Joel Embiid's scoreless night both an aberration and alarming for the 76ers
Embiid's weaknesses were on display in Toronto, and Philadelphia is having a tough time maximizing his strengths
Joel Embiid, the all-world center Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown calls their crown jewel, on Monday night. In a 101-96 loss at Scotiabank Arena, the Toronto Raptors held him to 0-for-11 shooting, with five fouls and four turnovers, including two miscues on consecutive possessions with about two minutes left in the fourth quarter when the Sixers had a two-point lead. Embiid missed all four of his 3-pointers and all three of his free throws.
In that Philadelphia didn't score a single point in the final four minutes, it was reminiscent of its worst moments in the second round of last season's playoffs, in which the Raptors strangled its halfcourt offense. This time, however, Toronto did not have Kawhi Leonard, and, due to injury, it did not have Kyle Lowry or Serge Ibaka, either. And rather than the Sixers combusting every time their franchise player went to the bench, they were minus-nine in his 32 minutes and plus-four in the remaining 16.
Everybody has bad nights. Superstars, however, are generally expected to avoid truly awful ones. "I can't have that type of production," Embiid said, via my colleague Michael Kaskey-Blomain. But let's imagine he had made one of those free throws and one field goal, thereby avoiding headlines like the one at the top of this story. If that were the case, would Embiid's poor performance even be worth discussing?
I say yes, in the context of Philadelphia's so-so offense, which is 15th in the league and way below average aesthetically. The Sixers have scored an identical 107.8 points per 100 possessions with Embiid on the court and off it, an indication that, despite looking completely unguardable at times, he has not been dominating on a consistent basis the way his skills and size suggest he should. Had he looked just as uncomfortable, indecisive and unable to punish the Raptors for sending double teams, it would have been relevant even if he had managed to score double digits and escape the arena with a win.
In fairness to Philadelphia and Embiid, other teams have had trouble dealing with Toronto swarming their stars. In three consecutive games this month, all without Lowry and Ibaka, the Raptors held LeBron James to 13 points on 5-for-15 shooting, their old buddy Kawhi to 12 points on 2-for-11 shooting (with nine turnovers!) and Damian Lillard to nine points on 2-for-12 shooting.
"Defensively they're everywhere," Embiid told reporters, via the Toronto Sun's Ryan Wolstat. "They're so long and they make sure they pack the paint. And tonight we made no shots, and when you are not making shots and you play against a team like that, it's really hard. But we've got to get better, especially me."
The Raptors are sixth in defense -- and have been 0.3 points per 100 possessions better than the Sixers on that end -- despite their injuries, and they were collectively brilliant against Philadelphia. They have defended the rim at an elite level all season. But the Sixers make protecting the paint easier because of their poor spacing, and Embiid is right that they have to be better. This is especially true if they run into a healthy Toronto team in the playoffs. Marc Gasol has always given Embiid trouble.
Embiid missing literally every shot is an aberration, but him having difficulty finding rhythm and room to operate is not. By acquiring Al Horford, Philadelphia addressed its center-depth problem, but created a new one; it has scored just 104.5 points per 100 possessions with the two bigs sharing the court, a mark almost identical to the Memphis Grizzlies' 27th-ranked offense, with a turnover rate that would rank dead-last. That Embiid and Ben Simmons are imperfect partners on offense is not news, but it has become a massive subject of conversation again because the pieces around them make the whole thing look weirder.
Last season, JJ Redick provided structure and dead-eye shooting and Jimmy Butler provided perimeter playmaking and crunch-time scoring, helping to connect lineups featuring both Embiid and Simmons. Their starting lineup, with Horford and Josh Richardson in their place, is actually scoring well (in home games, anyway), but Brown's coaching staff is still calling timeouts and making substitutions frequently in an effort to stagger the rotation and let Simmons and Embiid be something like the best versions of themselves, separately. This is proving to be a challenge.
Whenever Philadelphia's fit issues have come up in recent years, so has the idea of a team fully built around Simmons, the way the Milwaukee Bucks went into the 2018 offseason with a clear directive to maximize Giannis Antetokounmpo's ability to get into the paint. Lately, though, I've found myself wondering what a roster constructed to get the absolute most out of Embiid offensively might look like. I can confidently say it would not resemble this year's Sixers.
In Philadelphia's ideal scenario, talent will trump fit, and Embiid's struggles will drive him to become a better passer, a better ballhandler, a better decision-maker in tight spaces and a better shooter, improvements that would have come in handy against Gasol and the Raptors' pesky help defenders. It is a bit of a bummer, though, that I am even thinking about his weaknesses at all, given his otherworldly strengths.
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