Sixers Can’t Slow Down Hornets, Fall 109-93

Without Joel Embiid there to patrol the paint, the Sixers couldn't slow down the Hornets offensive attack.

Joel Embiid showcased his potential in his preseason debut. | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Joel Embiid has been a difference maker for Brett Brown and the 76ers. | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers fell to the Charlotte Hornets 109-93 last night, blowing a 7-point halftime lead by surrendering 39 points in the third quarter to a fundamentally sound Hornets squad.

For some, the takeaway was yet another third quarter collapse, following in the footsteps of the 41 points surrendered to the Orlando Magic the night before.

Yet when you look at the collection of defensive pieces head coach Brett Brown had at his disposal — a 10-man roster that included Sergio Rodriguez, Nik Stauskas, Dario Saric, Ersan Ilyasova, and Jahlil Okafor — the defensive breakdowns are much more predictable. Giving up 113 points per 100 possessions with that collection of defenders isn’t exactly under-performing.

Nights like that are going to happen this year, especially on nights when Joel Embiid is out of the lineup and Nerlens Noel is still recovering from plica surgery and/or traded away. Defensive stalwarts they are not, and going out and grabbing two-way players who can both work around Embiid offensively but also defend their position is going to be a priority in the next phase of this rebuild.

Yet the takeaway that I had after watching this game is that it’s relatively amazing that the Sixers, with Joel Embiid on the court, have looked like a relatively functional NBA defense so far.

In the 63 minutes that Embiid has played the Sixers have given up just 94.8 points per 100 possessions, a figure that would place them with the 4th best defense in the league, and would have been 1st in the league last season. On the other hand, the Sixers give up 110.1 points per 100 possessions when Embiid’s been on the bench, a number which would be good for the second worst ranking in the league.

No other big man has a discrepancy even close to that. The Sixers give up 99.6 points per 100 possessions with Okafor on the court, a number that is actually relatively good considering last year’s defensive struggles. The defense has fallen off of a cliff in the 66 minutes Richaun Holmes has been in the game, giving up 114.3 points per 100 possessions in his short time.

(Note: While Holmes isn’t always in the right spots defensively, that defensive rating should return to normal with more playing time. His defensive impact isn’t quite as strong as his block numbers would indicate, but he’s a much better defender than these early season numbers represent).

(points allowed per 100 possessions when the Sixers centers are on the court. Data from

(points allowed per 100 possessions when the Sixers centers are on the court. Data from

The difference is most striking at the rim, where opponents are shooting 46.9 percent on shots within 5 feet of the basket with Embiid on the court, compared to 56.8 percent when he’s been on the bench. Opponents are shooting 41.1 percent overall with Embiid in the game, 48.9 percent when he’s been on the bench. They’re attempting just 16.7 free throw attempts per 100 possessions when Embiid’s been in the game to dissuade them from driving to the hoop, which balloons up to 25.4 when Embiid’s on the bench.

(How Joel Embiid has impacted the opponents offensive execution)

(How Joel Embiid has impacted the opponents offensive execution)

The sample size on these numbers are so small that the numbers themselves aren’t to be taken too seriously. There’s a lot of noise in these numbers and they’ll change, and perhaps change drastically, as the season plays out. Even after a full season’s worth of play there’s likely to be significant noise and extenuating circumstances that make it difficult to assign cause and effect, and that’s certainly true after four games. Expecting the Sixers, with this collection of talent, to be a top-5 defensive team with Embiid on the court is unrealistic. That number will certainly drop in time.

Yet the numbers, at least in Embiid’s case, are at the very least in line with what the eye test is telling you. There’s a visible difference in how opponents approach scoring against the Sixers with Embiid on the court, hesitant to drive the lane, then aware of his presence even when they do. Layups turn into floaters. Dunks turn into blocks. Open shots turn into kickout passes. Offensive rebounds for the opponent turns into transition opportunities for the Sixers.

Besides Embiid’s presence in the paint he also allows Brown more freedom in how he defends pick and rolls, with Embiid showing the ability to both trap the pick and roll and also switch onto the ball handler on the perimeter, a rare combination for a player who stands 7-foot-2 and weighs 275 pounds.

“I think it’s very good, and at times it’s dominating. His presence at the rim, him moving his feet, him having the ability to show hard in the pick and roll,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said about Embiid’s defense after the Orlando game. “You have this 7-foot-2 man that sits in a stance and moves his feet. That is intimidating.

“He does stuff that we all just want to go give him a big hug. He is very, very special to our organization,” Brown concluded.

For as much as the 17.3 points Embiid has scored in 21 minutes per game is fun to dream about and project forward, and for as surprising as it is for Embiid to maintain decent efficiency with a sky-high usage rate, it’s the defensive impact that has been the most impressive. Defensive rotations, the awareness to process not just what your man, but the entire team, is doing and be able to react to that is something which typically takes years to develop. Rookie big men just don’t hit the ground running the way Embiid has, and especially not rookie big men who have only been playing organized basketball for a few years and who just came off of a 2.5-year layoff.

There are some players, a very rare group, who not only have the athletic ability to chase down a block in transition, but also the innate understanding of the game of basketball and an uncanny ability to process information quickly to make the most of that athleticism. Embiid certainly appears to be in that select group, and it doesn’t take much daydreaming to picture a player who, after just the slightest bit of experience and fine tuning, can impact the game, on both ends of the court, on every possession, with little more than his mere presence on the court.

The Sixers have started off this season with an 0-4 start, a mark of futility that has the chance to grow into something eerily reminiscent of the struggles of the last few years when you look at the Sixers upcoming schedule. Yet when you peel off that top layer and look beyond the surface, everything about this team, about this season, is different.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine’s Sixers Post. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.