammates who cut to the basket and give him an easy outlet. Oubre in particular has been sensational in that regard.
The two-man chemistry that Embiid and Maxey have developed is also helping Embiid as a playmaker. Harden led the league last season with 244 assists to Embiid—the next-closest pairing was Nikola Jokic and Aaron Gordon of the Denver Nuggets with 155—but his partnership with Embiid was far more of a one-way street than the Embiid-Maxey duo. Embiid assisted on only 33 of Harden’s made shots last year across 51 regular-season appearances, whereas he already has 31 assists to Maxey this year. He also has half as many assists to De’Anthony Melton (24) in only 17 games than he did last year (48) in 64 outings.
That increased playmaking load for Embiid is by design. For one, the Sixers have to replace Harden, who led the league with 10.7 assists per game last season. While Maxey is also taking a leap as a playmaker—he’s averaging a career-high 6.7 assists per game this year—he can’t single-handedly replicate what Harden brought to the table in that regard.
But by tapping into more off-ball motion and turning Embiid into more of a passing threat, the Sixers are also making it tougher for defenses to load up against him, especially in the playoffs. Nurse told Yaron Weitzman of Fox Sports that he wanted to add those dimensions to the Sixers’ offense to leave defenses off-kilter.
“Just having more variety and less predictability,” Nurse said. “Not having the same rhythm to every game, not doing the same thing over and over, just making things a little bit more unpredictable. That way [opponents] don’t know what’s coming as much, and you’re hard to prepare for.”
Embiid’s assist percentage of 33.6 ranks in the 99th percentile leaguewide among all bigs, according to Cleaning the Glass. He also has a career-high 0.91 assist-to-usage ratio, smashing his previous best mark of 0.65 (set last year). But passing isn’t the only area in which Embiid is taking major strides under Nurse.
Under Rivers, the Sixers were one of the worst offensive-rebounding teams in the league. They were last in the league with only 8.5 offensive rebounds per game in 2021-22, and they were only slightly better last year with 8.7 per game (27th leaguewide). This year, they’re sixth with 12.2 offensive rebounds per game, led by Embiid’s career-high 3.4.
Prior to this season, Embiid had never topped more than 2.8 offensive rebounds per game. But attacking the offensive glass was one of the hallmarks of Nurse’s Toronto Raptors teams, and he seems to have brought that with him south of the Canadian border. Embiid is now bringing in a career-high 10.3 percent of the Sixers’ misses after hauling in only 6.0 percent last year, per Cleaning the Glass.
Embiid has been slightly less efficient overall (51.1 percent) than he was last year (54.8 percent), but he’s also creating more on his own than ever before. A career-low 80 percent of his made field goals have been assisted this year compared to 84 percent last season and 93 percent or above in each of the previous five years. Maxey isn’t quite as adept as Harden at threading pocket passes to Embiid on pick-and-rolls, but his willingness to move off the ball adds a dynamic that the Harden-Embiid duo lacked.
Embiid likely won’t win MVP for the second straight year. Jokic has emerged as the early front-runner, while Luka Doncic is firmly in that mix as well. Besides, the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement requires players to appear in at least 65 games to be eligible for MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, and there’s no guarantee that Embiid will top that threshold.
Sixers fans will just have to take solace in Nurse and Maxey helping Embiid become better and more well-rounded than ever before.