The NBA Has No Idea What to Do with Joel Embiid
No longer held back by a minutes restriction or back-to-backs, the world's best center is showing all he's capable of. But how does he fit in a league that's increasingly decided on the perimeter?
Photo by Peter Foley - European Pressphoto Agency
It’s unclear when Joel Embiid won’t be the best center in the world, but at 24 years old, not even a dozen games into his third season, that’s what he is and will be throughout the foreseeable future. Embiid has entered a phase where MVP consideration is legitimate and first-team All-NBA play is expected every night. While continuing his journey towards a ceiling he still can’t see, Embiid is already (and easily) one of the seven or eight best basketball players alive.
“A summer of health,” is how Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown explains the improvement. “He had a hell of a summer, you know, and it spills over into his mentality and disposition. It’s connected to his development in his game, and the package equals somebody that wants to dominate...By and large he’s carried this team.”
This isn’t a traditional “breakout” season, as Embiid’s immensely positive per-possession effect was already known on opening night. But without any minutes restriction or schedule-related limitations (he’s playing in back-to-backs!), Embiid has entered the "you're gonna need a bigger boat" stage of his career, where most teams have no satisfiable way to combat his all-around brilliance.
"He’s super dominant.”
“Being able to play all these games and playing all these minutes, back-to-backs, I think he has a better rhythm than playing a couple games, sit out a game, or whatever the case was,” Wilson Chandler says. “I mean, he's super dominant."
Numbers fluctuate from night to night, but as of Monday morning Embiid ranked first in minutes, shots, free throws made and attempted, rebounds, and double-doubles while averaging about the same number of threes per game as Kevin Durant, Otto Porter, Kawhi Leonard, and Jayson Tatum. He’s second in points and blocks, too, a nimble mastodon who could easily be the sport’s most disruptive roll man if the Sixers ever cared to utilize him that way.
He isn’t flawless, but Embiid is considerably better than last year, when he was considerably better than the year before that. The most remarkable improvement can be seen on offense, where he’s turning the ball over less, growing by the game as a decision-maker and, with the seventh-highest usage rate in the league, bludgeoning defenses whether they guard him straight up or with a double team.
“I think his teammates have been excellent on going to the floor spots that we ask them to go to, so he knows where are his outlets in the event that he gets double-teamed,” Brown said. “That’s the first thing. And then I think secondly his ability...to not force things [when trailing the play] and to up fake people that aren’t there and just shoot it, or take a dribble and shoot a long two. Or just move the ball instead of driving into traffic. Those are the two areas that he turned the ball over in the most. Analytics and coach’s gut feel said that. And he’s improved. He’s really done a good job.”
Embiid forces defenders to play on his terms. He realizes that the entire game’s mood, feel, and tempo ultimately revolves around his size, strength, and imposition, knowing no single man in the world can prevent him from doing what he wants without a foul or cry for backup. It's beginning to look like the type of low-post command the NBA hasn't seen since Tim Duncan or Shaquille O'Neal.
“His game’s matured a lot more,” Ben Simmons said. “He’s slowing the pace down, knowing he can get to the rim whenever he wants and draw fouls and get to the line.”
Embiid’s career turnover rate was 16.3 heading into this season. Today, it’s 10.2 percent. That reduction is significant, but never more critical than when narrowed down to how he performs against double teams. Last season, he turned it over 30.3 percent of the time when a second defender swarmed him down low. So far, that number is down to 17.6 percent. Related: Embiid has scored a league-high 102 points out of post-ups this season. According to Synergy Sports, that’s more than every team in the league except New Orleans and San Antonio.
The mark of a true superstar is someone who indirectly and directly makes life easier for teammates on a consistent basis, and while Embiid fit that definition through most of his second season, watching him do it the way he does it, with more minutes, in a perimeter-oriented league, is so freaking helpful.
“Shit, he brings two defenders, so usually I get a free cut to the basket. Most of the time they’re leaving off me or Ben or whoever,” Markelle Fultz tells VICE Sports. “He just opens the lane up for me or with a rebounding opportunity, where two people box him out, I get to crash. Just stuff like that.”
Philly’s rookie shooting guard Landry Shamet agrees: “There’s five sets of eyes on him, so it’s easier to get looks and be effective without the ball.”
Even though the Sixers only have the league's 21st offense with Embiid on the floor, when he sits they fall 8.2 points per 100 possessions below the last place Orlando Magic. (Going the other way, that's the difference between Orlando and the 14th-ranked Miami Heat.)
Embiid's offense is technically a work in progress—he wouldn't be efficient if it weren't for all the free throws—but even as Philadelphia navigates through its new, spacing-starved starting lineup, his presence remains unparalleled. But it's on the other side of the ball where teams try to exploit Embiid's size in ways that place his limitations under a spotlight. Before the season began, I picked him to win Defensive Player of the Year. (Embiid finished second behind Rudy Gobert last year.) He’s a 7'2" wrecking ball who glides in the clear and explodes through tight spaces. Nobody has louder footsteps, underlined by a controlled, back-breaking spasm of unnatural agility and force.
Entering this season, the Sixers always had an elite defense with Embiid on the court and were below-average/awful when he sat. It’s early, but right now they’re a tad less effective when he's out there (just outside the top five) and bottom ten when he sits. Still awesome, but not quite the same disparity or on-court results as before. More minutes probably have something to do with that, but there's something else worth looking at. As he’s undeniably one of the game's most intimidating rim protectors, the Sixers still aren't sure how they want to use him against the increasingly uncomfortable matchups Embiid has struggled to figure out.
“How do you keep 7’2” on the floor with a mobile guy that can shoot a three?” Brett Brown said on Sunday.
It’s a question that calls back to last year’s playoff series against Al Horford and the Boston Celtics, when Embiid was diminished against a center who had to be kept in check 25 feet from the rim. His closeouts were awkward, ineffective, and exhausting. Philadelphia eventually moved Embiid off Horford to reduce his part against Boston's pick-and-rolls, but the ripple effects from this move eventually led to their downfall. (It should be mentioned that Philly's defense in that series was never worse than when Embiid sat on the bench.)
Today, the Sixers want Embiid in the paint as much as possible. He drops back against pick-and-rolls, often below the free-throw line, executing a strategy that's designed to limit three pointers by turning team defense into a reactionary game of two-on-two. As help defenders stay home on the outside, Embiid is briefly responsible for his man and the ball; his job is to force as many mid-range jumpers/floaters as possible. But as the league finds more and more ways to attack from distance, a sagging big is an invitation to pull up for three, or drive and kick back to a popping center who shoots without hesitation. Throughout the regular season, it's a look that should work more often than not. It'll preserve Embiid's body and allow him to unleash mass energy when he has the ball.
But against certain teams (AKA the ones Philly wants to eventually overcome, like the Celtics, Golden State Warriors, and Toronto Raptors) this strategy strains perimeter defenders who have to fight through screens, knowing if they can’t recover in time that a good shooter will take a deadly shot. In the play seen below, once Lou Williams gets middle on Robert Covington he receives a second screen from Boban Marjanovic. Embiid stays back, and there’s no way for Philly to guard it as well as they should.
Again, this applies to ball screens and popping big men, but, just as critically, it’s also ineffective against quick flare screens set by Embiid’s man that generate open spot-up threes.
According to Cleaning the Glass, Philly’s opponents actually had a lower three-point rate when Embiid was on the floor last season. This season, it’s up a monstrous 7.3 percent versus when he sits. That number will probably go down as the season goes on, though—especially since Philly’s backup five, Amir Johnson, executes the same scheme—and Philly’s defense remains scary when Embiid locks in as the dominant, active, mobile anchor he can be. Here he is taking away Jose Calderon’s open shot while providing Fultz with enough time to switch over and block it.
It’s a constant give and take. When I ask Fultz how difficult it can sometimes be to have Embiid so low on the floor, he agreed that the constant threat of a pull-up three, without much help, can create challenging situations. But it’s a work in progress the two are trying to figure out. “I listen to him, he listens to me,” Fultz says. “If I tell him I’m back in front or I’m forcing [my man] in, or ‘step up, Joe,’ he does a pretty good job of listening. He also does a pretty good job of talking to me. ‘Get over the top,’ you know stuff like that."
But at the end of the day, against the best of the best, this strategy won't do. Embiid needs to either antagonize at the point of attack or switch screens more than he already does. The latter strategy may ultimately be what unearths a championship-level postseason defense in Philadelphia, but for now it has obvious drawbacks. For one, it pulls Embiid away from the basket, where he’s most effective deterring shots and grabbing rebounds. Two, it’s not easy! Embiid can’t move his feet with wings and guards for an entire game, especially as they make him dance outside his comfort zone.
That isn't to suggest he's a stiff, by any means. Here, he switches onto Reggie Jackson and sticks with Detroit's point guard the entire possession, eventually forcing a deep three. But with Embiid pulled so far outside the paint, Jon Leuer is able to snatch the miss and finish with an and-one.
It's a conundrum Philly shouldn't lose too much sleep over this early in the season, but in the grand scheme of things it matters. How truly great can a relatively traditional center be—even one as great as Embiid—in a league that's constantly figuring out new ways to fold speed and outside shooting into a winning formula?
For now, he's a monster who prospers against the grain on both sides of the ball and remains plenty equipped for battle in an era that's more than happy to capitalize off his defensive disadvantages. But in the end, how successful Embiid can be without conforming to the NBA's current aesthetic may ultimately decide what his team is able to accomplish. Early results are a mixed bag, but to bet against Embiid's ability to figure it all out would be to ignore every reason he's already so awesome. At some point, his flaws may not even matter.