The Athletic

Sixers season outlook, Part 2: Joel Embiid’s defense, Montrezl Harrell’s fit and rebounding

At this time next week, the Philadelphia 76ers will be practicing at The Citadel in Charleston, SC Today, we are going to continue with the second batch of key questions that I have concerning the Sixers’ on-court product this season.

In case you missed Part 1, it focused on James Harden (who seemed to enjoy himself at The Linc on Monday night) and Tyrese Maxey. Now let’s turn our attention to the team’s MVP candidate and the rest of the frontcourt. Here are questions 6-10:

6. Will Joel Embiid turn up the defensive intensity?

After every game last season, Embiid usually said something uniquely insightful. Even after a ho-hum January win over New Orleans, he admitted that he wasn’t playing with the highest intensity level in a disappointing first half.

There is a method to madness. How Embiid has learned to pick his spots and pace himself through an 82-game season is probably the most under-discussed element of a scrutinized career. Finding that pace is a tricky balancing act. When Embiid tries to conserve some energy, it can become obvious to even the untrained eye. The Sixers typically play worse because, well, they have relied on Embiid to do everything. But he also shouldn’t be playing at full throttle for stretches of a grueling season.

As Embiid mentioned in the video above, availability was one of his major goals last season. Mission accomplished: Outside of a three-week COVID-19 absence, he played 68 games and only missed the occasional load management night. That level of durability requires some luck, but also the knowledge of when to step off the gas. The days of Embiid diving into the third row because he’s reduced to a 20-minute limit and won’t play in the next back-to-back are over.

While Embiid’s numbers may have been a tad better in 2020-21, the degree of difficulty last season was higher. That boils down to Ben Simmons refusing to play on a roster that was built to rely on his athleticism, playmaking and defense. Looking ahead, this season’s team is deeper and features a running mate who is playing basketball. Embiid shouldn’t have to carry as much of the load, yet this Sixers team might need him in a more specific way: defense.

As I mentioned in the first post, Maxey and Harden provide issues defensively. The rest of the roster is full of capable defenders, and if Embiid can lead that group to a top 5 finish, he could be in the running for NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Lost in the MVP noise over the past few years, that is an award he covets as well.

This isn’t to say that Embiid won’t score around 30 points per game. He will. It’s simply a recognition that Harden, Maxey and Tobias Harris are a capable supporting cast that has 3-point shooting surrounding it. Last season, when Embiid was tasked with doing everything, the Sixers gave up 109.0 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor. That is good, the 80th percentile of all players per Cleaning The Glass, but it was the lowest mark of his career. With a better, deeper team, might Embiid burn some more fuel on the defensive end?

7. What’s next for Embiid as an offensive player?

Per Synergy Sports, here are the number of pick-and-roll possessions finished by Embiid over the past four regular seasons: 133, 123, 162 and 316. Since that was only with James Harden on the team for one-third of the season , you would expect him to set another career high in that category if he stays relatively healthy.

That part of the game doesn’t come naturally to Embiid, who is on record saying, “I don’t really want to catch lobs and jump all over the place.” Staying on the ground in more situations allows him to play in more games. But what Embiid started to realize is that with Harden running the pick-and-roll, he didn’t need to jump like Clint Capela to have success as a roller. Harden’s passing, combined with his size and skill, got Embiid a ton of easy baskets.

It’s an interesting time for Embiid’s offensive game. On one hand, Harden provides him with quality looks that he doesn’t have to create. But Embiid also is always looking to expand the limits of his game, which won’t change now that Harden is here.

One thing we have learned about Embiid and his trainer Drew Hanlen is that everything is geared toward the playoffs. He typically takes lessons from the previous postseason and applies them to his game the following season. When Toronto doubled him in the post in the 2019 playoffs, he became more perimeter-oriented. The changes Embiid has made have primarily shown up in the regular season, as he finished second in MVP voting for two consecutive years.

What’s next? The issue with last season is that there every on-court postseason lesson could be caveated with the fact that Embiid suffered a broken face and a concussion. But there always is something. One area to watch could be his isolation game, which has risen in frequency each of the past four seasons. That typically means catching the ball in the middle of the floor and facing up opposing centers.

8. With Montrezl Harrell aboard, how will Doc Rivers handle the backup center rotation?

I have come to accept that, in covering this franchise, we are bound to spend as much time discussing the backup center position than the other 29 teams combined.

Instead of rehashing the DeAndre Jordan and Paul Reed calculus from a year ago, which is fresh in everyone’s mind, let’s rewind back to the first season of the Daryl Morey-Rivers era. Then, the Sixers stuck with Dwight Howard the entire season and cruised to the No. 1 seed. As a regular season backup, Howard proved useful. But that team didn’t experiment because there wasn’t a legitimate small-ball center on the roster. They weren’t prepared when Howard proved unplayable come playoff time. The backup center situation was far from the only reason the Sixers bowed out in the second round to Atlanta, but it sure didn’t help.

As of now, Harrell is a better player than Reed. Harrell is an excellent pick-and-dive center who possesses both physicality and touch around the rim, which is why Harden was recruiting him hard. But Harrell’s defensive limitations, and the problems they might pose in the Howard playoffs a few years ago, are well chronicled. In fact, Rivers had a front-row seat for them.

The main difference between 2021 and ’23 is that the Sixers seem to have multiple in-house alternatives already on the roster. Reed held up reasonably well in the first-round series against Toronto — a plus-2.2 net rating over six games doesn’t seem like much, but considering this position’s recent history, it very much is — and then was put in an impossible spot after Embiid went down.

And there is also a history of PJ Tucker playing as small-ball five in successful lineups with Harden, switch-heavy groups that provide Harden with an optimally spaced floor. The Sixers not only have the center to play that style (Tucker), but a few extra 3-and-D wings as well. Harrell should perform in the bulk of the minutes, but Reed and Tucker should reasonably get their chances if only to see how it looks in short spurts.

How Rivers handles this issue will be fascinating. And in a related question…

9. How much switching will the Sixers defense experiment with?

This is something I touched on when writing about the additions of Tucker, De’Anthony Melton and Danuel House Jr. Those three players, along with Harden, Reed, Harris and Matisse Thybulle, form a group of seven players who could switch most screens 1 through 5. Embiid is capable as well, although that isn’t something the Sixers want him doing much of in the regular season.

That won’t be the Sixers’ base defense since Embiid is here, but could it theoretically be something we might see more of? Perhaps not, since Rivers and assistant Dan Burke come from the same school of a team mastering its core defensive principles. But the personnel is here to experiment a bit more if they choose to go in that direction.

10. Will the added athleticism translate on the floor?

There was a time when Simmons and Embiid were tasked with running the offense as young players in the NBA, and turnovers were the Sixers’ biggest issue. That has changed in recent seasons, both due to Embiid’s individual improvement (he has reduced his turnovers every season of his career) and the team’s improved guard play. Last season, it was clear what the Sixers’ bugaboo was: They could not grab a rebound.

Before Harden’s arrival, the rebounding bordered on something of a disaster. Despite having Embiid and Drummond, the Sixers were 15th in defensive rebounding and dead last (30th) on the offensive glass. This was the area where the Sixers missed Simmons the most. Maxey, Thybulle, Georges Niang, Danny Green and Seth Curry are all poor rebounders for their position, while Shake Milton and Furkan Korkmaz are slightly below average. And because of the team’s overall lack of athleticism, Rivers and Burke made the decision to essentially eschew the offensive glass to get back in transition. Overall, the 2021-22 Sixers were an unathletic team by NBA standards.

The roster turnover should help. Melton, a guard, is a plus rebounder on both ends. Harden is an excellent defensive rebounder. Harrell hits the offensive glass hard. Tucker is an upgrade over Niang, and as mentioned earlier, Embiid might have more energy to rebound on defense.

Rebounding is probably the best evidence of the lack of athleticism, but there are other areas to point to. The Sixers dropped from third to 17th in forcing opponent turnovers without Simmons. Despite giving up on the offensive glass, this also was still statistically one of the worst defensive transition teams in the league last season. How much can the new personnel cut into those weaknesses?

(Photo of Embiid and Harrell: David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images)


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