As long as the basket remains 10 feet from the floor, there is little as elemental in the game of basketball as putting tall men near it and giving them the ball. You can devise a hundred offensive strategies, but nothing substitutes for dropping the basketball through the rim as a reliable means of scoring points and making opposing defenses play honestly.
In Joel Embiid, during those precious minutes they have him in the game, the 76ers possess a unique combination of skills. He can move. He can shoot from distance. He can dribble. What he does most consistently, however, is stand an inch or two over 7-feet tall. He is very good at that.
Embiid was not expected to play Saturday night in Toronto, so we have only two games of this young season to look at how he is fitting in with his new teammates, particularly Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz, the back-to-back No. 1 picks who are the primary ball handlers for the Sixers. Neither is really a traditional point guard because both can get to the basket with ease – a good thing since their perimeter range is limited – but they should be traditional enough to recognize the value of the tall guy on the blocks.
Again, this is a limited sample, but particularly in Friday’s home opener against Boston, when Embiid shot 4-for-16, he didn’t get the ball where he should be most effective. That has to happen for a number of reasons, even if it comes at the occasional expense of the way Simmons and Fultz would prefer to play.
“We need to go to the tape and find a way to get me the ball in the post,” Embiid said after the game. “Since I wasn’t doing that, I felt like I had to go outside and make something happen to help us win.”
Embiid, who struggled through what coach Brett Brown termed “his most difficult offensive game as a Philadelphia 76er,” went to the outside and the Boston Celtics were fine with that, especially when Embiid went 0-for-6 on three-point attempts.
Having watched Embiid during 31 games last season, during which he made 36.7 percent of his three-point attempts (the point-value equivalent of making 55 percent on two-point attempts), we know he can make those shots in the flow of the game. The rest of the NBA does, too. Until he settles in and does it this season, however, within an offense made up of soloists competing for riffs, other teams will be similarly happy in letting him drift away from the goal.
“We’re figuring this out on the fly,” guard J.J. Redick said. “I would say there are possessions I feel we waste and those could go to Joel. If they’re not doubling, he’s one-on-one.”
Every opponent will double-team Embiid in the post when he receives the ball. That would be excellent news for Redick, Robert Covington, and Jerryd Bayless, who had made 24 of the team’s 25 three-point baskets going into Saturday’s game. Playing the game inside-out is as old as cotton nets, and there’s a reason for that. The Sixers just have to find a way to make it work when a lot of their skill players are also adept at reversing the direction.
“He’s the guy we need to get the ball, because he makes everything happen,” backup point guard T.J. McConnell said of Embiid. “We just have to do a better job of finding him. It’s on us to find a way to get him the ball where he’s comfortable.”
Only nine of Embiid’s 31 attempts have come in the basket area so far (he made six of them). Last season, he took nearly half his shots close to the basket. Of course, that was with a different set of personnel and not as much competition for that territory, so it was easier to play a two-man game and enter the ball to the post.
“This is stuff we’ll have to figure out as time unfolds,” Brown said.
And they will figure it out, just not overnight. Any expectation that the Sixers would hit the ground as a fully formed team and not a collection of possibilities was ill-founded.
In fact, they have a lot to figure out. They have to take better care of the ball and they have to play significantly better fundamental defense. Too many turnovers and too many fouls will beat you every time.
Using Embiid properly in the offense should be pretty far up on the to-do list for the new season. The Sixers have talented players, and some young guys who are probably going to be big stars. They have only one Joel Embiid, though, and while he and rim have so much in common, it’s a good idea to keep them close together.