Take a look at the shot charts below and note the differences that you see:

These are charts of Joel Embiid’s shots from his last two games against the Celtics. The first, on the left, is from the Sixers’ five-point win Monday night. The second, on the right, is from their one-point loss on Dec. 1.

Critiques of Embiid tend to focus on his post game or his three-point shot. But the biggest difference between Embiid this season and the player we’ve seen in previous years has been the absence of his mid-range pull-up jumper.

Whether he is on the foul line, the baseline, or the elbow/extended, Embiid’s face-up pull-up is one of the most unstoppable shots in today’s NBA. In the Sixers’ 108-103 win on Monday, the big guy scored 14 of his season-high 41 points with the shot, connecting on 7-of-11 attempts. It doesn’t take John Nash — or a sportswriter — to understand the math. If Embiid shoots 6-of-11, the Celtics have a potential game-tying possession with three seconds left. If he shoots 4-of-11, the Sixers lose.

Problem is, Embiid has spent this season shooting a lot closer to 4-for-11 (.363) than 7-for-11 (.636) on his mid-range pull-up. His performance against the Celtics on Monday was his best by far since returning from an extended COVID absence.

Embiid on mid-range pull-ups
FGM
FGA
FG%
Monday vs. Boston
7
11
.636
Previous 10 games
24
61
.393
2021-22 Season
45
115
.391
2020-21 Season
115
250
.460
2020-21 Playoffs
36
68
.529
Game 4 vs Hawks
2
10
.200
Game 7 vs Hawks
3
9
.333

That table pretty much tells the story. But let’s try to make it a little more relatable. Last season, Embiid averaged five mid-range pull-ups per game. Those five attempts resulted in 2.6 misses. This season, Embiid is averaging six attempts per game. Those six attempts are resulting in 3.6 misses.

Embiid last season: 2.6 misses on 4.9 attempts.

Embiid this season: 3.6 misses on 6.0 attempts.

You might not think a single “extra” miss over the course of a game sounds too detrimental, but that might change if you think about a missed shot as a possession that has been forfeited/wasted. The Sixers average about 109 points per 100 possessions, which means they average about 1.1 points per possession. That also means that every missed shot costs them about 1.1 points per 100 possessions. At least, conceptually. Right now, that’s the difference between the Sixers having a positive point differential and a negative point differential. It’s the difference between the 20th-ranked scoring offense and the 11th-ranked scoring offense. It’s about 30% of the difference between this year’s Sixers offense and last year’s (which averaged 113.2 points per 100 possessions).

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The math isn’t exact, but you get the point (pun neither intended nor avoided).

On a more subjective note, it seems to me that all of this is a reason for some degree of optimism about the Sixers moving forward. Yes, the Sixers have clearly suffered from Ben Simmons’ absence. But Embiid’s sluggish shooting start is another significant variable. It’s possible that the former has contributed to the latter. But it’s also possible that Embiid simply has not shot the ball well.

His volume numbers are similar to what they were in his first four seasons: 20.8 two-point attempts compared with 20.7; 5.2 three-point attempts compared to 5.6; 15.2 free-throw attempts compared with 13.5. His assists are up substantially: 6.5 in 2021-22 compared with 4.9 from 2016-20. His turnovers are down: 4.0 compared with 4.9. His three-point percentage is better (.357 vs. .319). His free-throw percentage is better (.803 vs. .793). His overall scoring is essentially the same (37.6 points per 100 possessions vs. 37.8).

The only significant difference in his offensive game is his efficiency from two-point range. In his first four seasons, he made 52.4% of his two-point attempts. This year, he is making 47.5% of his two-point attempts.

Point is, the Sixers don’t need Embiid to play at an MVP level the way he did last season to be a much better team. They simply need him to play the way he did in his first four seasons. Specifically, they need him to shoot the way he did. And that’s well within the realm of possibility.

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Again, look at the win over the Celtics. If Embiid goes 6-for-11 instead of 7-for-11, the Celtics have a chance to tie the game with three seconds left. If he goes 4-for-11, they lose.

Consider:

  • The previous time the Sixers faced Boston, Embiid shot 1-for-8 from 12-to-18 feet. They lost by one point.

  • Against the Heat last week, Embiid shot 1-for-3 from 12-to-18 feet and 1-for-5 from 24-plus feet. The Sixers lost by five points.

  • In a one-point loss to Minnesota, Embiid shot 5-for-10 from 11-to-18 feet.

  • In a five-point loss to the Nets at the beginning of the season, Embiid shot 1-for-5 from 10-19 feet.

That’s four losses by a combined 12 points in which Embiid shot 8-for-26 (.307) from 11-to-19 feet.

That’s not to say that Embiid’s pull-up is the sole reason the Sixers are 16-15 instead of 20-11. Monday night, he faced a Celtics team that was playing without Al Horford and Robert Williams. That wasn’t the case when he went 3-for-17 from the field earlier this month.

At the same time, Embiid clearly hasn’t been at the top of his game for most of this season. There’s plenty of reason to believe that he will eventually get back to his baseline, and that the Sixers will follow suit.