Just past 10 p.m. on a brisk, dreary night in Portland, Joel Embiid is holding court in the corner of the Philadelphia 76ers’ cramped visitors locker room. As he motions with his hands to elucidate the intricacies and windfalls of operating from the high post, his 7-foot frame towers over the trio of reporters listening intently.
Years ago, Embiid’s preferred region of the floor was the mid-post on the left side. Yet over the past 2.5 seasons, he’s increasingly shifted himself to the middle of the floor and deemed that his go-to spot. It’s especially true alongside James Harden, who joined the Sixers about 11 months ago. Harden’s arrival has spurred notable amendments to Embiid’s usage, most notably the evolution from a low-block scorer to a pick-and-roll big.
Joel Embiid's heat map from his rookie year, first All-NBA year (2017-18), first MVP runner-up year (2020-21) and this year.
Fascinating to see his go-to spot evolve from the left block to the high post and he remains dominant. Constantly adapting. pic.twitter.com/xs4LCIqEOo
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) January 4, 2023
“We just felt like he needs a place where he can close games at. That was the big conversation going into the summer,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers says. “Everyone has their little area that they can pick down the stretch, they also have their move, they have their shot. And they have their secondary move. The great ones do. So, we felt like that was Jo’s step to take, and he’s done that.”
“[Rivers] just told me that I needed to find whatever area on the floor that I was gonna be most comfortable with. Obviously, me and [my trainer] Drew [Hanlen], we studied a lot,” Embiid says. “So, we just started figuring out, ‘OK, where can I be a better playmaker and where can I be a better scorer without being doubled and without being easy to double?’ And that was at the nail, so we started all of our work visiting those areas.”
In 2020-21, the first year he finished runner-up for MVP, 36.5 percent of his shots were derived from post-ups, according to Synergy. He generated 1.084 points per possession and led the league in total post-ups. His pick-and-roll roll man frequency was just 12.5 percent (1.031 PPP).
This season, amid another MVP-caliber campaign, his post-up rate has dwindled to 15.8 percent (1.175 PPP). Meanwhile, his ball-screen frequency has spiked to 24.5 percent (1.182 PPP). Despite missing 11 games, he leads the NBA in roll man possessions at 247. Bam Adebayo is second with 191 total possessions.
“Posting up and posting all game long is hard, it’s easy to double,” Embiid says. “It’s funny when we got these old guys always talking about posting up, need to spend time in the paint and all that stuff. You can’t win this way anymore. It’s not the freaking 90s or 80s.”
The Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll is the foundation of the Sixers’ burgeoning, elite offense. Over their last 21 games, a stretch in which they’ve won 17 of 21, they’re fourth in offensive rating (119.9) and fourth in net rating overall (plus-7.1), according to Cleaning The Glass. It’s a six-week run that’s propelled them from 12-12 and tied for seventh in the East to 29-16 and tied for second.
Philadelphia isn’t particularly innovative because it doesn’t have to be. Its point guard is a virtuoso facilitator averaging 11.2 assists per game. Its center is the reigning scoring champ and is averaging 33.6 points per game on 64.4 percent true shooting. Surround them with release valves such as Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, De’Anthony Melton, and Georges Niang, and the results will be prolific.
Most often, defenses run drop coverage against the Harden-Embiid ball-screen tango. Harden’s marriage of pacing, creativity, and accuracy ensure he’ll routinely feed the big fella where he wants it. As soon as the defense commits multiple bodies, the 11-time All-Star seamlessly slings a feed to his superstar center. To avoid hinting his next move for the opposition, he doesn’t break stride before whirling dimes.
“He sees things very slowly,” Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups says. “He sees coverages, he sees rotations, in his mind very slow, even though it’s moving fast.”
Drop coverage is simply untenable, given their complementary skill-sets. The screen navigation and positioning have to be immaculate to deter the angle for a pocket pass from Harden, who is arguably the NBA’s premier pocket passer.
Embiid is a midrange maven and effervescent scorer. Most domineering roll threats don’t tout the self-creation chops he does. That simplifies Harden’s job. Just get the ball to Embiid with a slight advantage and let him cook. While Embiid’s usage rate still hovers around a carer-high 37 percent, his offensive responsibilities and touches are less taxing with Harden in the fold. According to Cleaning The Glass, a career-high 64 percent of his field goals are assisted, a stark jump from 54 percent last season and 48 percent in 2020-21. Among Harden’s slippery handle, crafty ball-screen setups, and deceptive cadence, he wanders where he wishes and eases Embiid’s burden.
“He’s just a wizard with the ball,” Maxey says. “He knows where he wants Joel to be and they have a connection to where they know when to roll, when to pop.”
Embiid began gravitating toward the nail and elbow as a face-up scorer following the Boston Celtics’ sweep over Philadelphia in the Bubble. He wanted to maximize his scoring arsenal for a playoff setting and determined a reorientation was in order. As a result, he and Hanlen studied the likes of Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, and Michael Jordan, all Hall of Fame inductees who thrived playing at the nail.
It’s since aided his assimilation to working off of Harden as a play-finisher rather than the lead passer and scorer. The elbows and nail are his office space; Embiid said the elbow shots are his favorite. According to Second Spectrum, when Embiid screens for Harden, they’re producing 1.163 PPP this season.
“From the beginning, it was easy,” Embiid says. “With [Harden’s] playmaking ability, all I gotta do is set a good screen. A lot of times, I don’t even have to set a screen because of the way we’re being guarded, so it’s all about playing off of each other.”
Much like his co-star, Harden’s also tailored a steadfast successful ethos to accommodate his new scenery. For years, he flourished in pick-and-rolls alongside aerial threats like Clint Capela, Dwight Howard, Nicolas Claxton, and DeAndre Jordan. Even the small-ball Rockets during his final full season in Houston were stylistically much different than what Philadelphia offers.
Rather than attack all the way to the rim — either to finish on his own, toss up a putback chance (a la a Kobe Assist), or hurl a lob — Harden’s dialed back the speedometer. Some of that is because Father Time has started to catch up and impact his explosiveness, both vertically and horizontally.
But another component of it is Embiid’s ground-bound scoring predicated in the midrange. Harden’s ability to prosper at vastly contrasting paces and in different contexts underscores his adaptability. Once an MVP candidate pouring in 35 points a night, he’s averaging his fewest points and shots per 100 possessions since 2011-12 — his final year with the Oklahoma City Thunder — while posting the second-highest assist rate of his career.
“He is proving that he can actually play with a dominant player in Joel, and kind of pull the reins back on his game, and still be just as effective and efficient,” Billups says. “That’s hard to do. That’s really, really hard to do.”
“It’s crazy, just because I saw it when I was at home watching him when he was in Houston and when he was going for 50 a night,” Maxey says. “Now, I’m on a court with him while he’s doing like 20 and 15 and 10 boards. He’s coaching everybody and putting guys in their spots. To have a guy like that, it’s just a blessing and we’re not taking it for granted.”
The potency of Harden and Embiid’s two-man game is multiplied by its versatility. They can dissect seemingly every type of ball-screen coverage. In Philadelphia’s 120-110 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday, the Clippers stashed Ivica Zubac on P.J. Tucker and stuck two of their many rotation wings on Harden and Embiid, so they could switch any pick. That didn’t pan out. Embiid played bully-ball for buckets and free throws against Los Angeles’ collection of forwards. He scored 41 points on 68.5 percent true shooting.
They’re both accomplished one-on-one scorers, rendering switches untenable. Embiid’s in the 98th percentile in volume and 63rd percentile in PPP on isolations. Harden’s in the 99th and 77th, respectively. Grant them a mismatch and they’ll torch it.
Toss two at the ball to respect Harden’s pull-up gusto (87th percentile off the dribble at 1.148 PPP) and that leaves the NBA’s second-leading scorer in a luxurious 4-on-3 circumstance. According to Synergy, Harden’s yielded 1.529 PPP on 17 possessions against traps this season. Doubling or playing at the level won’t suffice.
Typically, Embiid will saunter toward the free-throw line and proceed from there. As he and Harden refine their partnership, though, they’re sprinkling in different looks to flummox the defense and weaponize that effective predictability. Speed is the counter to their methodical nature.
“You catch teams off guard because teams are loading up now to try and take away the elbow pass,” Rivers says. “All of a sudden, he rolls on you.”
Beyond the general necessity of floor-spacing around Harden and Embiid, the quintet of credible shooters and/or drivers in Maxey, Melton, Harris, Niang, and Shake Milton presents options for flexibility. Late in Philadelphia’s win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, LeBron James rotated aggressively to the nail and eliminated Harden’s window for a pocket pass, which resulted in a blocked layup.
On the ensuing two pick-and-rolls, the Sixers’ final two of the night, they loaded the left side with legit spot-up threats and kept Niang in the corner to complicate James’ possibility of early help at the nail. If the Lakers wanted to ignore Niang, a 41.6 percent long-range shooter this season and Philadelphia’s best off-ball marksman, they could at their own peril. The one time they elected to, it cost them three points. The Sixers scored five points on those last two ball screens.
Philadelphia’s pick-and-roll profits usually end with Embiid in some form, but they start with Harden. He’s one of the most impactful and adroit passers in the NBA. According to PBPStats, despite the tandem only playing 24 games together, the Harden-to-Embiid assist combo leads the league at 127 dimes, 20 more than the second-place Tyrese Haliburton-to-Buddy Hield connection.
Back in the preseason, a portion of Philadelphia’s training camp was broadcast on NBA TV, with both Rivers and Harden mic’d up in a remarkably prescient conversation. At one point, the two discuss the potential and progression of Harden and Embiid’s pick-and-roll synergy. Rivers tells Harden they have to forge an innate bond that lets them sleepwalk into a flurry of points every game. He also notes “there’s a pecking order” offensively. Embiid and Harden are the focal points.
Harden recognizes the stress he inflicts on defenses by sheer virtue of his existence, which he can parlay into stress-free opportunities for everyone. Rivers emphasizes that it’ll take time to organize and harps on the need for Harden to be aggressive as a passer and scorer, not solely the former.
“When it clicks, James,” Rivers says, “we’re gonna be unbeatable, unbeatable.”
The Sixers own a 121.6 offensive rating and plus-10 net rating with their stars on the hardwood. They’re 16-8 when they both suit up, including 14-3 over the past 17 outings. Embiid is enjoying a third consecutive season in the MVP race. Harden is back to All-NBA form. They should each be in Salt Lake City next month for the All-Star Game.
“Sometimes, when you’re on the court,” Maxey said, “you’re watching like, ‘What’re they gonna do next?’”