There are a plethora of potent pairings in the NBA today, but none have been as productive this season as Philadelphia's dynamic duo of Joel Embiid and James Harden. Embiid is the league's leading scorer on the season, averaging 33.4 points per performance, and Harden is the top assist man in the Association with 10.8 dimes dropped each game. Unsurprisingly, those two skill sets have proven to be pretty complementary.
No player has assisted another player more this season than Harden has Embiid, and it's not particularly close. At the time of typing, Harden has 210 total assists to Embiid -- 194 2-point shots, and 16 triples. The next closest pairing is in Indiana, where Tyrese Haliburton has 135 assists to Buddy Hield. That's a difference of 75 assists between Harden and Embiid and the next duo.
It's thanks almost entirely to the developing two-man game between Harden and Embiid -- and the space created for others by the attention they draw in and around the painted area -- that the Sixers have the third-ranked offense in the league after finishing outside of the top 10 in that category in each of the past two seasons.
CBS Sports HQ Newsletter
Your Ultimate Guide to Every Day in Sports
We bring sports news that matters to your inbox, to help you stay informed and get a winning edge.
Thanks for signing up!
Keep an eye on your inbox.
There was an error processing your subscription.
In order to maximize their potential as a pair, Embiid has made a major adjustment to his game by becoming a prolific roll man in the pick-and-roll action -- something that he didn't do nearly as often over the course of his career prior to this season.
On the current campaign, Embiid is serving as a ball-screener on 6.9 possessions per game -- the vast majority of which are screens for Harden near the top of the key. That number leads the league by a wide margin. The next closest player is the Suns' Deandre Ayton, who serves as a screener on 4.7 possessions per performance for Phoenix. Embiid also leads the league in points per game as a roller with 8.3. Anthony Davis is second in that stat with six points per game.
Overall, Embiid is screening on 23.6 percent of his offensive possessions. That number is much higher than it has been in past seasons. Last year, Embiid served as ball-screener 16.6 percent of the time -- a number that got bumped up after Harden's arrival in February. The season before, Embiid operated in that manner just 12.5 percent of the time, or 3.2 possessions per game.
As a result of his high usage in PNR's, Embiid is playing out of the post a lot less. During the 2020-21 campaign, Embiid operated out of the post 36.5 percent of the time. That number dipped to 28 percent last season, but he still led the league by a wide margin. This year, Embiid is operating out of the post just 16.7 percent of the time -- that's a 20 percent drop compared to just two seasons ago.
That massive number is indicative of how big of a change Embiid has made to his offensive approach in order to maximize his fit with Harden. The magnitude of this adjustment seems to have flown under the radar a bit on the national level, perhaps because Embiid has made the change so seamlessly.
What makes the action so deadly is just the sheer number of ways that the Sixers can hurt you with it. Watch any Sixers game and you'll see an array of opportunities generated by Embiid setting a screen for Harden at the top of the key. If the defenders follow Harden, Embiid will roll to the rim for an easy dunk, or pop out for a jumper from his sweet spot at the nail. If the help defenders are pinched in, Philadelphia's corner shooters will get open opportunities. If too much attention is paid to Embiid off of the roll, Harden will exploit that and get to the basket. If you go under the screen to prevent the drive, Harden can pull up for three. It's a real riddle for defenses.
If Embiid continued to operate out of the post at such a high clip, Harden would have been largely relegated to an off-ball guy, which isn't where he's at his best (though he has worked to improve as a catch-and-shoot guy alongside Embiid).
Having Embiid serve as a screener much more maximizes Harden by allowing him to do what he does best -- orchestrate an offense, and generate open opportunities for the big fella, and others. The benefit for Embiid is that he doesn't have to fight nearly as hard to get open looks. Instead, he can simply slip a screen and find himself wide open for a 15-footer courtesy of The Beard.
Embiid's ability to adapt has paid dividends and provided Philadelphia with a reliable, extremely efficient go-to play. The Sixers are averaging 1.2 points per possession when Embiid serves as the roll man this season. That's more than they've ever averaged with him playing out of the post. For comparison's sake, the Sacramento Kings have the highest points per possession average for a team on the season at 1.18.
Next time you're watching the Sixers, pay attention to how often Embiid screens for Harden at the top of the key to initiate offense. The potency of the play makes it an invaluable weapon for Philadelphia, and something that whomever they face in the postseason will have to contend with.
All stats in this article courtesy of NBA.com and PBP Stats.