So you’re a tough guy
Like it really rough guy
Just can’t get enough guy
Chest always so puffed guy
I’m that bad type
Make your mama sad type
Make your girlfriend mad tight
Might seduce your dad type
I’m the bad guy, duh – Billie eilish
Joel Embiid started playing basketball in 2011. He was very bad at this game before he became very good at it. What Joel Embiid has always had, however, was a flair for drama. From essentially his early moments for the University of Kansas, Embiid’s passion for connecting to people has exceeded even his own prodigious talents. His combination of dramatic flair AND immense potential has made him a player that elicits an emotional reaction.
And that emotion is absolutely vital to both his and the franchise’s future. A franchise, by the way, for which he is the “crown jewel.” Philadelphia has seen its fair share of hot and cold personalities. The city, more than not, prefers raw unvarnished emotion over cool and ruthless efficiency. The championships have tended to come when the emotion is harnessed into something explosive but channeled. Embiid is in the process of trying to find that balance.
When It’s Love
Early on this season, for the most part, the joy has been lacking. Without that bigger-than-life personality, the flaws in Embiid’s game become easier to focus on. Teams are blitzing Embiid when he is in the post, as soon as he puts the ball on the floor. This is happening more and more frequently this season, as Toronto and Boston have provided a blueprint on how to exploit Embiid’s relative lack of advanced basketball experience.
There is no quick fix for learning to beat late doubles. You have to see them 1000s of times from many different angles with many different off ball movement varieties.
JJ was a security blanket. He knew what he would do and where he’s be.
This just takes time and reps. https://t.co/2ej8jcBGOQ
— J Blevins (@JBlevinsNBA) December 12, 2019
“I haven’t done it all season,” said Embiid after the 97-92 victory versus Denver. “I haven’t been having fun like usual.” He continued, “It goes back to being mature and trying to figure it out, you know, how to make it work.” More and more people, both on social media and in conversations, have remarked that Embiid has looked unhappy. Some folks have taken this to think he is unhappy with his role or in life and some have even started thinking about a trade.
The truth is, however, that Joel is looking for a balance between being an emotional leader without being a distraction. Much of this, according to him, comes from the fight with Karl Anthony Towns. “The fight happened, we had momentum, and we kind of lost it, losing a couple of games.” Joel is talking about the suspension he served while the team was on a West Coast road trip after getting into a heated altercation both on the court with Towns and later that night on social media. I was critical of Embiid after that night. Many fans loved the fire and media loved the story, but I expressed my concern right after.
But the fight was not the real wake up call for an Embiid, as though he had been living a care-free life unbothered by anything prior to it. Joel has been noticeably more reserved, less outgoing, since the loss in Toronto last May. The outburst with Towns seems, in retrospect, like a person who had lost the underlying playfulness upon which his “Troell Embiid” persona was based. Something is missing, or perhaps, reality and doubt has crept in.
One of the biggest parts of my game is having fun, and by having fun, it’s talking trash – joel embiid
Unfortunately, this is not as simple as talk trash + have fun = profit. The league was not ready for Joel Embiid in 2016 when he landed into the NBA as something like Godzilla in a league that had trended smaller and quicker. In those first couple of years, it was only Embiid’s health and inexperience that saved a league who had been scheming to stop Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. As the Sixers became a playoff team, they started to face veteran big men who had the time and attention to detail to learn his tendencies and moves and take the easy stuff away.
Top of the World
As the league, in general, woke up to the looming threat, they began to develop schemes to force him to put the ball on the floor and make quick decisions. For the most part, Embiid has shown limited progress in developing advanced counters to those attacks. He is 25 and has played the sport for less than 10 years. He is also making more money per season than the average American will earn in a lifetime. On top of all that, he is on TV 100 times per year, so his growing pains are on full display for all to see. Play time is over, right? Well no… that is actually a really dangerous way to think about it. So let’s digress for a moment into another example.
What Billie Doesn’t Know
On the road trip to Boston this week, Embiid acknowledged having heard the critique leveled by Shaquille O’Neal recently. Embiid was deferential to the former players and responded with a dominant performance in a win against the Celtics. Which reminds me of last week when a furor broke out over pop artist Billie Eilish, who admitted on national television that she did not know who Van Halen was.
Egregious lack of historical awareness, right? Well Eilish is a 17 year old electronic pop artist similar to Lorde. She displays no real rock-and-roll influences in her music, so it should not be a surprise that she has not heard of Van Halen. However, a less charitable analogy would be if Joel Embiid had no idea who Hakeem Olajuwon was. Or perhaps if Ja Morant had never heard of John Stockton.
When the Party’s Over
But you know, now that we mention Van Halen, maybe Joel Embiid could learn from the emotional journey of Van Halen as a lesson on not sacrificing joy for the sake of maturity. When you look at Eilish, for example, what doesn’t jump out at you is unbridled joy. Some might say we’ve seen this face recently on Joel Embiid. And exuberant joy is so crucial to what makes Joel special.
David Lee Roth was the lead singer of Van Halen from 1974-1985. Van Halen was brash, high octane, and known for iconic guitar riffs. Eddie Van Halen is the virtuoso guitarist who has an extremely rare combination of technical skill and catchy riffs. David Lee Roth was more performer than vocalist, as anyone who has heard his isolated vocals can attest. He brought the party to the pure musicianship of Van Halen, and the combination was legendary. However, it created conflict.
As a showman at heart, Roth preferred crowd-pleasing songs about partying and sex that were fairly simple and meant for a live performance. Eddie Van Halen wanted more musical weight and depth while moving towards a more radio-friendly pop direction. Simply put, Roth fed off the crowd and Van Halen intellectualized the music itself. Roth described the musical direction of Van Halen as “Morose” and left the band in 1985.
Sammy Hagar was hired in 1985 to replace Roth as lead singer and the band achieved its first #1 album with 5150. The album was a departure from the previous iteration of the band, with more keyboards and generally a more pop sound. It was perfect for MTV, perfect for the radio, but less joyful and conducive to a concert experience. The band with Sammy Hagar, produced anthemic songs occasionally. That era, although their most commercially successful, marked the beginning of the end for Van Halen.
Each subsequent album after 1991 did slightly worse. The band declined, and ultimately the band has never been relevant since. In 1996 Hagar left the band and was again replaced by a more technically sound vocalist, who brought even less stage presence. The band ultimately lost its emotional connection with its fans.
You Really Got Me
Once that emotional connection is broken, it’s really difficult to recapture. Roth rejoined the band in 2006 and went on tour. In an era where the money from album sales has all but evaporated, the live experience is everything for a band. Roth and Van Halen had their highest grossing tour ever that year. Despite this, the band has never recaptured the magic that endeared them to so many people.
Why Can’t this be Love?
If you talk to a Van Halen fan anytime after 2000 or so, you will almost invariably find a DLR Van Halen fan. Why is this? Especially if the band sold its most albums during the “Van Hagar” period? The difference often comes down to the emotional reaction that those iterations of the band evoked. The David Lee Roth stuff reminds fans of that feeling of unbridled youth and exuberance. Many serious musicians will advocate for some of the later stuff, as the technique took over.
Everybody Wants Some
At the end of the day, the NBA is an entertainment product. It can be a highly tactical and technical game, but it will always be blocks and dunks that get the crowd off their feet most. The Sixers are still undefeated at home, following Friday’s win versus New Orleans, but have lost 7 road games. The crowd is a very real variable in this disparity. Home court advantage is highly correlated to fan engagement, and Joel Embiid admittedly feeds off of the emotion of 20,000 fans.
He is a novice to the sport of basketball from a pure tactical standpoint, so emotion is a key to his success. Last January after a disappointing loss in Washington DC, I asked Joel about feeding off the crowd. He acknowledged that he needs to be more consistent and dominant regardless. Here are Joel Embiid’s home and away splits.
When you look at points per game and rebounds, things look fairly similar. But when you look at blocks, turnovers, and net rating, you can see the effect of crowd energy on Embiid’s game. In fact, when you remove big national games in Los Angeles, the difference becomes even more apparent. And then there is Marc Gasol…
Joel Embiid has a career average of just 14 points per game versus Memphis. This is the lowest average of any opponent. He also has shot his worst percentage from the floor and from three against any opponent. Marc Gasol has sort of been the poster child of how to exploit Embiid’s weaknesses. You have the nightmarish combination of a non-rival, low energy arena and a highly technical defensive center when looking at those matchups.
The Toronto Raptors traded Jonas Valencunias and a number of other players for Marc Gasol last season. At the time of the trade, it was considered a move to keep pace with Milwaukee. However, you have to think that Masai Ujiri was thinking about Gasol’s ability to limit the younger, more athletically gifted – but relatively novice offensive decision maker – in Embiid.
Hot For Teacher
In Boston, on National TV, in front of the people who had criticized him, Embiid responded. But the next step is for him to play his game, his way, on a nightly basis, even when there is no obvious motivation. In this clip he talks about getting teammates involved, but stepping up if need be. This is the right way to think about these non-big games. Those nights are super valuable for Embiid to work on his read-and-react game, focusing on refining the skills that he will need late in the postseason when teams are smarter, faster, and have more time to deploy creative variations in their blitzing scheme when Embiid puts the ball on the floor.
Thinking Fast and Slow
One of the most popular executive non-fiction books of the decade, Thinking Fast and Slow, goes into incredible depth about the challenge of taking something that is unnatural and turning it into instinctive and quick thinking. The central thesis of the book is similar to that of the 10,000 hours theory proposed by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. In Thinking Fast and Slow, the premise is that there are two functions of the human brain. System 1 is fast, instinctual, and emotional. It does not require thought, deliberation, or planning. System 2 is the slow brain which is used for complex problem solving and analysis. The book goes into extreme detail about cognitive biases, why they exist and how they are both useful and potentially harmful.
“A good guitar player plays tight, a great guitarist plays loose.” – Paul Green
As the world famous music teacher and founder of the Paul Green Rock Academy says, “Between you and a great guitar player is an ocean of sh***y guitar solos, so you better start paddling.” This is a direct way of saying that in order to move a new skill from the slow brain of system 2 to the fast brain of system 1, you need those reps, those 10,000 hours. These are all ways of saying the same thing, there is no shortcut to making the unnatural natural.
IF YOU HAVE EVER TRIED TO LEARN PIANO OR GUITAR, YOU HAVE PROBABLY STRUGGLED INITIALLY WITH FOCUSING ON LEARNING THE PLACEMENT AND MOVEMENTS ASSOCIATED WITH LEARNING A PARTICULAR CHORD STRUCTURE. YOU THEN LEARN THE SEQUENCE OF CHORDS STRUNG TOGETHER FOR A PARTICULAR TUNE. WHAT TYPICALLY COMES LAST IS THE INTERNAL CLOCK THAT ALLOWS YOU TO SMOOTHLY FLOW FROM ONE CHORD TO ANOTHER WITHIN THE TIME SIGNATURE AND TEMPO TO MAKE THE MELODY INTO CONSISTENT AND PLEASING MUSIC. – Face The Music
Ben Simmons was raised with a basketball in his hand since he was a toddler. Tiger Woods was swinging a golf club before he was potty trained. Joel Embiid is a middle class kid from a soccer culture who grew up playing volleyball. His near supernatural physical gifts, along with his incredibly quick ability to pick up techniques, made him look prodigious. Joel famously talks about learning to shoot from watching YouTube. And even the dream shake can be learned and practiced alone. Individual skills can be learned, refined, and mastered on your own.
Come Out and Play
Honestly, volleyball, Embiid’s childhood sport, has translated to him being an all-world defensive player. Volleyball is a read-and-react game, just like NBA defense. NBA offense, however, is much more like soccer, where you have to set up a defense and make decisions with a ton of moving parts. There is a reason that point guards notoriously take longer than any other position to thrive in the NBA. There are so many variables that teams can force, blitz, and trap a ball-handler and force mistakes.
NBA point guards are often compared to NFL quarterbacks for this very reason. And for the past generation or so, the NBA has trended away from dominant post players because of how difficult it is to be effective from the post. The first part of post dominance is having an arsenal of moves to beat a man defender. Joel has a full quiver of offensive moves. He is like a raw quarterback who can make all of the throws.
JJ Redick: Security Blanket
“There was a play call world that he lived in that we kinda, you know, created because of him that I haven’t been able to dust off yet. like it’s got Moss in it right now in my back closet since we don’t possess that type of player on this year’s team. – Brett Brown talking about JJ Redick
In two crucial years in Joel Embiid’s development, he had an incredible rapport with JJ Redick offensively. Redick was able to force opposing defenders into catch-22 decisions where his counter would punish whatever choice they made. Brett Brown talked about the team since the departure of Redick. “We’re just different,” said Brown. He continued, “He’s got this skill set of flying off pin downs and off balance shots, and he takes a second to get his shot off.”
Those skills are sort of what JJ Redick in a vacuum has always been, but for someone like Joel Embiid, the value is accentuated. “Offensively, he provided that capability, and he allowed Joel to have like a partner. He and Jo hooked up a lot in late game situations. And, you know, he just helped balance the floor and this and that, and you know like I say, it was a great ally for Joel.”
Runnin With the Devil
Since Redick’s departure, Embiid has had to continue his recognition, timing, and passing progression without having that comfort outlet. He is seeing increased double teams at a time where he is still uncertain about where to expect his teammates to be off ball. The 76ers provided stationary targets for Joel, outside of Redick, in past years.
But stationary targets are easy to defend, so the challenge is for Joel to learn where his teammates will be going when the double comes. This will depend on many factors, including where the double comes from. Again, there are hundreds of different permutations on how these looks can play out, and Embiid needs hundreds of reps on each for it to move from System 2 slow-thinking into System 1 fast-thinking. But as far as Redick, it goes beyond just the tactical end of the game.
“You get into a human side of him on an airplane or a bus or in a hotel lobby. He’s smart; he’s a good guy; he’s in shape; he takes pride in like the detail of things. He’s highly competitive, like beyond maniacally competitive, and his self awareness and humility and a skill set, and It’s an incredible package.”
Talent Does Not Trump Time
So are we supposed to just sit here and wait? Yeah, pretty much. The indications are that the team is learning to put the parts together. After a preseason and early stretch where the team struggled to get threes to fall, they have risen to 5th in the league in three point percentage. Some of that may just be natural ebbs and flows of an 82 game season, but another explanation could be that the team is taking more threes in rhythm and consequently more of them are falling.
Teams tend to shoot better when the initiator knows where his outlets are and he hits that player in the shooting pocket. Those are the kinds of details that take time to develop. Brett Brown has said since before the season that it would take until Christmas to really know what he has offensively. He did indicate some concern about how the team was trending offensively.
So patience, time, and thousands of reps are what it will take. The questions around Embiid’s willingness to self reflect, accept criticism, and work to improve were partially answered Thursday in Boston. But reality is, the more doubles he sees between now and May, the better his preparation.
What he should not do is let himself regress into a more passive and tamed down version of himself. He needs to keep the inner David Lee Roth while he refines his skills. It’s okay to be the bad guy, get in the power stance, and rock out – but never stop learning.
(Editor’s note: many of the headers above are song titles from Billie Eilish and Van Halen)