Ever since Joel Embiid’s first score in the NBA — a fluid transition from a shimmy shake with his back to the basket to a mid-range jumper — there is a certain comfort when the basketball is in his hands.
In fact, the addiction to Embiid touches sometimes maddened observers when the team couldn’t find ways to get the ball to the big fella in advantageous positions under Brett Brown. Last season, Doc Rivers’ first with the franchise, the Sixers added Delay to the mix. In that structure, Embiid received the ball at the nail or higher — where he could see the whole court — and was given the freedom to make decisions. Delay‘s efficiency might’ve been inflated by Embiid’s astronomical progression as a mid-range jump-shooter. Perhaps Embiid’s torrid mid-range shooting last season is sustainable. But if not, the Sixers will need to add new wrinkles to the offense to get him the ball in favorable positioning.
If the team’s preseason victory over the Nets was any indicator, the Sixers may have added options to the playbook to free up space for the star center.
Doc Rivers has emphasized the importance of cutting to his team’s offense during training camp. Your brain might first think of improved spacing or scores at the rim. Those are inevitabilities of consistent, purposeful off-ball cuts. But the shooting gravities of those cutters open up a third door that doesn’t necessarily register in your mind on first thought — defenses have to think and communicate long enough for Embiid to burst to open spots.
At 6-foot-3 and 175 pounds, Isaiah Joe isn’t setting kevlar picks on a chiseled Blake Griffin. But, his shooting prowess forces Griffin and Bruce Brown to communicate as the latter falls behind the cutting Joe. Joe’s cut transitions into a down screen. Because the Nets don’t want to give Joe space to breathe in the weak-side corner, Griffin switches onto the shooter for a split second before both realize that Brown is essentially a meal for Embiid if that switch stays. Toggling through those defensive adjustments, although taking just milliseconds, gives Embiid enough time to reach the open pocket by the free throw line and catch the ball. From there, Embiid is in control.
There isn’t a ton of nuance to these new wrinkles. But, Rivers will be the first to tell you that he’s not one to re-invent the wheel. When you have a dominant post presence, sometimes the best offense involves getting four shooters on the weak side of the court.
Korkmaz initiates the offense on the right side of the court so that Embiid can catch the ball on the left side — where he’s most comfortable. The first pass goes to Georges Niang, triggering Danny Green to set a cross screen for Embiid and then pop to the top of the arc. Once Niang cuts through the lane, all of Brooklyn’s helpers are on the weak side of the floor. From that point, it’s simply about attacking away from the closest helper. With Kevin Durant lurking in the passing lane towards the middle of the floor, Embiid elects to go baseline to attack Griffin.
“Teams want to switch, except for not on Joel.”
Just like in any walk of life, basketball is often about finding the most efficient way of operating to your strengths. Doc Rivers is just trying to weaponize Joel Embiid’s overwhelming physical prowess.
“Teams want to switch, except for not on Joel. And so, take advantage of that,” Rivers said when asked about implementing new screening actions to free Embiid up on Monday night.
“When I got the job, they said you couldn’t run pick-and-rolls with Joel. And I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? He’s massive’. If we use his body and go down hill, you know what, Joel has changed. He’s mixing it up. He’ll roll, he’ll pop. Where I guess in the past, he didn’t roll a whole bunch and now the rolls by him and Drummond tonight really put a lot of pressure on that defense.”
Regardless of whether Ben Simmons ever plays another game as a Sixer, there’s no reason why lineups of Embiid and four shooters can’t be effective if they remain committed to ball movement and cutting.