Philadelphia 76ers: No Joel Embiid, no defense

Joel Embiid | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Joel Embiid | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images) /

Breaking down the Philadelphia 76ers’ strong defense with Joel Embiid on the floor and why they struggle without him.

The Philadelphia 76ers revolve around Joel Embiid. Since being drafted by the team in 2014, Embiid has been at the center of everything the Sixers do, and this season is nothing different. Unsurprisingly, the Sixers are 17-5 with their superstar in the lineup and only 1-5 without him, in line with the last couple of seasons.

The difference with this season is that the offense is actually hurting more without Embiid than the defense, which was the case the last few years. Still, the defense falls off without their defensive anchor. The defense is 3.2 points per 100 possessions better with Embiid on the floor, a very strong number. Let’s take a look at three ways that Embiid drives the defense to elite levels.

Embiid’s elite rim protection

First things first, Embiid is a giant human being. At seven feet tall and 280 pounds, Embiid is more physical than just about any player in the NBA. The difference between Embiid and other behemoths is that he blends his enormous size with incredible footwork and timing on the defensive end.

This combination of skill and power makes Embiid an elite rim protector. Out of 331 players to play at least 200 minutes this season, Embiid ranks ninth in points saved by rim protection, a rough estimate of the number of points a player has prevented the offense from scoring by contesting shots at the rim:

Elite rim protection is the key to an elite defense, and Embiid brings that. Dwight Howard has been decent as a rim protector but is nowhere near the level of Embiid. Howard holds his own for 15 minutes a game, but when Embiid is out, Howard cannot handle increased minutes and still protect the rim at a high level.

Embiid’s defense at all three levels

While Embiid’s timing and mobility help him as a rim protector, they also give Embiid some versatility to his defense. Embiid will probably never be elite at switching onto guards, but he can certainly hold his own against most matchups late in the shot clock. The Sixers typically play drop pick-and-roll coverage and don’t ask Embiid to guard on the perimeter, but he shows flashes of strong lateral footwork and recovery:

Keeping Embiid close to the basket makes sense, but good playoff offenses can pick apart drop coverages with ease. As recently as last August, Jayson Tatum destroyed the Sixers with off-the-dribble threes. Even if Ben Simmons were healthy, the Sixers would have needed to adjust the scheme to counter a pull-up shooter like Tatum.

Embiid has already started to come up to the level of the screen a bit more this season, something the Sixers may have to do come the playoffs. Brooklyn’s big three, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday on the Bucks, and Tatum and Kemba Walker on the Celtics all can punish the drop coverage. The early returns are positive, but Embiid will need to play strong defense in space for the team to succeed.

Embiid in right place, right time

The third key to Embiid’s defensive success is his growth into a smart positional defender who typically makes the right decisions. Being positionally aware helps centers in two key areas: fouling and defensive rebounding.

With Embiid on the floor, the Sixers foul about 8.5 times per 100 possessions, but with Embiid off the court, that number jumps to 11.6 fouls per 100 possessions. While part of that has to do with Howard fouling like a maniac, it also shows Embiid’s intelligence as a defender. Embiid is fouling at a career-low rate, which is very important given his importance to both the offense and defense.

Because Embiid does not chase blocks and is usually in the right spot, the team rebounds much better with him on the court as well. The Sixers grab 78.8 percent of defensive rebounds while Embiid is on the court and only 76.4 percent while off the court. While that may not sound like a huge difference, a few extra rebounds in a tight game could be the difference between winning and losing.

Embiid is a legitimate two-way force and MVP candidate. No player in the NBA this season can match his offensive output and defensive impact in the paint. Because of his elite rim protection, improving perimeter defense, and steadying intelligence, Joel Embiid has become one of the best defenders in the NBA, and one the Sixers need to succeed.

Next. 15 players who defined 'The Process'. dark