Philadelphia 76ers All-Star center Joel Embiid has been a dominant player in the NBA for years now, but a couple of adjustments under new coach Doc Rivers have elevated his game, and in turn, the Sixers, early this season. These adjustments are the result of both improvement on Embiid's end, and changes to Philadelphia's game plan compared to previous seasons.
The first major change -- and the word major should be emphasized -- is how Embiid is handling defensive double teams. This was a problem area for Embiid in the past, as he was frequently slow to read, and in turn react to, oncoming doubles. This often led to bad shots, turnovers, and stalled possessions for Philadelphia. So far this season though, Embiid has been quicker to read and react to double teams, and that has opened things up tremendously for the Sixers offense.
In the play below against the Charlotte Hornets, Embiid sees a double team coming and he quickly gets the ball up and out to Danny Green on the perimeter. Green then swings the ball to Tobias Harris, who knocks down an open 3-pointer.
Since the NBA doesn't officially track hockey assists, Embiid won't get credit for that play on the stat sheet. But, it was his quick pass out of the double team that led to an open look for Harris. In the past, he certainly didn't handle double teams so smoothly. The same thing happens in the play below, again against the Hornets. Embiid quickly passes out of the oncoming double team to Green on the perimeter, and Green again swings the ball -- this time to Seth Curry, who knocks down a jumper and draws a foul.
The improvement in this area is partly due to Embiid taking better care of the ball -- something that he said was a focus for him this season -- and partly the result of Philadelphia's approach under Doc Rivers.
"We've been working on it every day," Rivers recently said of Embiid's handling of double teams. "It's one of the first things we talked to Joel about, that we had to get better as a group, on how we're going to handle them, and he had to get better on what he needed to look for. We're giving him really two options to look for every time and he's doing that. You can see he wants the ball to get double-teamed, so he can start the offense."
Those two options that Rivers spoke of are easy to identify in the play below. As soon as Embiid receives the pass, Hornets guard Terry Rozier leaves Ben SImmons on the wing to double down on Embiid. Simmons then cuts to the lane, where Embiid could drop a pass off to him to either go up with it, or kick it out to the perimeter. That's the first option. The second option is Seth Curry, who slides over from the far wing to the top of the key in order to put himself in a good position to receive a pass from Embiid. On this particular play, Embiid kicks it out to Curry, who knocks down an open 3-pointer.
For Philadelphia, having reliable knockdown shooters for Embiid to pass to when doubles occur has helped too, as Embiid himself made it clear that he trusts his teammates to make shots more than he has in the past.
"I think it's more so that I've rekindled with the love of passing," Embiid told media members recently. "Last year at times, [teams would] double and [I'd] pass and you miss a couple, you miss a lot of shots, and it gets frustrating. Then you start thinking that you got to do everything by yourself because everybody's not making shots. This year, I just think I've just been letting the game come to me.
"I love sharing the ball," Embiid added on another occasion. "I love getting my teammates involved. Especially if we're making shots, it just makes my job easier. Now you've got to think about doubling me."
In addition to the handling of double teams, the other main adjustment that the Sixers have made is the emphasis that has been placed on Embiid getting deep positioning early on in possessions. For example, in the play below against the Washington Wizards, Embiid establishes deep paint position just a few seconds into the shot clock -- before the defense is set to send any help. At that point, thanks to his sheer size and strength, Embiid almost always has the advantage.
It's the same story in the play below, this time against the Charlotte Hornets.
And again against Charlotte:
In the above play, Embiid beats Hornets center Bismack Biyombo down the floor, and Miles Bridges is forced to pick him up. That's barbeque chicken for Embiid, as Shaq would say, and Bridges has no choice but to foul Embiid. The fact that Embiid is getting up and down the floor so well is a sign that he's in a bit better shape than he has been in the past, and Doc Rivers has made finding Embiid down low early in possessions a point of emphasis for Philadelphia. It's not something that Rivers wants to see every time down the floor, but it's a great way for Embiid to get some easy buckets over the course of a contest.
"It's a major point [of emphasis]," Rivers said. "With his size and speed, he can do that. He obviously is not gonna do that every time, I don't want him to, he'd be exhausted, but if he does that four or five times a game, that's huge for us."
These two adjustments have unlocked a more efficient Embiid. Sure, the sample size is still small, but early on Embiid is shooting a career-high 52 percent from the floor, while also tying his career-low mark for turnovers per game (3.1). With more emphasis being placed on his paint play, he's averaging a career-low three 3-point attempts per contest, even though he's connecting from deep at a career-high 45 percent clip. Those that have previously clamored for Embiid to spend less time around the perimeter are getting their wish. Obviously, these early trends need to be maintained for the entirety of the season before they should be celebrated, but when it comes to how Doc Rivers is utilizing Embiid, the early results are certainly promising.