Joel Embiid was dripping like a 10-year-old on a log flume. It was nearly an hour after the official end of practice, and the big man had spent most of the interim sequestered at the far end of one of the two full-length basketball courts that comprise the Sixers’ practice facility. Under the direction and supervision of renowned skills coach Drew Hanlen, Embiid pushed himself through an exhaustive series of post drills against a team staffer wielding a heavy foam pad. Whether he was facing up, or backing down, or drop-stepping into a weak-side spin, the center finished each repetition by attacking the rim with the full force of his seven-foot, two-hundred-however-many-pounds frame.
For anybody who came away from Embiid’s 38-point powerhouse performance against Celtics last Thursday thinking, “Please, sir, can we have some more," this was an encouraging display. So, too, was the mindset he relayed to reporters as he toweled off the sweat and tried to catch his breath.
“It’s been lacking the past few games,” Embiid said of his post game. “So I just want to get back to it and try to be better. I can do much better."
If Embiid’s dominant night against the Celtics last week was evidence of the singular impact that he can have when he is on the court, the Sixers’ 20-point loss to the Nets a few days later was an example of just how ordinary they can look when he is off of it. In his 22 starts, the Sixers are 17-5, which extrapolates out to 63 wins over the course of an 82-game season. Contrast that with their 3-3 record in the six games he has missed, including Sunday’s stinker in Brooklyn, which Embiid missed with what the team termed an upper respiratory illness.
The night-and-day difference between the Sixers with Embiid and without him isn’t anything new. But it’s never a bad thing to reinforce, especially when talk turns to the area of the game where he has the most room to improve. It’s simple, really. Even if Embiid remains the exact player that he is today, assuming full health, he will waltz into Springfield whenever his playing days are through. Anybody who attempts to dispute this does so without accounting fully for his once-in-a-generation impact on the defensive end of the court. This season, opponents are scoring an average of 10 fewer points per 100 possessions when Embiid is on the court versus when he is off of it. Their effective field goal percentage is nearly 50 points lower. As stark as both of those marks may be, they actually represent a dramatic improvement over last postseason, when the Nets and Raptors combined for a ridiculous 122.7 offensive rating (points/100 poss) when Embiid was on the bench compared with 95.7 when he was on the court.
The addition of Al Horford has done much to mitigate the defensive disparity that exists with and without Embiid. The emphasis now is to make things on the offensive end a little more lopsided.
One of the more surprising developments to emerge over the course this first quarter of the Sixers schedule is that the team has actually featured a more efficient offense with Embiid on the sidelines. Heading into Wednesday night’s showdown with the Heat at the Wells Fargo Center, the Sixers’ offensive rating and effective field goal percentage with Embiid are both roughly five percent lower than what they were last regular season. Both marks are also worse than the ones they have posted with Embiid on the bench this season: a 111.3 offensive rating without him versus 108.0 with him, and a .553 effective field goal percentage without him compared with .519 with him (all numbers are according to Basketball-Reference).
To a certain extent, the disparity itself is a testament to the enormity of Embiid’s presence as opponents concentrate their defensive efforts on making life difficult for him. Teams know that the Sixers want the gravity of their offense to center on Embiid in and around the paint, and they’ve responded by throwing him a mixture of double-teams at him from all different spots on the court
“Last year, they were doubling off of Ben," Embiid said. "Most of this year they’ve been doing the same, but they just come off of anybody. You don’t really know where it is coming from, so you just have to take your time and adjust and make the right plays.”
Embiid’s passing out of traffic remains a work in progress, but there are signs of improvement. In his last four games, he has averaged 5.8 assists and 3.8 turnovers to go with his 23.5 points per game. That’s a significant increase from his first 18 games, when he averaged 2.8 assists and 3.2 turnovers along with 22.6 points per night.
“I’ve got to get used to it,” Embiid said. “It’s going to be like that in the postseason, so I’ve got to keep working on that.”
Despite the growing pains that the Sixers’ offense has endured this season, they remain convinced that Embiid’s post game will eventually reach a point where it can anchor a championship-quality offense. As he worked with Hanlen after practice on Tuesday, it was easy to envision a player who no amount of personnel combinations can stop. He has the size, and the strength, and the coordination to go over, around, or through anything in his path.
“The main thing about being in the post, it’s all about balance,” Embiid said. “The whole season, I feel like my balance has been off. You’ve gotta stay low, so you are ready for anything. When you stay high, that’s when you turn the ball over. I can see it - every time I’m high or not low, it happens all the time. It’s all about balance, and staying low, being decisive.”
Those are the words you want to be hearing at this point in the season. They are an indication that the message is getting through. Can the Sixers win a title without Embiid dominating the offensive paint the way he did against the Celtics? Sure. But the hope remains that, by the end of the season, he will turn them into a team that can’t be stopped.