The last time in the 2021-22 playoffs Joel Embiid was healthy, he averaged 27.6 points, 13 rebounds, shooting 51% from the floor and 80% from the boards on a crushing 11.3 FTA per game. He had given the Sixers a 3-0 lead over the Toronto Raptors with a game-winning three-peat on the road. The ligaments in his thumb were already damaged, but the crucial finger hadn’t swollen yet, the adrenaline still surging. Then he called game:
But by the end of that first-round streak, Embiid had a torn shooting thumb, a broken orbital bone and a concussion. No one could have been stunned if his season ended there. But he was cleared to play after missing two games on the road. By the time he returned his side were trailing 2-0, and playing much more tentatively, considerably limited by injury, he never fully returned to MVP form.
The 2022 Sixers ultimately lacked depth, defense, shooting, health, toughness and heart. But still, fans wonder how things could have happened if Joel had avoided these two freak events. Could they have at least gone one more round?
Beyond our injuries and assumptions, there are lessons learned, areas still crucial for Joel Embiid to improve. Let’s see if we can figure out what he’s been up to this summer during these #invisiblehours.
Embiid is very proud to have corrected its weaknesses each offseason. It always comes back better. Fans should be really excited about what’s next given his track record as a summer worker. Here’s how the 28-year-old described his offseason goals following the season-ending loss:
“My goal remains the same, it’s to win it all and every season I feel like I’ve improved and there’s still another level I can reach…every playoff, I saw adjustments kinda made me want to make some changes in what I’m working on over the summer and you look second round the way [Miami] played me if they denied me the ball and every time I had the ball there were two or three guys on top of me I couldn’t drive to the basket because everything was just crowded so I guess the goal this summer is to get better and figure it out.”
So what does this imply? Does that mean less fighting for post positioning without the ball, which is exhausting and makes him prone to getting tackled and reliant on teammates hitting precision entry passes?
Here’s some of what Embiid is referring to, Miami’s ruthless ball-denial and spin-off traps:
You can bet teams will try this trick again next post-season after seeing it work so well for Erik Spoelstra’s club. But what should he work on to counter this?
Earlier this summer, Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer reported that Embiid focused on perimeter skills and his touch around the edge:
“Sources say Embiid is already working this offseason on perimeter attacks and finishing with a touch on the edge. Embiid and the Sixers are hoping he can get even more dynamic by bringing the ball down himself during the break and driving on the half court.
We interviewed Joel’s skills trainer, Drew Hanlen, in June.
At one point, I asked Hanlen about this Ringer report. Is that what they’re going to work on together?
“Yeah, it just keeps adding versatility to his game so he can’t be doubled and tripled as much as a team in the playoffs. If you look, the last really dominant center that won a championship was Shaquille O ‘Neal and he was playing on a triangle offense where he was very pass oriented, cut oriented. And you look, Joel is so dominant when he receives the ball in the regular season obviously, leading the league in scoring, but in the playoffs the teams only throw him two, three guys and so we’re trying to continue to be more and more versatile where they can’t overtake him as much it just means more perimeter-focused where he can face and drive from the perimeter , which is much more difficult to initiate patterns and adjustments.
Hanlen therefore tackles many of the same themes that Embiid tackled upon its release. I guess they want Embiid to feel more comfortable on the wing where it’s easier to give him the ball and then harder to choke or confuse him effectively.
The Sixers may also want to take advantage of him as a starter. Note that in the clip above, Embiid punches, works tirelessly just to get open, often can’t, and his teammates (even one of the game’s most skilled passers of all time at Harden) still have struggling to get him over the rock.
There was also this tweet that Hanlen posted a few weeks ago, on the same general point:
(Obviously, it can’t hurt if he’s better at those things. But does the idea sound like more point-JoJo?!)
Notably, Hanlen talked about how much easier it is for Embiid to dominate in the regular season because teams just don’t sell as much to stop him as they do in the playoffs. And of course, the impact of Miami’s strategy had a cumulative effect:
- Denying the ball decreased his total touches, while frenzied traps limited his total shots.
- After passing several possessions with no attempt, it seemed to increase his sense of urgency, leading him to force shots.
- Everyone got frustrated. Joel worked tirelessly to position himself only to watch a lob go out of bounds or else he’d get it and predetermine to shoot instead of open kicks he instinctively hit against Toronto.
- Body language has become a problem. Joel and Danny Green, in particular, seemed to get angry at Miami at times. Harden grabbed his teammate gesture-anger as well.
See below how Embiid has blocked its outlets at times, keeping context in mind; namely, the regular season leading scorer perhaps feeling he needs to assert himself amid long droughts:
If Miami was basically saying “we’ll let anyone but Embiid beat us,” what offensive burden was Embiid comfortable sacrificing to win? I’m sure the torn thumb and awkward mask didn’t help, but Miami clearly bet that Embiid wouldn’t do all the right pass-readings and they were right.
If Embiid works on perimeter skills (thought can go), he can spot and help his teammates get the ball to him in the first place, drill jumpers and tackle closeouts, all while simplifying his pass reads (as opposed to to a post ups where his back is to all the action).
Sending a double or triple if standing 23 feet away also leaves the paint vulnerable to attack.
Bad communication for the Heat, Butler stays high as Thybulle swipes the screen thinking Oladipo is going with him, so Miami has three guys defending two and Embiid finds Thybulle for the dunk pic.twitter.com/XAtNzIlTU7
— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) May 9, 2022
Does that mean we’ll see more spots and fewer post-ups or even less pick-and-roll action with James Harden?
Hanlen doesn’t think there will be less pick-and-roll with The Beard:
“[James and Joel] gave big numbers when they were together in the pick-and-roll, why walk away from something that works? …. But we’re just making sure Joel has all the tools and skills he needs to be able to play against any kind of unwanted defense he’ll see in the playoffs.
But maybe there will be fewer post-ups. Joel saw 9.8 post opportunities per game last season (9.0 once Harden made his Sixers debut). But that number dropped to 4.8 by playoff time. It might be a good idea to wean the team off some of these looks in the next reg. season, in preparation for the 2023 playoffs where he will likely do so much less.
But back to beating doubles and zone patterns. We asked Hanlen who they watched the movie for beating all those blitzes. And he said there wasn’t much to work on cinematically, but that he thinks Embiid can continue to improve on his passing:
“Yeah I mean we came back in the movie Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant was pretty much the only two guys who even came close to being as double and triple as him even LeBron we came back and watched all the stuff LeBron’s postseason. LeBron in his career has never been as presented and denied as Joel did in the playoffs, so there aren’t many movies to watch to be honest with you. Our job is just to keep making him more versatile, to keep improving his game and his passing. I think he’s taken a big step in the right direction to improve the looks of his teammates and I hope if teams keep throwing their whole team at him he can throw himself in and get some easy looks and let his team beat them those nights that they decide to entrust all bodies to Joel.
LeBron may have seen the least because he’s the best passer in this group.
So, gathering clues, it looks like Embiid will be operating farther from the hoop than he did in the days of Doc Rivers. Maybe there will be more strikes and starts, maybe he will take more threes and save his legs a bit during winter work; especially if it doesn’t focus on MVP as Hanlen also alluded to. Maybe he’ll trade a few post-ups for pick-and-rolls or dribbling beyond the arc.
We know that Brett Brown used to deploy Joel as a spot up more often than Doc Rivers, in an effort to spread the word and fire up a co-star like Jimmy Butler or Ben Simmons. Maybe Harden wouldn’t care if they tried that. But it’s a different version of Embiid than Brown’s – older, stronger, smarter, better. So if Doc is looking to do more of that, with some welcome reinforcements on the wing, all without reducing the game to two Harden-Embiid, the Sixers should have real room for improvement here.
We can be sure that Embiid will make progress this offseason. Looks like he is focused on improving his wing and passing skills. His new teammates may well be the biggest beneficiaries.