If you’re a Sixers fan, you’ve likely watched Joel Embiid and thought to yourself — or yelled at your TV — “Why isn’t he in the post?”
NBC Sports NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh not only agrees with you but has numbers to back this notion up.
Embiid’s average shot distance this season is 12.4, which is by far the highest mark of his career. Last season, in the 19 games where Embiid took at least eight shots from three feet or less, the Sixers were 16-3. The only game he’s done that this season is in a win in Atlanta.
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Cut and dry, right? Just get this dude in the post and go to work.
While Embiid does have a tendency to "float" on the perimeter, it’s not that simple. If you’ve watched the Sixers this season, you’ve seen aggressive double teams thrown Embiid’s way. Sure, he’s seen double teams in the past, but nothing like in 2019-20. His goose egg in Toronto gave teams somewhat of a blueprint.
Marc Gasol has always given Embiid problems, but head coach Nick Nurse decided to double Embiid on every single post touch. It was easily the most aggressive tactic we’ve seen vs. Embiid. While it worked that night and the Raptors came away with the win, it’s not necessarily the greatest strategy. What opposing coaches are saying is they want to take away Embiid and make the rest of the Sixers beat us.
And they have.
Since that loss in Toronto — a game the Sixers still had very much in their grasp before crumbling in the last few minutes — the team is 8-2 with Embiid in the lineup. Their only losses have been a flat-out clunker against the Wizards and a funky loss against the Heat where they looked like they’d never seen a zone defense.
We’ve seen Tobias Harris elevate his game in those circumstances. In those 10 games, Harris has averaged 23.4 points and taken 19.3 shots per game, both above his season averages.
But the bottom line is the strategy has worked in slowing Embiid, but not the Sixers.
Haberstroh also points to Embiid’s 38-point performance in Boston where he stepped up after facing criticism from Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley. Again, it’s not black and white. The Celtics erroneously didn’t double Embiid as much as others have. They were practically begging Embiid to have a breakthrough game.
The fact that the Sixers hit 14 of 28 from three was a huge help.
“Whenever I was guarded with single coverage, I took advantage of it,” Embiid said to reporters after that game. “If they don’t make shots it’s easier to double team me. If they do, you got to make a decision — do you want to give up a three or just hope that your big man can try and stop me? It’s a hard decision to make, but like I said, it goes back to I give them a lot of credit — my coaches and my teammates.”
With all that said, there are things Embiid can do better to get himself more touches closer to the basket. He often doesn't run rim to rim and "floats" around the perimeter instead of trying to get early post position. When he's setting screens for ball handlers, he can roll harder and more frequently to the basket.
It’s fair to want Embiid in the post more. He already leads the league in post ups per game by a wide margin, but Brett Brown and Embiid have said they’d like that number to go up even higher. When he’s covered 1-on-1, he’s almost impossible to stop.
But if he’s double teamed, he needs to keep making the right decisions and have his teammates make the opponent pay.
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