All it takes for an NBA defense to neutralize a typical post-up is a little organization. It’s pretty straightforward to put a few defenders within reach of a stationed giant, leap and slide on the ball when it finally makes its move. Even teams that give up the size can perform enough interference to make getting the ball through the post a chore, and jostle enough once it’s there to flip the shot clock in their favor. When faced with efficient pick-and-roll machines that fabricate layup opportunities and open 3s, high-volume post-play – like many of its Jurassic practitioners – is too heavy to be worth.
Joel Embiid is the towering exception. Every game Embiid plays is a game about Embiid. He is, if not the main character, his central theme. Long before he can start hitting outclassed big men on the block, opposing coaches are forced to reconsider their entire approach to defense. Should they overtake? Should they try out this area they barely had time to practice? Embiid practically rips the card out of the roster and adjusts his opponent’s rotation himself – first by requiring the biggest, beefiest cross available to be with him in the starting lineup, then pulling that much of faults he calls the second and third sleuths. stake.
Embiid is to the post-up what Kevin Durant is to the midrange jumper – not a savior of the medium, but a math anomaly. So far this season, Embiid is hitting 70.6% of his shots from his prime spot on the left block, according to NBA.com, an unholy number that doesn’t even include the free throws he generates on the fake and rip- thru them. This ability to take mistakes from the post is an aberration in itself; in a league where post and perimeter play is officiated as two completely different sports, Embiid has adopted an increasingly Hardenesque playing spirit as a means of forcing a whistle. An official might not call out a two-handed push behind Embiid’s back if he tried to make his way through a hook shot, but facing and struggling through the outstretched arms of a defender gave him a path to a league leader (and a career-best) 10.7 free throws attempt a game.
(Even Nikola Jokic, Embiid’s only true peer in terms of postplay, only scores fouls about half as often.)
Some stars thrive on finding the cracks in the defense. Rather, Embiid set out to steam-roll entire defensive systems and flatten the logic that brought them into existence in the first place. It’s a profound impact – enough for the Sixers to stand firm on their reported trade offer for James Harden, even if that meant knowing the Nets would outbid them for the former MVP. After all, Philly might have its own MVP; Embiid presented the most compelling case for the award at this point as a two-way anchor for the top-ranked team in the East. Keeping him together with Ben Simmons was the Sixers’ best chance at a championship-level defense. The key to Philly’s success, however, remains the same: whether Embiid, whose score largely defies modern basketball logic, could support the Philadelphia offense without significant development from his All-NBA teammate or the addition of ‘another.
Perhaps that sort of framing is a moot point, as the Sixers have scored as effectively as any team in the league when their two-star have split the floor this season – an alarming development for opponents given the already exceptional defense of Philly. The qualifier required is that the Philadelphia calendar has been unbelievably indulgent; even the few games the Sixers have played against better-quality opponents have been mitigated by COVID-related injuries and absences. (Wednesday’s reunion with the Lakers is expected to be fascinating – both as a collision of MVP favorites and as a more sophisticated test for the Philadelphia attack.) The practical change, however, is that Embiid and Simmons are flanked by more famous shooters than ever before. Seth Curry (who currently sits second all-time in his career in 3-point percentage), three-time champion Danny Green and reliable new Tobias Harris. Embiid has been an exceptionally effective low post scorer for years. Translating this skill set into a stable and rival offense could really be as easy as giving it room to breathe.
“In the NBA these days you have to be able to shoot the ball,” Embiid said ahead of the season, praising the new acquisitions. “You have to be able to space the floor. It’s hard to play backwards all the time. I lead the league in post-ups, or have led it last year or the past few years. But people still want me to post more. It’s understandable, but then again, you have to find a balance between making sure everyone is involved and giving me the ball.
There are more entry points for the offense this season under new coach Doc Rivers, although every possession still points to Embiid. There are transfers between Embiid and Curry, kick-outs between Embiid and Harris, and even close pick-and-rolls where Simmons will descend to filter Embiid’s defender as he posted, an action that often develops. too quickly for the defense to react. More engaged spacing also gave Embiid enough freedom of movement to catch passes on the perimeter and literally bring his man down to the block:
All the while, Simmons lurks along the baseline across the lane, ready to get rid of the ducks and offensive rebounds that arise when a later threat like Embiid disrupts an entire defense. “Our relationship continues to grow,” says Simmons. “We talk a lot more in terms of being on the floor and certain things that we say. Knowing where he wants the ball, all sets, getting a good flow in the game and just trying to read it the right way. After a recent game, Embiid texted Simmons apologizing for missing his cups – an acknowledgment, of sorts, of their changing dynamics. Further establishing Embiid as a possession option on the block was only possible thanks to Simmons’ willingness to expand his responsibilities beyond that of a typical playmaker. “Little things like that,” Simmons says, “keep helping the team chemistry develop.”
Regular season jet set opponents have been overwhelmed by Embiid, and in some cases negated by his fainting. There is an appreciable balance to his game now – first physically, as young Joel played as if he was constantly wobbling, and now mentally, as he read the game with better clarity. “I feel like he’s taking his time,” observes Simmons. Meeting the challenge of the playoffs – when opponents have more time to plan for a post-heavy offense – will test those readings, but Embiid’s promise of individual advantage isn’t something that can be put to the test. hijacked. Any best-prepared game plan against the Sixers will, on some level, come down to weathering the storm.
Under Rivers, the Sixers started repeating successful sets and actions again until their opponents found a way to stop them. But what if Embiid cannot be stopped? What if, at a time when the vast majority of teams were moving into leaner, more agile bigs, there wasn’t a real solution for a 7-footer calling on pressure and beating her? This is no brainstorming – it was the brutal reality of the Celtics when they met the Sixers in back-to-back games last week and gave up 80 points to Embiid en route to two straight losses. It was their fate, doomed to be repeated:
Things didn’t go much better for the Bam-less Heat, who had their own back-to-back clash with Embiid the week before. In the opener, he racked up 45 points and 16 rebounds in an overtime win for the Sixers. In the rematch, Philadelphia built enough early lead to give their center the rest of the night. Throughout both games, Embiid beat calculated defenses with the type of post-patient play he’s designed to stop:
On that possession, Miami had four defenders pressing Embiid into the paint and a sprint from the perimeter for a tough brace. None of this meant anything. Rookie center Precious Achiuwa was so concerned with playing honest, hands-free defense that he allowed one of the game’s most confident scorers to slip into a flip jumper. The only way to combat the physicality of Embiid is to match the force, which Embiid will use to attract foul. Avoiding the call, however, subjects a defender to a positional game they’re destined to lose – one in which a taller, stronger player will smash them into the paint until a basket becomes easy. Most of Embiid’s weaker performances this season have met increasingly desperate defenses. No player sees more double teams in the position than Embiid, according to Synergy Sports, less because the strategy works and because he is less certain to fail.
These are the stakes of each streak where Embiid, after testing an opponent with a requisite fake pump at the 3-point line, gracefully drops them down into the torture chamber. The terror of his game comes from the way he meets a defense directly, in a combatant manner, exceeding his designed goal. Even perfectly executed projects have their limits. Embiid shows how he can live in a crowd and be in control. He proves that any additional defender in his path is just another brand to sell a foul. The most dreadful failures often come after everything goes according to plan. This is where Embiid leaves an opponent: exhausted, often defeated, and not sure if any of his efforts really counted.