Embiid surveys the crowd

Joel Embiid has been off his game in 2019. Embiid himself has acknowledged it

So what’s wrong? Let’s jump in.

Nothing

The simplest explanation is that nothing is wrong.

2018-19 Embiid: 53.5% 2P, 30.0% 3P, 80.4% FT, 38.6 P/100P, 19.1 TRB/100P, 5.1 AST/100P, 3.7 STK/100P, 5.0 TO/100P, 4.6 PF/100P, .194 WS/48

2019-20 Embiid: 50.4% 2P, 30.0% 3P, 81.0% FT, 34.6 P/100P, 19.5 TRB/100P, 4.9 AST/100P, 3.6 STK/100P, 5.4 TO/100P, 5.4 PF/100P, .190 WS/48

That is remarkably consistent, and his 2017-18 season is similar as well. But if he’s producing around the same amount, why does it feel like he’s playing worse?

Expectations

Expectations are a dangerous thing. Embiid was expected to show up to camp in the best shape of his life. Embiid was expected to take a step forward on the court. Embiid was expected to be a smarter, more mature, more focused player.

None of those things have happened.

Embiid is not in the best shape of his life. He still looks overweight, and he looks like he’s laboring around the court at times.

Embiid has not taken a step forward on the court.

Embiid is trying to be smarter, mature, and focused, but he’s really struggling to maintain any of that on a game to game basis.

Instead, 2019-20 Embiid is just the same as 2018-19 Embiid. But since the expectation was that Embiid would be better this year, Embiid is failing to meet expectations. The same performance can feel wildly different when the expectations are different. That may be the very simple answer here.

The Eye Test

Embiid has always relied on his prodigious physical gifts more than things like technique and positioning. It works for him. Compared to Horford, Embiid can look clueless at times. Embiid gets his results in a very different way, and compared to a technician, his style can be less aesthetically pleasing.

The Sixers’ offense with Embiid on the floor (with or without Simmons) has scored at around 1.08 PPP. The Sixers’ offense with Embiid off the floor and Simmons on the floor has scored at around 1.14 PPP. Given that the offense is playing better with Embiid off the floor, it looks like the Sixers are playing better. However, the defense is more better than the offense is worse, meaning Embiid is still a net positive. It’s not as pretty, but it is more effective.

“Do you even watch games?” is a common refrain towards people who express different opinions of players. However, this is a prime example of when the eyes can lie. Being less fun to watch doesn’t mean less effective. It may look like Embiid is playing worse, but it may be nothing more than deception of the eyes.

Other Explanations

Embiid has had at least one turnover in the last three minutes of each of his past three games. People remember what happens at the end of games more, and they remember more recent games more. This dual memory trick causes people (including Embiid!) to feel like he’s playing poorly, when it may be nothing more than a few bad plays at the wrong time. Much like the eye test, memory can play tricks by remembering bad plays while not retaining good plays. There is certainly an element of that here.

Embiid has been acting differently. He has a different energy. He is struggling emotionally. Because he looks miserable rather than happy, it appears he’s playing worse. He may not be playing worse, he just feels like he is, so everybody else feels that too.

Something

Perhaps something is wrong though. Just like eyes and memories can lie, so too can stats.

I don’t think anybody is questioning Embiid’s defense. It’s as good as ever. Embiid’s issues appear to be largely on the offensive end. But if Embiid’s offensive stats are basically the same as last year, how can something be wrong?

The Rest of the Team

Basketball is a team sport. If Embiid is putting up the same numbers personally but the offense is down, that means others’ numbers must be down. And a look at the numbers confirms that.

Points per possession with and without Embiid on court:

  With Embiid Without Embiid
Al Horford 0.87 1.22
Ben Simmons 0.89 1.01
Tobias Harris 1.02 1.22
Josh Richardson 1.18 0.99

Three of the four starters are significantly better with Embiid off the court. Looking at the bench, Thybulle and Neto are better with Embiid, while Korkmaz, Ennis, Scott, and Burke are better without Embiid.

Now, there’s some issues with samples and sample size here, but the hypothesis does appear to be true overall: Embiid is hurting the players around him more than helping. Why?

Positioning

The biggest issue is that Embiid wants to operate in the same space that Simmons, Horford, and Harris also generally want to operate in. When Embiid steps out, his defender often does not follow him far enough to help, and Embiid does not hit 3s at a high enough rate to punish defenders for sagging.

Simmons especially greatly suffers from Embiid’s presence. Simmons’ lack of shooting simply doesn’t work when Embiid is on the floor. At his best, Simmons drives, draws help, and kicks. With Embiid on the floor, there’s an extra body in the middle and one less body to kick to. As a result, Simmons’ TO rate skyrockets. 

Similarly, Horford and Harris both want to operate in the spaces Embiid typically does. Unlike Simmons, who shoots roughly the same but turns the ball over more, Horford and Harris’s shooting numbers really suffer:

  2P% with Embiid 2P% without Embiid 3P% with Embiid 3P% without Embiid
Al Horford 46.3 56.3 15.4 40.0
Tobias Harris 49.6 59.1 27.7 35.9

Adding to the issue is that Embiid just does not have a natural feel for off-ball movement. He routinely wanders into driving lanes, pulls his defender closer to help position rather than away, and often does not get in good positions to receive passes. When the Sixers played Simmons, Embiid, and three shooters, Embiid’s wandering was not a problem. Surrounded by a group of players now who all can dribble and move around, Embiid’s inability to fit in sticks out like a sore thumb.

Normally the fix to this would be to just run a 1-in 4-out offense. Throw the ball in to Embiid and allow him to either work inside or kick out for an open shot. There’s just one problem with this.

Passing

Joel Embiid is a terrible passer. It feels harsh to say that about somebody who accrues as many assists as Embiid does, but passing is a major weakness for Embiid.

What makes a good pass? Quick recognition, accuracy, and fitting it through tight windows without turning the ball over. Embiid utterly fails on all three counts far too often.

Teams have doubled Embiid at a very high rate this year, and while Brown has made significant adjustments to help Embiid, it hasn’t been enough. Embiid simply takes far too long to recognize who and where the open man is. Rather than start the swing to generate the open shot, Embiid hesitates and is too late getting rid of the ball, allowing the defense to reset.

Accuracy is an often overlooked part of basketball passing, but it is extremely important. It is easier and quicker to shoot or pass a ball caught at the chest instead of at the knees or off the body. Embiid very rarely puts passes in the right place. The extra beats of hesitation caused by pulling the ball back to where it needs to be throws off the timing of offensive sets and allows defenders to recover.

Embiid also has absolutely no ability to thread the needle. He struggles to find cutters in crowded spaces. He can’t get the ball cross-court consistently. Other teams have really picked up on that this year and crowd the ball side, forcing the Sixers’ offense into panic mode when Embiid eats too much clock trying to make something happen and then trying to get the ball back out.

There is a reason that much of Embiid’s passing is limited to dribble handoffs. He is not capable of consistently executing more than that.

Conclusion

With better teammates, Embiid’s relatively small flaws are greatly magnified. These flaws can stand out on a game to game basis. They are absolutely real, but ultimately, Embiid still brings far more to the table than he takes off of it. The Sixers are a better team when he is on the court. There should be no discussion of trading him.

However, Embiid is a very emotional player and person. Embiid has been “the man” the past two years, the guy who gets a bucket when the team most needs it. Going from that role to a role where he is at most a screener for somebody else is a wild swing. Will Embiid accept that he should not be “the man”? Can he?

Ultimately, I don’t think anything is wrong with Embiid on the court. He’s the same player he’s always been. And when he gets his head right, he’ll still be the same player. He’ll just be having more fun.