Embiid warming up

It’s quite easy to buoy any above-average offensive output the Sixers have had over the last season-and-a-half to Joel Embiid. When all else fails on any given night, he’s the crutch upon whom the Sixers lean to do the heavy lifting for their offense. Philadelphia is 10th in offense through 49 games this season. Not bad considering a revolving door of player availability, one max contract underperforming, and another holding out for a trade. 

But over the last 6 games, the Sixers are averaging 116.1 points per 100 possessions — good for 6th in the NBA in that span, and 3.7 points per 100 possessions better than their average output on the season. As Embiid slowly steps ahead of the rest of the field in the MVP conversation, it’s easy to credit the bump to him. But, the film shows that the catalyst driving the improvement is as simple as cutting to the basket. 

“We’ve been working on that since last year. It’s a work in progress. Nowadays, every time I catch the ball in the post, the opposing team, every single night, they double in a different way,” Embiid said after the victory over the Sacramento Kings on Saturday. “Tonight, they were coming from the baseline. The other night against the Lakers, they were coming from the top of the passer. So, you got to adjust. We’ve got different schemes when it comes to that.”

Sometimes, cutting can be as simple as reading what the defense is doing and knowing when to act.

The double-team never quite comes on this play, as Westbrook retreats to the weak-side as a sign of respect for Tobias Harris. But again, cutting is often as simple as being aware of what the defense is doing. Thybulle and Embiid have made meaningful progress in their understanding of one another on the court this season. So Thybulle flashes out to the strong-side corner and waits for the big fella. He senses Carmelo Anthony overplaying the middle and conceding the baseline. Thybulle is shooting a career-worst 28.7 percent from deep this season. So there’s absolutely no reason for Anthony to be playing high on a non-shooter, especially given Thybulle’s speed in short bursts and vertical athleticism. As soon as Embiid turns and reverses his dribble back towards the strong-side corner, Thybulle dusts ‘Melo.

“Especially when I catch the ball, you know, Matisse has one job. He has to cut to the basket and bring someone in and he creates a two-on-one to the other side of the floor,” Embiid said after the Kings game. “So, that’s what we’ve been working on since last year and he’s helped me a lot become a better playmaker.”

It isn’t just Embiid’s relationship with Thybulle that weaponizes cutting. Rather, the whole team is growing increasingly comfortable with intuitive cutting off one another. According to Synergy, Philadelphia scores 1.277 points per cut. That ranks 14th out of 30 NBA teams. The distribution is a bit more balanced than one might think:

Player Total Cuts Points Per Possession
Drummond 56 .982
Harris 40 1.35
Thybulle 35 1.686
Embiid 34 1.353
Korkmaz 17 1.647
Bassey 15 1.533
Reed 13 1.077
Maxey 9 1.222
Brown Jr 9 .778
Green 8 1.125
Niang 8 1.5
Joe 5 .4
Milton 3 .667
Curry 3 1.667
Total 255 1.213

As Embiid highlighted in the above quote, the key to cutting often lies in where the double-team comes from when the offense revolves around one superstar. If the defense sends the double from the baseline side, the next key is watching for the helper to drop down and cover for the teammate who sold out to assist in pressuring Embiid. If they don’t drop down, there’s a pocket of space for the cutter to rush to the rim:

This was Embiid’s best pass against San Antonio’s baseline double, but it wasn’t the first time he recognized and capitalized on it in the affair. Embiid’s inability to recognize the double-team has been well-chronicled for years. The countless turnovers ensuing from that weakness have cost the Sixers dearly. But, it’s all starting to click for the big man:

It’s the same play, sans the sexy pass. Devin Vassell’s rush across the paint to double is late, as Embiid is already in a position of advantage. But, Keldon Johnson is late on his drop to the block to take away the cutting window.

It isn’t always as simple as reading the defense, though. That’s when knowing how to cut is critical. And that’s as much a reflection of Doc Rivers’ teachings as anything is. 

“I think over the year you grow as a team, and that’s one area we’ve continued to grow and Doc has really gone over with us at shootarounds, at practices, when to cut, where to cut from, what’s the most effective cut, especially when you have a guy out there like Joel, that’s getting double-teamed,” Georges Niang said after the victory over the Lakers.

“We need to be efficient with where we’re going and where we’re cutting to and at what time. And I think for me, it was an adjustment because I’ve never played with a big that, like he [Embiid] described himself, could do all those things.”

Say what you will about Doc Rivers’ proficiencies in various departments, but Niang’s actions support his words.

The best way to beat switching defenses is to slip the screen. This is a bit of a hard slip, given Niang’s push off Amir Coffey. This type of cut is usually much more of a brush, bordering on non-contact, action. At any rate, Niang slips as the Clippers switch. And the temporary window as he dives to the rim allows Embiid to throw a Sam Bradford 2-yard special over the top to his cutter.

That isn’t the only type of cut the Sixers have showcased over the last 6 games. When you have an elusive, agile speedster like Tyrese Maxey, v-cuts are another valuable tool:

The Laker defense, in general, is underwhelming. And this play speaks to a sheer lack of defensive intelligence in purple and gold. Avery Bradley is one of the league’s better point-of-attack defenders. But if you have to choose between forcing Maxey to his left hand along the baseline or sending him towards the middle of the floor with a help defender possessing the prowess that Anthony Davis presents, you choose the latter. Bradley overplays Maxey to his right, conceding the baseline. And that allows Maxey to fake towards Embiid slightly to get Bradley moving in one direction, only to slash back towards the baseline and leave his man in the dust with nothing but a jet trail in the shape of a “V”.

“So once I figured out what ways and different things I could do to get open, I feel like it’s been a lot easier for me and I feel like, as a team and a unit, we’ve done a great job of cutting and moving off the ball,” Niang said after Thursday’s victory.

“When the ball is moving, it’s like music to the eyes out there.”