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What can the Sixers learn from the NBA champion Denver Nuggets?

Denver and Nikola Jokic just won a title. Philadelphia and Joel Embiid are still searching for one. What can they take from the Nuggets?

Denver Nuggets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

A week and a half ago, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray led the Denver Nuggets to the franchise’s first NBA championship, dismantling the Miami Heat in five games. They did it their own distinct way behind Jokic’s idiosyncratic brilliance, a glut of rangy, complementary wings and the preternatural Jokic-Murray two-man tango. Trying to emulate Denver’s ethos and roster construction would be foolish because nobody is Jokic, who accommodates for so much because of all he provides and accomplishes offensively.

That should not, however, prevent an aspiring title contender like the Philadelphia 76ers from identifying specific aspects of Denver’s championship squad and applying them to their own context. I’m not talking about major overhauls, but there are tweaks and additions this iteration of the Sixers could potentially incorporate to better position themselves for the playoffs moving forward.

During the regular season, Joel Embiid was a radiant scorer, averaging a league-high 33.1 points on 65.5 percent true shooting. In the playoffs, those marks tumbled to 23.7 points and 56.1 percent true shooting. Comparatively, Jokic averaged 24.5 points on 70.1 percent true shooting before leveling up to 30 points on 63.1 percent true shooting amid Denver’s championship run.

Jokic is a superior scorer to Embiid. That’s reality. Forget the regular season. Acknowledge the sprained right LCL Embiid labored through this spring. Bring in every salient point necessary. Jokic averages 27.5 points on 61.4 percent true shooting in 68 career playoff appearances. Embiid averages 24 on 57.9 percent true shooting. Their rate of assisted vs. unassisted makes are similar. Beyond Jokic’s historically good interior touch, the most pressing separator is his balance. His comfort shooting through contact is a major boon. It’s a prominent component as to why he punishes switches (or any assignment, really) and renders them obsolete.

Embiid is not the same. He can be bothered by defenders getting underneath him and stonewalling him. He is not bad against switches, but he is not Jokic, particularly in the playoffs. He lives for contact to draw fouls, and it often works! His .558 playoff free-throw rate is slightly higher than his .556 regular season free-throw rate for his career. This is not to say he has to stop trying to seek or generate trips to the charity stripe. Rather, improving his balance would diversify his approach and leave him potent against contact when the whistle doesn’t sound, akin to Jokic.

Maybe, that’s too lofty an ask. He’s a 7-foot, 280-pound center; relatively speaking, given those traits, his balance is already quite commendable. I can’t expect him to swiftly layer this into his athletic profile. But it feels more attainable than inheriting Jokic’s playmaking vision or scoring touch, though the latter is probably linked to his impeccable balance. Nonetheless, among the superlatives of Jokic’s offensive prowess, his balance is what Embiid should aim to embed into his own game. It would benefit his scoring through physicality and perhaps enable his dominant regular season numbers to more closely translate to the playoffs.

The Sixers, as presently arranged, are not a traditionally athletic roster. They don’t tout much speed, size, lateral fluidity, ground coverage or high-flying bouncers on the perimeter. Denver’s ancillary options — Christian Braun, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Jeff Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — filled a number of those qualities. This doesn’t mean Philadelphia should completely reorient itself to prioritize such traits. Yet letting someone like Danuel House Jr., who progressed as 2022-23 went on and shined in his brief playoff minutes, see consistent minutes would be prudent.

Treating the regular season as an experimental grounds should be an emphasis as well. Paul Reed has size, fluidity, speed and ground coverage. Is he at all viable alongside Embiid? Test it out during the 82-game slate if he’s back! House brings finishing, point-of-attack chops, cutting savvy, some connective passing and a mildly viable outside jumper. There is some dynamism to his offensive contributions, a hallmark of the Nuggets’ integral role players. I don’t think that was the case for most of the Sixers’ roster last season. House can be erratic, so there’s no guarantee his wide-ranging possibilities materialize frequently enough to matter anyway. Generally, though, the theme of more in-season experimentation should persist and House earning a long-term rotation spot, even amid the lowly storms of his play, may be part of that.

Similarly, the Sixers need to spread the wings of their offense. The entire bedrock in 2022-23 was the James Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll. Deliver that pocket pass, set up Embiid around the nail and watch everything else ripple off of it. That strategy worked in the regular season as Philadelphia established a top-five offense that was especially prolific when Harden returned from injury in early December.

Once the playoffs arrived, the windows for that pocket pass emerged much shakier. Harden, Embiid and the Sixers lacked any reliable counter. The offensive rating dipped from 118.3 (3.2 points above league average per 100 possessions) to 111.9 (1.6 points below the playoff average).

Meanwhile, the Nuggets established themselves as the NBA’s premier offensive ensemble in the postseason. They had an answer for every defensive gambit presented to them and holstered a variety of multifaceted actions to keep the party going. If a defense sold out against Jokic and Murray, they veered elsewhere, including Gordon’s bully-ball slashing, Porter’s cutting/movement shooting or Caldwell-Pope’s DHOs. Their playoff-best offensive rating of 120.1 was 6.6 points higher than average and represented a notable jump from their 118.3 mark in the regular season.

Philadelphia’s offense rode a one-speed bike. It produced bountiful results from December to April. When that speed proved incongruent for the postseason, they couldn’t shift and still turn the wheels. New head coach Nick Nurse and Co. must instill an offensive scheme that may center the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll, but is not almost exclusively reliant on it and is closer geared to create mismatches for any of the five players on the floor, not solely Harden and Embiid.

This is where Denver excelled and Philadelphia did not. Fashioning mismatches upon which to capitalize anywhere opens multitudes across a possession. The Nuggets were dynamite at it. The Sixers may not be as gifted an offensive team, but they have the personnel to be better here than they were last year.

What does Tyrese Maxey look like under a new regime? Can Tobias Harris trim down the fadeaways against smaller defenders and turn up the feisty, declarative finishes? Can De’Anthony Melton bring some steady DHO juice? In a livelier playbook, is there more to P.J. Tucker’s offense than corner 3s and offensive rebounding? Even if I’m dubious about the response being yes to the final three inquiries, there’s still probably some stuff worth gauging and working to remedy, at a minimum.

There’s nothing wrong with centering the Harden-Embiid tandem either. I’d argue it’s a sound approach. Centering it cannot coincide with rigidity, though, which was the case a season ago. The Murray-Jokic pick-and-roll sat at the heart of Denver’s offense, but it involved vast avenues through which to break down defenses. The Sixers, as much as possible, have to follow suit in building a scheme around their stars and those stars have to be flexible in carrying it out.

Embiid continuing to refine his screen-setting would also help (he has grown in recent years, it should be mentioned). Jokic is a considerably more impactful screener, which unlocks space on DHOs, ball-screens, cross screens, flare screens, flex actions, and a host of other circumstances. That sort of subtle improvement may be unsuspectingly practical.

Jokic and Murray sport substantially more experience playing together than Harden and Embiid. That certainly factors in as to why they weren’t rattled or neutralized when an initial option was blanketed unlike Philadelphia’s duo. Another component, though, is Murray’s comfort operating and probing inside the arc to keep his possibilities open. Whether it’s shooting, dribble or meandering until something advantageous arises, Murray is at home in the midrange.

Harden embraced more midrange jumpers last season. He is not at home there, nor is he adept navigating tight quarters inside the arc — even separate from the paint — and maintaining potential openings like Murray. How Murray endured the Miami Heat’s trapping and strongside help as a ball-screen operator was masterful in the Finals.

Maxey is a good pull-up three-point shooter and driver out of pick-and-rolls. He is not a fully dynamic ball-handler because of what he sacrifices while avoiding the midrange. That isn’t to say he cannot or will not shoot from there, but it is simply not a region of the floor he wishes to maneuver within through three NBA seasons. Murray loves it. Maxey would take a leap if he could bridge that gap to some extent. Not only would it make him a more well-rounded offensive cog, it would enhance Philadelphia’s offense and his ability to prime Embiid in pick-and-rolls.

While Maxey’s growth is imperative, a scheme that accentuates his current strengths and caters to them is necessary as well. Draw up plays where he’s catching passes in motion more than just the swing or kickout passes Harden and Embiid toss him against extra help. Tap into his potential as a movement shooter. His burst, long-range exploits and quick trigger should be focal points alongside his spot-up shooting and ability to puncture creases stemming from Harden and Embiid’s gravity.

Denver’s long-time go-to set is a play often referred to as Rip DHO involving Murray, Jokic and Aaron Gordon. Murray sets a rip screen for Gordon and flows into a handoff from Jokic. Given the discrepancy in skill sets and physical tools of each dude, switching the play is daunting. Every coverage tends to fail, and the Nuggets transition into other actions when needed, too.

They’re consistently yielding open threes for Murray or Jokic, shots at the rim for Gordon or spot-up triples in the corners. It might be the most unstoppable play in the league these days and is one the Sixers should consider employing. They of course won’t produce the same results, but I can envision it being fruitful with Maxey, Harris, and Embiid surrounded by floor-spacers.

Short on financial flexibility and draft capital, the Sixers cannot undergo a facelift this summer while simultaneously trying to preserve any immediate championship hopes. Embiid is in his prime and will be 30 in the spring. Internal development from ascending players and adaptions with a new coaching staff are the path toward a ceiling-raising makeover.

If Philadelphia achieves or approaches its title objective, it will do so in a manner stark from the Nuggets. En route to that outcome, though, a few tactics Denver exhibited may be of service and aid these Sixers to reach their destination. It’s at least worth a shot. All the previous styles and tactics were evidently not sufficient, and the tick of the clock lording over this Joel Embiid Era is growing increasingly loud.

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