Joel Embiid Is Single-Handedly Changing the Sixers’ Outlook
“I’ve said many times you don’t want it to be a coach driven formula. Ultimately it needs to be player coached team, a player driven formula. The players determine the behavior. The players determine the culture. Where somebody will say that’s just not good enough. That’s not how we act. That’s not how we guard. We show up on time. That’s not respectful. Whatever it is. …And through discussion I have with Joel I’m trying to achieve that.”
— Sixers head coach Brett Brown, speaking to the media before the season.
That statement by head coach Brett Brown, at a media luncheon with reporters prior to the start of the season, seemed patently absurd at the time, made less than a year after Joel Embiid was the subject of a scathing report from Sports Illustrated alleging chronic insubordination, immaturity, and a ballooning midsection.
Rather than have Embiid lead the franchise, conventional wisdom said at the time, Embiid needed to have a strong personality alongside him to show him the way.
Under normal circumstances, that may have been true. But Embiid is no normal 22-year-old rookie.
Since the moment Embiid stepped on a basketball court with the 76ers, that long-awaited, frequently doubted debut, he was their best player. He was also their biggest personality, not only on twitter and social media but also in the locker room. Embiid’s sheer force of personality, combined with his dominance on the basketball court, was going to be the driving force behind whatever culture the team would develop, and Brett Brown knew it.
The Sixers — on the court, on the practice floor, and in the locker room — would go as far as Embiid would take them.
To Embiid’s credit, when rehab sessions turned to practice drills, when watching games in the team’s boxes turned to dominating the games in the paint, the positive aspects of Embiid’s personality, hidden over the past few years by walking boots and workout sweats, started to shine.
His competitiveness was on full display from day 1, as was his attention to detail and desire to be great. Perhaps because of how late Embiid picked up the game and his struggles to learn on the fly against the tough competition at Montverde Academy, Embiid’s always been a video nut, re-watching plays 10, 20, 30 times in a row to dissect each and every action that takes place in a possession. That kind of dedication, when done by your best player, is infectious to a team’s clubhouse.
Each and every aspect of the Sixers season feels different than it did a year ago at this time, and there is no bigger reason than the 7-foot-2 Cameroonian phenom manning the center position. The Sixers have re-established their defensive identity, they have captured the national media’s attention in a way they haven’t since Allen Iverson cupped his ear to the Wells Fargo Center crowd, and, perhaps most importantly, there’s a real legitimate belief — among players, fans, and even casual observers — that they can compete any time Embiid takes the court. Hope, a part of former general manager Sam Hinkie‘s plan many derided over the past few years, has turned into belief. Skeptics have become supporters. That’s a powerful transformation.
Predicting that kind of a turnaround because of a rookie, especially a rookie who hadn’t played organized basketball in over 2 years, would have been patently absurd. To have the 9th ranked defense in the league, just one year after falling to 25th, while elevating a roster with players like Sergio Rodriguez, Nik Stauskas, Dario Saric, and Ersan Ilyasova getting major minutes, is a staggering achievement. It’s even more impressive when realize the Sixers are tied for 4th in half-court defense, according to NBA.com’s Play Type data, focusing on just the Sixers’ defensive ability when they have the chance to get set and don’t have to worry about the side effects their offensive deficiencies (and turnovers) cause. The only teams above them are Golden State, Utah, and San Antonio. They’re borderline dominant in that regard, especially when Embiid is on the court.
Returning a team to respectability, right out of the gate, is anything but typical. Young big men simply don’t usually have that kind of a defensive impact, especially not on a team as young and inexperienced, and deficient of talent, as these Sixers are. There is perhaps no better example of this than the Minnesota Timberwolves and Karl-Anthony Towns, who followed up last season’s 27th ranked defense by coming in at 23rd so far this season, the slow and steady progression typical of youth, even with the plethora of elite athletes and Tom Thibodeau there to build the defensive base.
Other young big men have faced similar struggles early on in their careers, usually due to a combination of a lack of talent and the overwhelming learning curve required to read and react at the speed necessary to make the rotations that big men are increasingly required to make in today’s spaced-out NBA. Dwight Howard, as great of a defender as he is, anchored just the 18th ranked defense in his first season in Orlando. Anthony Davis‘ then-Hornets team ranked just 28th in defense his first season in the league. In fact, Davis didn’t anchor a defense that ranked better than 22nd until this season. Some will, correctly, point out that Davis, Towns, and Howard made their NBA debut’s at a much younger age than Embiid, and sitting out did give Embiid a chance to both physically mature and watch more film than most other rookie big men were able to. But, at under 3 years of organized basketball playing experience prior to this season, Embiid was also by far the newest to the game. Both in-game experience and physical maturity are key ingredients to how ready one is to make an impact, and the long layoff has had an impact both for and against what Embiid’s been able to do as a rookie.
Calling Embiid’s defense great, regardless of the benefit or hindrance of age and experience, is the most important takeaway. Whether Embiid’s layoff helps or hurts his immediate impact is noise, a distraction over what is happening in that 94-by-50 foot rectangle where legends are ultimately made.
Embiid’s defensive impact isn’t just great among young big men, where the age/experience debate might hold more merit, but great overall. The Sixers give up 98.5 points per 100 possessions when Embiid is on the court, less than the Jazz with all-world defender Rudy Gobert (99.9), or the Spurs with Kawhi Leonard (105.5). It’s better than the Pelicans with a 23-year-old Anthony Davis on the court (102.4), the Pacers with second year center Myles Turner (104.0), and certainly far better than the Heat with Hassan Whiteside (105.2), despite Whiteside’s gaudy rebounding (14.2 per game) and block (2.0 per game) output.
Some will argue that Embiid’s minute restriction allows him to compete at a higher level, in terms of effort, than others who have to shoulder a heavier dose of minutes. There is, perhaps, some truth to that, although the days of big men playing upwards of 40 minutes per game are firmly in the rearview mirror, lost to the growing field of sports science and the reality of the wear and tear that running, jumping, and landing place on the lower body of 7-foot, 250+ pound human beings. Outside of Anthony Davis (36.3 minutes per game), nobody else who ranks in the top 15 in blocks per game plays in excess of 35 minutes per night, and Embiid’s productivity went up when his minutes restriction was increased to allow the rookie to play 28 minutes per game. To think an extra 4 minutes of playing time is going to torpedo his productivity seems silly.
Solving the Sixers’ supposed cultural problem proved to be easier than expected, a problem far more ephemeral in nature than most suspected, fixed with the dominant skills, and even more dominant personality, of a single building block who for years remained a relative mystery. In just a short few months and 30 games played Embiid has changed the culture of the team, the risks of The Process overblown and the reward minimized because of our overwhelming fear of uncertainty. Embiid’s given the city of Philadelphia its first legitimate, sustainable ray of light in years and makes the hand-wringing over The Process seem but a distant memory.
Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.