Joel Embiid wants Sixers to be best defensive team in NBA

Joel Embiid, Sixers (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Joel Embiid, Sixers (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

The Sixers are looking to take the next step in their pursuit of the elusive Larry O’Brien trophy. It all starts, of course, with Joel Embiid. He is Philadelphia’s heart and soul — a perennial MVP candidate and one of the highest-usage stars in recent NBA history. His play alone will go a long way in determining whether or not the Sixers can compete for a championship.

At Sixers media day, Embiid was asked about MVP, the NBA awards race, and his aspirations in that regard. He pivoted instead to talking about defense, both individually and as a team.

Joel Embiid wants the Sixers to be the best defensive team in the NBA

It’s not hard to imagine Philadelphia achieving Embiid’s goal here. Even when he’s not 100 percent engaged, Embiid is a one-of-one defensive anchor. His presence virtually guarantees that the Sixers are above average on the defensive end. His preternatural instincts and hulking frame are a strong deterrent for players looking to drive the lane. Meanwhile, the safety net Embiid casts in the paint is what allows a player like Matisse Thybulle to gamble and make plays on the perimeter.

On top of Embiid’s immense defensive talent (and his stated desire to play four quarters of intense defense every night), the Sixers have added a slew of positive defenders to the rotation. P.J. Tucker will round out the starting five with strength, toughness, and versatility. Danuel House Jr. provides another staunch wing defender in the second unit, while De’Anthony Melton is quietly one of the best guard defenders in the NBA when healthy. Factor in Thybulle’s greatness, the improvement Tobias Harris showed last season, and the potential third-year leap of Paul Reed, and the Sixers’ rotation is littered with plus defenders.

If there’s anything holding the Sixers back, it’s the combined defensive prowess of James Harden and Tyrese Maxey. Philly won’t start games with great guard defenders on the floor. Tucker can defend guards when called upon, but he’s 38 years old. You don’t really want Tucker chasing the likes of Trae Young around in a mid-January game. Thybulle is an excellent guard defender, but unless the offense improves drastically he’s still unreliable in big moments.

That said, Embiid is the kind of player who can make up for a couple holes on the perimeter. And, again, with the second unit triad of Melton, Matisse, and House, it’s not as though Philadelphia doesn’t have options to guard the perimeter. Maxey still has room to grow defensively too, and Harden isn’t the traffic cone his detractors make him out to be.

So, in short, the Sixers could very well field the best defense in the NBA if Embiid commits to making it happen. There is stiff competition elsewhere in the league — Boston, Milwaukee, Minnesota, Miami — but the Sixers have the personnel to be the crème de la crème.

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